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Free Agent Frenzy

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

In less than 24 hours, the third and final major upheaval of this National Hockey League off-season will begin in the form of the start to the annual free agency period.

After the expansion draft and last weekend's draft in Chicago, free agency represents the most enticing yet potentially dangerous times for NHL GMs and their teams.

Imagine a walk through the jungle. You've made it almost to the end of the foliage and with the true off-season (as short as it might be) in sight, there's plenty of potential for quicksand.

With fewer and fewer impact players being allowed to hit free agency, this year's free agent class is heavy on experience and leadership and short on defense and speed. That means GMs will have to tread carefully to avoid those soul-sucking, cap-busting contracts that can derail Stanley Cup plans in a hurry.

Here's a look at the free agent landscape a day out.

Let's start with the Dallas Stars. Why wouldn't we?

We know GM Jim Nill has solidified the blue line with the acquisition earlier this week of veteran left-hand shot Marc Methot. That, along with the previous acquisition and signing of Ben Bishop, puts the team in a position where it can be very picky about who or if they add during free agency. Pending discussions with Ales Hemsky and Patrick Sharp, both pending unrestricted free agents coming off injury-plagued seasons, look for Nill to explore help along the wings. Fair to say that adding offense would be nice but also adding character players who have playoff/Stanley Cup experience will be a factor too. Guys like Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, and former Canadian Olympian Patrick Marleau, who will turn 38 before the season starts but is coming off a 27-goal campaign, might come into play given their resumes.

Speaking of Marleau, what will become of two longtime San Jose Sharks forwards Marleau and Joe Thornton? Both are heading for UFA status and GM Doug Wilson must decide whether he can keep either or one or neither. Thornton turns 38 Sunday and is coming off a 50-point campaign, 32 fewer than he had the year before. But he's a pro's pro and a popular guy in the room who can still work magic distributing the puck offensively. The rumblings out of San Jose suggest both will find homes elsewhere which means an identity overhaul in San Jose.

The top free agent defenseman remains Kevin Shattenkirk, just as he was the top trade deadline bauble back in March. The fact he struggled in the playoffs and the Washington Capitals once again failed to get out of the second round may have blunted some of the enthusiasm for the terrific puck-mover but he'll get paid. The question for Shattenkirk is does he take less money and term to stay with a contender, like Tampa Bay for instance, or maximize his earning potential by signing with a team that may be lower on the evolutionary curve like a New Jersey?

Among the best of the rest when it comes to blueliners includes longtime Dallas defenseman Trevor Daley. Doesn't look like staying in Pittsburgh will fit for the two-time Stanley Cup winner who will turn 34 at the start of the season. Lots of buzz that he's looking at Detroit. Another Washington veteran, Karl Alzner, is going to hit the market as well. Solid, stay-at-home defender who has struggled with core body issues he will be sought-after by teams looking to add a nice calming influence to the blue line. Montreal, Winnipeg and perhaps Toronto could be fits, but Alzner's the kind of player that GMs must walk a tightrope in terms of how much term given durability issues. Michael Stone and Dmitry Kulikov will be in the mix, too. Further muddying the defensive waters is that Vegas GM George McPhee still has a glut of NHL defensemen he must move at some point before the end of the summer. His players will cost in assets (but not much) and may end up being a better financial bargain pending the player and the role.

Lots of teams will be looking for help along the blue line including Chicago, which lost Trevor van Riemsdyk and Niklas Hjalmarsson to expansion and trade. Washington will be minus Nate Schmidt, Shattenkirk and Alzner from their playoff roster. And Tampa Bay has been looking to bolster its blue line for a long time. Friday's big deal that saw Marco Scandella, once upon a time of interest to Dallas, heading to Buffalo along with former Sabre Jason Pominville for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis and a swap of draft picks suggests the Sabres won't be buying on the blue line starting Saturday. They had been linked via the rumor mill to Shattenkirk.

We mentioned Justin Williams who will turn 36 in early October. You want a winner, well, he's the guy. The man they call Mr. Game 7 (or is it Captain Game 7?) couldn't quite get Washington over the hump but he's a fierce competitor and will be a welcome presence in a locker room that thinks it's close to the big prize. Patrick Sharp is in the same mold as he recovers from concussion and hip issues that sewered the 35-year-old's season in Dallas. Chris Kunitz has been a mainstay in Pittsburgh since coming over at the 2009 trade deadline. Thought he had his best turn in the playoffs in several years for the Cup winners (11 points in 20 games playing up and down the lineup for Mike Sullivan). He's a three-time Cup winner too, although he'll turn 38 before the season starts.

So, what's going on in Colorado? The Avs, dead-last a year ago, were quiet at the trade deadline, quiet in the pre-expansion draft trade period and have yet to make any meaningful change to a dreadful roster other than allowing maybe their best netminder, Calvin Pickard, depart for Vegas. Matt Duchene's name continues to be in the air as a possible trade target and to a lesser degree Gabriel Landeskog. Something must give, though, right? Maybe the start of free agency gets the wheels turning in Denver.

Speaking of goaltenders, the carousel continues to spin with Winnipeg and Philadelphia both looking for possible number one netminders for the coming season. Brian Elliott and Steve Mason would seem to have the inside track on any full-time gigs (although Mason won't be returning to Philadelphia). The Rangers need a backup with Antti Raanta now the starter in Phoenix. Pittsburgh needs a backup to Matt Murray with Marc-Andre Fleury now the face of the Golden Knights. Who will back up Semyon Varlamov in Denver? Is former U.S. Olympic hero Ryan Miller headed to Anaheim to back up John Gibson? If so, what do the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks do in goal? As we've seen with Chicago and the New York Rangers the past couple of years where Scott Darling and Raanta turned in solid performances in place of Corey Crawford and Henrik Lundqvist, these are critical roles for teams and possible springboards to fulltime work for the men who fill them.

Not a free agent but a potential factor once July 1 rolls around is the fate of former sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who has expressed an interest in returning to the NHL next season. It's complicated, though, as he remains property of the New Jersey Devils but he wants to play for a contender and doesn't appear to fit the Devils' plans in the short term. That means Kovalchuk must sign a deal with New Jersey that the Devils can then flip to another team provided the assets coming back to New Jersey are enough for GM Ray Shero. Presumably Shero would prefer to see Kovalchuk toiling in the Western Conference as opposed to, say, across the river in Manhattan with the New York Rangers. The other factor is that if Shero doesn't do a deal and Kovalchuk, 34, stays in Russia, the Devils lose control of the asset next summer and Kovalchuk becomes a UFA. But the potential to get a deal with term at that stage goes down for Kovalchhuk once he turns 35 so there's pressure on both sides to make this happen sooner than later. Wonder if Kovalchuk would make sense in St. Louis playing with Vladimir Tarasenko, a great talent with whom Kovalchuk has played internationally?

On a Russian theme, there's a game of chicken being played with Alexander Radulov and the Montreal Canadiens. The former Nashville Predator was a roaring success on a one-year deal with Montreal last year (18 goals, 54 points in 76 games) but wants big dollars and big term. If the Habs balk will someone fill the void? Will they be sorry they did?

Ah, the eternal free agency question.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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