There are a lot of talented players who need a new contract before the 2012-13 season begins.
Many young players that have already made an impact on the league will be restricted free agents. Others with more experience that have the opportunity to be unrestricted will be tempted to wait for the open market to tell them how much they're worth.
As each team plays through this season, teams will have to keep an eye on next summer so they don't let a player with value walk away for nothing. Some players will get a new deal during the season, as Pekka Rinne did from Nashville. Others might find themselves on the trading block because their value is greater to someone outside the organization they're with today.
In any event, the players listed here are the guys each team needs to lock up the most before next season begins.
With a decent group of prospects developing and most of their core players locked up through next year, the choices are fairly limited for players that the Ducks would need to bring back. Francois Beauchemin will be a free agent, but at 32, is he worth even the same neighborhood as his current $3.8M cap hit? And Saku Koivu has been great, but there might be a youngster that could take his place at this point.
Selanne, not the Ducks, will make the choice if he wants to come back. But on a one-year deal, he's still playing at a level that's worth every penny of his $4M cap number.
Unlike last summer, Boston will have to get out their checkbooks this year and have some work to do in keeping this team together.
Boychuk will be 28 when he hits unrestricted free agency this summer, and that's why he's the choice for the B's must-keep. With a new deal keeping Rich Peverley in Boston for three more years and the emergence of Tyler Seguin, the Bruins have some depth when considering guys like David Krejci and Chris Kelly.
The sentimental pick here would be Shawn Thornton, but on the ice it might be Boychuk who Boston needs back the most.
After throwing a lot of money around this summer, next year shouldn't be a big summer for Buffalo management; one would have to think most of the key players are locked up already.
But one guy they really need back is Gaustad. Quietly, he's one of the more effective checking line centers in the league. He's outstanding in the faceoff circle and plays a very physical game.
Considering how this season is going, there might not be many players—free agents or otherwise—that they want back in Calgary other than Jarome Iginla.
But David Moss is one of the few relatively young forwards on this team that could be brought back at an affordable amount. He'll be 30 in December and he posted 30 points in only 58 games last year.
McBain, who is finishing his entry-level deal and is a restricted free agent this summer, will be 24 when the new deal needs to happen. Before the 2011-12 season, McBain had 40 points in 90 NHL games and is a solid young defenseman on a team that is struggling to define itself.
Tuomo Ruutu will get some attention and he should. But he might become a valuable trading piece if the season continues to go the wrong direction in Carolina.
Chicago has its entire core locked up long term and won't need to bring back veterans on one-year deals like Andrew Brunette, Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Sami Lepisto and Sean O'Donnell. Because of the organizational depth, kids like Brandon Saad, Jeremy Morin, Dylan Olsen and perhaps Brandon Pirri will likely step into the roles vacated by the rented veterans.
Picking Duchene is only naming the tip of the iceberg in Denver.
The Avs have three forwards, two defensemen and two goalies on their NHL roster right now that have a contract next season. That's it. So while Duchene (who will be a restricted free agent) certainly needs to be re-signed, the organization also will need to hand out some new paper to guys like Erik Johnson, Kyle Quincey, David Jones and even players like Kevin Porter and Brandon Yip.
While most people think this summer is salary cap armageddon in Nashville, the situation is significantly more wide open in Colorado.
It might be better to ask how many players will be gone from the current roster than who they actually want to have back in Columbus. Guys like Pahlsson and Prospal don't factor in the future plans of the Jackets, and Radek Martinek is intriguing but not a must-keep. Frankly, there isn't much on this roster that should be back other than Rick Nash, and he might be gone before next summer anyway.
There are some other guys that would be nice to have back in Dallas, like Adam Burish and Sheldon Souray, but there are really two guys that the Stars need to have back.
Alex Goligoski is a restricted free agent coming off a deal with a $1.833M cap number. He's turning into a solid defenseman in Dallas, and they'll want to keep him around for a while.
But the guy they must give a long-term deal to this summer in Dallas is Benn. He's quickly developing into one of the better young forwards in the game, and he undoubtedly is the centerpiece of their future in Dallas. He'll be a restricted free agent finishing his entry-level deal. He needs to get paid.
