Executives across the NHL are already having discussions and conducting negotiations that will affect the makeup of the 2014 unrestricted free-agent market.
There are more than 250 players who can become unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2014. The majority will hit the open market that day, but some of the more prominent names could be in headlines long beforehand, including around March 5, which is the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.
Here are seven storylines involving potential 2014 unrestricted free agents that bear watching in the days, weeks and months ahead:
1. San Jose's trio
Forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and defenseman Dan Boyle are entering the final year of their current contracts, and San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has to figure out if he can keep all of them, or better yet, if he wants to keep all of them.
They all want to stay in San Jose, but at what price? Thornton's current contract carries a $7 million annual salary-cap charge, while Marleau's contract has a $6.9 million cap charge, and Boyle, who is the oldest at 37, is also the cheapest at $6.66 million.
Wilson has indicated the wheels are in motion on negotiations for all of them, but he doesn't talk publicly about those negotiations.
What's interesting here is these three represent the Sharks' leadership core. Thornton is the captain, Marleau and Boyle are alternates. However, forwards Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture each have five-year, $30 million contract extensions that kick in next season and both are in line for bigger leadership roles.
Pavelski and Couture don't have to wear letters to be leaders, but if coach Todd McLellan wants to give them one, does that factor into Wilson's planning and negotiations with Thornton, Marleau and Boyle? That's why this season is so important for the Sharks. It will help dictate what happens in the future.
Boyle is 37, but he can still skate and move the puck as well as just about anyone. He still puts up points, including 20 in 48 games last season to lead all Sharks defensemen.
Thornton is 34 and is still one of the best playmaking centers in the League. He had 40 points in 48 games last season and came on stronger in the playoffs with 10 points in 11 games. He's a candidate to play for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Marleau, 34, is San Jose's all-time leader in games played (1,165), goals (404), points (856), power-play goals (124), overtime goals (8), game-winning goals (79) and shots (2,874). While there's no doubt that he can still play and be a key contributor, possibly a 30-goal guy again, Marleau is a left wing whose numbers have slowly declined since he scored a career-high 44 goals in 2009-10.
2. Twin power
Forwards Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin turn 33 next week and are making $6.1 million in the final year of identical five-year contracts. The Vancouver Canucks' sensational twins have always been a package on the ice and in contract negotiations, and nothing has changed. They have done identical contracts since being drafted by the Canucks in 1999 and will do so again in what could be the final contract of their NHL careers.
The good news is it doesn't seem like this will be a drawn out negotiation between general manager Mike Gillis and the twins' agent, J.P. Barry, because the Sedins want to stay in Vancouver and the Canucks want to keep them.
The question is for how long, and it could be an even bigger factor now because coach John Tortorella is asking the Sedins to kill penalties and block shots, putting them at greater risk for injury. A four-year contract would take them until they're 37 years old, but it's possible Vancouver's management may want something shorter to see how the Sedins fare under Tortorella's rigorous, defense-oriented system.
3. Phil and Phaneuf
The Toronto Maple Leafs are lucky they didn't have to negotiate extensions for forward Phil Kessel and defenseman Dion Phaneuf for this season. Toronto's salary-cap predicament is so dire that it still hasn't come to terms on a contract for restricted free agent defenseman Cody Franson.
However, Kessel and Phaneuf are in the final years of their current contracts and Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis has to decide if he wants to keep both around. He has already committed over $34 million to 11 players for next season, according to Capgeek.com.
Kessel would seem like a lock to re-sign. Why else would the Maple Leafs have given center Tyler Bozak a five-year contract over the summer? The Maple Leafs like them together, even though it stands to reason that Kessel would be able to play well with just about any center that can get him the puck.
However, Kessel said he does not want to negotiate during the season, so there is the added element of pressure on Nonis to get a deal done before opening night to avoid the season-long distraction.
Phaneuf, who is making $6.5 million, is a different story. He's willing to negotiate during the regular season, but does Toronto want to him?
He'll be 29 at the start of next season, very much in the prime of his career, but Toronto has Carl Gunnarsson and a young crop of defensemen, including Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker, presumably Franson and Petter Granberg all either ready or almost ready for NHL action.
That doesn't take into account Paul Ranger, who could be a bargain on a one-year, $1 million contract. Mark Fraser also has a contract for only the coming season. John-Michael Liles is signed through the 2015-16 at a cap charge of $3.875 million, a contract the Maple Leafs would love to be free of, except they are out of compliance buyouts.
Phaneuf is the team's best defenseman now, but he's making $6.5 million this season and entering a contract year that happens to be an Olympic year. He's a candidate for Canada's Olympic team and he'll need to have a strong first half to make it. That will only enhance his value and bargaining position for that long-term extension.
