If the 2016 NHL off-season were a team or player, you might see talking heads bloviating about how it was being snubbed and overlooked. With the possible exception of Steven Stamkos' free agency and the Auston Matthews-led draft class, the focus of many hockey fans and observers has already shifted towards next season and beyond on account of the looming possibility of incoming expansion and a loaded 2017 free agent class.
But let's hold on here for just a second. Before dreaming about the prospect of your team landing a Jamie Benn or Kevin Shattenkirk next summer, you might want to take a closer look at the present NHL environment. We are coming off a season in which every Canadian team - along with their fervent fan bases - fell short of the postseason, bringing calls for change from coast to coast across the country. Where clubs like the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets could typically flounder without much external impetus for overhaul, all seven clubs situated north of the border will face pressure to do something.
Then there are the other franchises in varying states of transition. The Blackhawks and Kings are perennial contenders who might need an injection of new blood to extend their dominance, the Capitals and Ducks under-performed in the playoffs and may face the possibility of a shakeup and the Panthers and Stars might need some additional reinforcements as they continue their ascendance. With a number of clubs motivated to take some kind of action, there could be a combustible cocktail that allows this year's off-season to be a meaty one filled with movement. But just who might be changing jerseys and zip codes? Let's take a look:
12 Dan Hamhuis
The Vancouver Canucks are in an awkward spot, trotting out an aging core roster that finished 12 points out of a playoff spot last season and isn’t getting better. The No. 5 pick will help, as will youngsters Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen. But that doesn’t solve a club that remains heavily reliant on the Sedin twins, Alex Burrows, Alex Edler and Ryan Miller, all of whom are in their thirties. Dan Hamhuis might be the clearest no-brainer as an exit candidate, a 33-year-old free agent who could still command big money and is blocking the path of young defensemen Ben Hutton and Nikita Tryamkin.
11 Andrew Ladd
Acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, Andrew Ladd looked like the ideal type of veteran addition to bolster an already-deep Stanley Cup contender. That was, however, before the Blackhawks were surprisingly knocked out in the first round by the St. Louis Blues. Now, the 30-year-old will hit free agency, possibly with one last long-term contract opportunity. Don’t expect a return to Chicago, with the Blackhawks already on the hook for $65.8 million in salary against the cap. Edmonton could be an interesting fit as an established veteran in a room full of young talent that hasn’t yet learned how to win. Several other teams will also express some serious interest in the former Jets captain.
10 Mikkel Boedker
It’s hard to know what to expect from Mikkel Boedker, which makes him a fascinating case as an unrestricted free agent this summer. On one hand, the skilled Danish winger is just 26 years of age and boasts a solid track record of steady play mixed with flashes of the elite talent that made him an eighth overall draft choice. On the other hand, that elite talent remains sparsely seen even as he gets ready for his ninth NHL season, without a 20-goal campaign to his name. Boedker reportedly refused a long-term contract worth $5 million or more a season with the Arizona Coyotes, expediting his departure from the desert in a deadline trade to Colorado. That’s big money for a question mark players who has yet to make a serious top six impact.
9 Milan Lucic
On the surface, the marriage of Milan Lucic and the Los Angeles Kings seems to make sense for both sides. The gritty 27-year-old forward possesses playoff experience thanks to his time in Boston and the Kings remain a deep and equally gritty annual Stanley Cup contender. However, in Lucic’s first campaign out west, L.A. bowed out meekly to the San Jose Sharks in a five-game first round series and questions were raised about whether the club’s style of play is sustainable. The team remains unlikely to break up a core that includes Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, so perhaps the new guy will be the first to go.
8 Eric Staal
It may surprise some to know that Eric Staal is actually just 31 years of age. The 12-year NHL veteran is a decade removed from his 100-point season with the Carolina Hurricanes and has now seen his point totals drop in each of his last three seasons. A deadline deal that saw Staal leave his only NHL home in a bid to give the New York Rangers a playoff boost flopped, culminating in a pointless five-game series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. But surely someone will bet on Staal as still having some gas left in the tank, maybe not as a first line center but certainly as a veteran depth addition who might just need a new environment.