With more than $10M likely coming off the books just on their blue line, the Red Wings might be the biggest reason for teams to get their free agents-to-be locked up before the summer arrives. However, if we assume Nicklas Lidstrom retires, there really aren't many veterans on the Wings' roster that would be a deal-breaker if they left.
Really, the Wings will probably want to bring back Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Holmstrom, and others like Jiri Hudler and Todd Bertuzzi can walk.
This was going to be an interesting summer in Edmonton to start with, but their hot start will make it even more intriguing.
The Oilers only have Gilbert, Whitney and Smid under contract on their blue line next year, so younger defensemen like Potter and Petry will be considered.
While Khabibulin is playing well now, the Oilers will have to think about their future with Dubnyk, who is looking at restricted free agency this summer.
And up front, Hemsky will get a lot of attention as an unrestricted free agent, and Ryan Smyth is a great veteran leader, but Gagner is a dynamic young player who, importantly, will be restricted this summer. If they don't deal him for help some time before the deadline, Gagner should get locked up quickly.
This might surprise some, especially with Kris Versteeg looking for a new deal in the coming summer, but Garrison has been a revelation in Florida early this year. He just turned 27 on Sunday and has a cap number well below $1M, but he has already scored six goals this year.
With some younger players working their way up and a lot of veterans locked up for the next few years, Garrison's a player the Panthers might see as a great value player to keep around this summer.
Muzzin is a good young defenseman who won't turn 23 until February, but he'll be a restricted free agent this summer as his entry-level deal expires. Like the Blackhawks, the Kings have most of their core locked up and don't figure to be running to get guys like Penner and Mitchell back in the mix when they could be replaced by a prospect for less money.
The top prospect who would step in for one of the departing veterans would be Muzzin, who could be on the blue line in LA before the end of this season.
There aren't many guys that the Wild will hurry up to keep this summer, but restricted free agent Latendresse has shown flashes of elite ability.
The problem: He can't stay on the ice. Health issues might be the double-edged sword in this scenario, because there is a reason for the Wild to let him walk and also a reason he might be brought back well below his potential market value.
There are a lot of decisions that need to be made in Montreal.
Only two defensemen on the NHL roster—Markov and Weber—have a deal next year. So will Spacek, Gill or Gorges be back? And how much money will they give Subban?
Up front, Kostitsyn, Moen, Eller and even Darche will have to be considered for next year.
But the big guy that must be back is Price. They made him the franchise when they traded Halak to St. Louis, and he's rewarded their faith. Now they have to reward his play with some money.
Of course I was going to pick between Shea Weber and Ryan Suter...or so you thought.
If the question is who must the Preds bring back, the realistic answer is Blum. In the real world, the likelihood that both Weber and Suter are back in Nashville is slim, so we'll let management pick between them.
But Blum, a really good-looking young defenseman who, like Weber, will be a restricted free agent this summer, is the key man to bring back on the blue line. Assuming the Preds lose one of their big guns, Blum is the guy they'll need to fill that role in 2012-13.
Scary reality in Jersey: Among all of the forwards on their NHL roster right now, only Ilya Kovalchuk is signed after the 2012-13 season. So whomever the Devils decide to sign this summer will directly impact their 2013 free-agent class, which includes Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby and Adam Henrique.
Even though the Devils don't have a goalie signed after this season, they have to lock up Parise. He's just too good to let go, and there aren't many guys hitting the market that they can bring in to bring to the ice what he does. He's their captain for a reason, and he deserves to be paid like it.
Disappointed we didn't say Brian Rolston?
There are some young forwards on the Isles' roster that will be intriguing this summer, like Martin and Parenteau, but none of them are a deal-breaker. Similarly, none of the four unrestricted free agents on their blue line will kill the future if they aren't back.
But the commitment made to Rick DiPietro, and his inability to play for very long without an injury, makes it critical that the Islanders keep Montoya around as an insurance policy.