Toronto hopes to be battling for a playoff spot, which would make trading Phaneuf at or near the trade deadline quite dicey.
4. Regier's dilemma
Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier has to be ready to trade goaltender Ryan Miller this season if the team struggles and he can't work out a team-friendly contract extension for the 33-year-old. Miller is making $6.25 million this season.
The Sabres have goalie Jhonas Enroth under contract through next season at a price of $1.25 million. Former Minnesota Wild goalie Matt Hackett is signed to be the starter for their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Buffalo has three other goalies signed to minor-league contracts and two more prospects in the pipeline, but none of them are considered high-end guys and none were drafted before the fifth round.
The situation with 29-year-old forward Thomas Vanek is different. He's in the final year of a seven-year, $50 million contract, but he's still young enough to fit into the Sabres' current and future plans and he's a big supporter of center Cody Hodgson, who recently signed a six-year contract. It's possible the Sabres gave Hodgson his six-year contract with Vanek in mind, as the two could be a formidable duo in Buffalo for years to come.
However, there are low expectations for the Sabres this season and Regier showed his hand last season that he's ready for a rebuild by trading forward Jason Pominville and defensemen Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr. Trading Vanek this season could net the Sabres a combination of premium draft picks and prospects in return, necessary ingredients for any rebuilding project.
Vanek still has value if the Sabres choose to sign him, but he also comes at a formidable price considering his current contract carries a $7.14 million salary-cap charge.
5. Kings of the Apple
Lundqvist is 31 years old, entering the final year of a six-year contract, and is expected to receive an extension for the maximum eight years under the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. The annual salary-cap charge in Lundqvist's expected new contract should be around $7 million to match what goalies Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask got in their new contracts.
The only question is when will Lundqvist sign? His agent, Don Meehan, is currently negotiating with the Rangers, but Lundqvist has left open the possibility he would halt negotiations if they become a distraction to him.
Callahan is still rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery and will likely start the season on injured reserve, but that shouldn't matter in the negotiations for his new contract. He's near the end of a three-year, $12.825 million contract.
Defenseman Dan Girardi is also in the final year of his current contract.
6. Closer to the Hall call
Forward Daniel Alfredsson signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings because he feels they give him his best chance to win the Stanley Cup. Forward Jarome Iginla did the same with the Boston Bruins for the same reason. Forward Jaromir Jagr went to New Jersey on a one-year contract because they paid him $4 million and he could slot into their top six with forward Ilya Kovalchuk gone to Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
They all might wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, but none of them have any assurances beyond this season.
Brodeur is 41, still the No. 1 goalie in New Jersey and is two years removed from his fifth trip to the Stanley Cup Final. However, Schneider will push him this season and it wouldn't surprise anyone if he eventually overtakes Brodeur as the No. 1. New Jersey has a couple of prospects in Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood that might be ready for backup duty at the NHL level after this season.
Alfredsson will be 41 in December and could be following forward Mike Modano's path. Modano spent his entire career with one organization before chasing the Cup in Detroit for a season. He didn't get it and he retired.
Iginla is 36 and he had 33 points in 44 games split between the Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins last season, but his body has taken a beating over 16 seasons as an elite power forward and it's fair to wonder how much he has left. He'll have a chance to showcase it in Boston, where he'll likely start on a line with David Krejci and Milan Lucic. It's not a bad position to be in.
Jagr is 41 and he's playing on his third straight one-year contract since returning to the NHL in 2011 after a three-year absence. His body has held up because he's a workout fanatic.
7. Halak, Elliott and the Blues' net
The contracts for St. Louis Blues' goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are up at the end of the season, but general manager Doug Armstrong has time to wait this one out and see who grabs the job and runs with it. That will help determine if he re-signs one of them, both or goes in a different direction completely.
Armstrong has a cushion here in Jake Allen, the 23-year-old goalie who went 9-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .905 save percentage in 13 appearances with St. Louis last season. Armstrong has to figure out if Allen is ready for a bigger role because if he is, one of Halak and Elliott is expendable this season.
Halak is paid like a No. 1 and will likely expect to be paid like a No. 1 in his next contract provided he can show some durability, which has been a problem for him. His status could put his future in St. Louis in doubt, especially if Allen is ready.
Elliott earned a two-year, $3.6 million contract for how well he played in the 2011-12 season, but he was hot and cold last season and would likely be a better fit to play in a 1 and 1A role with Allen.
The good thing is Armstrong doesn't have to make any rash decisions and he has his team's goaltending positioned well for the coming season.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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