7 Dustin Byfuglien
As a general rule of thumb, constant trade speculation is, eventually, proven right. That chatter seemed to follow Dustin Byfuglien everywhere last season, with the big defenseman not exactly quelling murmurs that he was unhappy in Winnipeg with comments like, "I just want to put on a jersey, to be honest with you." As the off-season begins and the Jets looked poised to revamp a club that hasn't won a playoff game in five seasons back in the NHL, Byfuglien might yet be moved. The free agent class appears thin on impact blue liners, so defense-hungry clubs may still be willing to offer picks and prospects for Big Buff.
6 Ben Bishop
Conventional wisdom in the NHL has always held that you can't win a Cup without a standout goaltender backing you up. Now, that thinking might have to be amended to require two capable puck stoppers. In the Eastern Conference Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have both benefited from having one established veteran goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury and Ben Bishop) with another young prospect nipping at their heels (Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy). While the Pens might have time to sort out their situation between the pipes, things are more pressing in Tampa, where Steven Stamkos' pending free agency may force the club to tighten their belt.
5 David Backes
The St. Louis Blues are predominantly focused on their current Western Conference Final series against the San Jose Sharks, as they rightly should be. However, they won't be short on off-season decisions on a roster that could undergo significant turnover in the near future. The team's captain, David Backes, headlines a group of pending free agents for the Blues that also includes Jaden Schwartz and Troy Brouwer. While vital to his club's success with 14 points in 19 playoff games, Backes will almost surely command a substantial contract in both term and annual value, which may be hard to stomach for a club that boasts such a deep, balanced roster.
4 Mark Giordano
The winds of change seem to be blowing through Calgary, where the Flames are buoyed by a stash of refreshing young talent that includes Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, Dougie Hamilton and TJ Brodie. One name that doesn't fit in amongst that group is longtime defensive cornerstone Mark Giordano, even if a recently inked six-year contract extension would suggest otherwise. After a playoff-less 2015-16 season, the prospect of turning the keys over to the kids probably seems a lot more appealing to GM Brad Treliving and the front office, and now may be the time to do it.
3 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Staying in the Canadian province of Alberta, something simply has to give in Edmonton. After showing flashes of finally capitalizing on a cache of top draft choices in recent years, the Oilers fell back into familiar territory amidst the top 10 lottery picks. We know that Connor McDavid isn't going anywhere and likely neither is skilled scorer Taylor Hall. That leaves a handful of former top draft choices whose departure could help shake things up and return a steady veteran to help right the ship. Oilers brass would be hard-pressed to get much value out of Nail Yakupov, so dangling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could be their best shot at getting a difference maker.
2 Steven Stamkos
There is one clear headline name on the list of pending unrestricted free agents this summer, and that name is Steven Stamkos. The situation that the superstar sniper finds himself in is a fascinating one, as an undisputed star on a team with Stanley Cup ambitions that has fared perfectly well with him on the shelf. Those who have stepped up in his absence, namely the likes of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, will all be due raises in the coming years and the Lightning may want to maintain some financial flexibility. There will be no shortage of suitors, most notably the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, who will be aggressively looking to land Stamkos should he 'bolt'.
1 P.K. Subban
Could everyone's favorite lightning rod possibly leave Montreal with seven years to go on his contract? Far-fetched as it seems, Habs GM Marc Bergevin is currently exploring any way of making his club better in light of a disastrous 2015-16 campaign that began with Stanley Cup aspirations and ended outside the playoff bubble. Enter Subban, whose status in Montreal has always been strangely tenuous and who cannot be moved once his new deal kicks in on July 1st. Bergevin is free to make a move before then and whispers of a trade for Taylor Hall have already begun.