The 2018-19 NHL regular season is in the books. This means that a little more than half of the league is headed toward the postseason and a shot at the Stanley Cup. For the other 15 teams, the focus is on the offseason and the ways they can improve their rosters ahead of next year.
Free agency will naturally be a large piece of the proverbial puzzle. Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on July 1, teams can begin signing unrestricted free agents. This year's class features several notable players, including winger Artemi Panarin, defenseman Erik Karlsson and center Matt Duchene.
Here you will find a closer look at some of the NHL's top pending free agents, along with predictions about where they might land.
Panarin's future may hinge on how he and the Columbus Blue Jackets fare in the postseason. He was traded to Columbus by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017, and he shone for Columbus the following season—he set a new franchise record for points scored with 82.
The Russian has been even more productive this past season, scoring 87 points in 79 games. Yet the Blue Jackets squeaked into the playoffs via the final wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference. If the Blue Jackets have a first-round playoff exit like they did last season, Panarin will likely head for greener pastures in July.
There won't be a shortage of competitive teams interested in Panarin's services.
"It's his team now, but The Breadman will be on someone else's team on July 1," Larry Brooks of the New York Post wrote. "The Rangers will be in there pitching to sign the 27-year-old, who is expected to command a deal of at least $77 million over seven years."
Unless Columbus can prove that it is a legitimate title contender, it will probably have to overpay to keep Panarin. Don't expect that to happen.
Prediction: Panarin signs with one of this year's top-performing playoff teams.
Duchene is another player whose future could hinge on the Blue Jacket's fate in the playoffs. He was traded to Columbus by the Ottawa Senators just before February's trade deadline, and he seems happy to be with a team that at least offers the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
"Our destiny is completely in our hands now, which is exciting," Duchene said, per Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch. "We can control everything that's going on, going forward."
Duchene has also been productive this season, amassing 70 points in 73 combined games with the Blue Jackets and Senators.
While Panarin has previously stated that he plans to test the open market, Duchene only recently arrived. The Blue Jackets can offer him a long-term deal, and that may be enough to convince him to stay.
Prediction; Duchene re-signs with Blue Jackets.
Forward Mats Zuccarello is also getting a taste of the postseason this year, having recently joined the Dallas Stars. He was traded to Dallas by the New York Rangers in exchange for conditional 2019 and 2020 draft picks.
Zuccarello will be an unrestricted free agent in July, but if the Stars extend him, the 2020 pick will become a first-rounder. This will play into Dallas' decision, but the Stars seem quite happy with the player.
As far as the Zuccarello goes? That's a little less clear, as he suffered a broken arm during his first appearance for Dallas.
Still, an extension isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"We'll wait until the season's over," general manager Jim Nill said, per Matthew DeFranks of SportsDay. "Right now, I'm in no rush with any contracts. I want to see how the team finishes, see what the player is. That stuff really kind of happens after the playoffs."
If Dallas offers the injured Zuccarello a new deal, the 31-year-old would be wise to take it.
Prediction: Zuccarello re-signs with Dallas.