The Rangers really don't have a lot of big-time problems coming this summer. Wojtek Wolski and Sean Avery can walk and the team will honestly get better, and the rest of the team's core is locked up already. If there's anyone the Rangers would want back, it's Del Zotto.
Really, the Sens will have two defensemen to care about this summer, and the rest of their free agents can walk. Filip Kuba and Karlsson are the players of substance that they'll need back, and Kuba's old enough that he isn't a must.
Karlsson's coming off his entry-level deal and is restricted, so a fair deal should keep him on an improving blue line in Ottawa.
The Flyers are systematically locking up all of their key players as this season rolls along, and one would have to think the next restricted free agent-to-be that gets paid is Voracek. He was the centerpiece of the trade sending Jeff Carter to Columbus and has tremendous upside.
Matt Carle, Blair Betts and Ian Lapperiere are nice players, and Jaromir Jagr is a big name, but the long-term future of the Flyers is better if they keep Voracek.
No matter where the Coyotes call home next year, Doan has been the face of that franchise for years and needs to remain their leader. Ray Whitney is a nice veteran, but he should be dealt by the deadline. Daymond Langkow is nice, but he probably isn't worth his $4.5M cap hit. And guys like Adrian Aucoin and Taylor Pyatt just aren't part of a winning formula in the NHL at this point.
Doan. That's it.
Somebody picked a good year to get off to a hot start!
Neal has carried the Crosby-less and, at times, Malkin-less Pens in the early going this year, and he'll be a restricted free agent this summer. The Pens will also look to keep Eric Tangradi, but the key free agent in their organization is Neal.
There really isn't a name among the free agents-to-be in San Jose that screams "sign me." Torrey Mitchell? James Sheppard? Brad Winchester? Andrew Murray? Jim Vandermeer?
If any of these guys walked away, the Sharks wouldn't suddenly fall to the bottom of the Western Conference. In fact, the Sharks have seven forwards, five defensemen and two goalies on their NHL roster signed through next year.
There are a few names on the short list in St. Louis that could push for money this year.
Veteran defensemen Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo will be unrestricted, but the presence of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo makes that choice easier.
Up front, the Blues will have two young forwards who will be restricted free agents: Stewart and TJ Oshie. Both of them will be names to watch as this season continues, because they could either see a deal early or find a ticket out of town.
Hedman gets the nod here as much by being the best of the mediocre as he does because they need him back. Pavel Kubina is a nice player, but he's not worth a likely $4M-plus cap hit. Up front, I'm not sure Steve Yzerman has memorized the phone number for Steve Downie's agent, or Adam Hall's reps. And Dwyane Roloson is closer to retiring than another deal.
The Bolts will want to have Hedman back, but cost will be a consideration.
Unless Joey Crabb or John-Michael Liles decides to suddenly have a career year, there's only one guy the Leafs will want to bring back: Grabovski.
This could be a slow summer in Vancouver. With 16 players occupying roughly $55M, Raymond is the only guy that they really need to bring back.
Of course, the argument can, and will, be made that Cory Schneider is more important, but the Canucks would be committing nearly $10M to the goalie position to bring him back at market cost, which doesn't make much sense.
Alexander Semin? There have been character questions, and locking up a third forward for around $7M is hard to swallow unless the Caps win the Cup.
Mike Knuble? It would depend on how much he asks for, and he's unrestricted. On the open market, Knuble likely makes more than he's worth to the Caps.
Mike Green? Even though he's restricted, he might be asking for somewhere between $6.5-7.5M this summer.
Dennis Wideman? For more than $4M?
Carlson is young and restricted, which makes him both affordable and controlled. If Semin, Green and Wideman all walk away, the Caps could replace them with the over $15M in cap space they would have. Part of that replacement would be Carlson being locked up for the next few years.
Evander Kane is certainly a priority for the Jets, but Oduya is needed to keep the back end cleaned up as much as possible for Winnipeg while Dustin Byfuglien freelances. Beyond Kane and Oduya, there really aren't any free agents of consequence hitting the market this summer in Winnipeg. They might want Ondrej Pavalec back, but losing him wouldn't be a deal-breaker.