This is one of the deepest free agent classes of all-time. It will feature an all-out war where (we assume) more than half of the NHL teams will make an offer to superstar Steven Stamkos. Given his age (26) and all-around talents, the Stamkos watch will be the biggest in the league's free agency history.
But Stamkos isn't the only star on the market. Loui Eriksson and Milan Lucic, career 30-goal scorers, will also earn top dollar wherever they sign. The blueline pool is also loaded, with talents like Kris Russell, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Yandle, and Brian Campbell. David Backes and Troy Brouwer are also top-tier playoff performers who could be missing pieces that contenders need to go over the top.
And then there are guys like Eric Staal who have become forgotten commodities in the last few seasons, but could potentially revive their careers if they find the right fit. Then there are other top-six talents like Mikkel Boedker, possibly Alexander Radulov, and two-time Stanley Cup champion and former Winnipeg Jets captain Andrew Ladd.
Last year's free agent pool strongly lacked all-around talent and starpower, but this year's is definitely the best we've seen in quite some time. The fact that Stamkos is going to change the fortunes of a franchise makes this intriguing, but again, there are so many other impactful players that could change the direction of where these franchises go.
We know that some of the top free agents already have favoured landing spots (like Stamkos in Toronto and Lucic in Vancouver) but don't be surprised if some darkhorse teams come in and surprise us by winning the sweepstakes for the top free agents.
Here are the potential surprise landing spot for the top 15 free agents in 2016.
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15 Mikkel Boedker, Toronto Maple Leafs
There are two potential big-names that are dominating the rumour mill in Toronto.
For starters, everyone knows the Leafs will take Auston Matthews with the top pick. There's their star franchise player. The other is Steven Stamkos, because they're his hometown team and have the money to pay him whatever he wants.
So if they get those two, why not add another left winger for offensive depth? Actually, even if the Leafs miss out on Stamkos, they'll need more veteran scoring to speed up the rebuilding process. Mikkel Boedker could do wonders with Matthews and/or Stamkos. He needs a new start and would flourish with Mike Babcock as his coach.
14 James Reimer, Edmonton Oilers
Many believe that James Reimer could end up back with the San Jose Sharks as a backup, or with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the old team that made him a serviceable netminder to begin with in the NHL.
And of course, the Calgary Flames need a new franchise goalie, so Reimer's name has mainly been linked there. But why not the Oilers? They're still searching for a new netminder and while Cam Talbot did decently in 2015-16, they could still use some depth.
Talbot went 21-27-5 with a 2.55 goals against average. It makes sense for Edmonton to sign Reimer for two or three seasons and have him push Talbot for the starting job. The St. Louis Blues did fine this year with two solid goalies.
13 Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild
Long gone are the days where the oldest of the four Staal brothers was putting up 30-goal and 70-point seasons. But that doesn't mean he can't be effective any more and it doesn't mean there'll be a lack of suitors for him.
No one is exactly sure where Staal will go, but don't overlook the Minnesota Wild. As the case has always been, this team simply cannot score. Zach Parise is the only guy who consistently scares oppositions.
Staal could be a solid second line centre in Minnesota on an affordable two-year deal. Perhaps he could rejuvenate his career with the talented wingers this team has.
12 Troy Brouwer, Washington Capitals
The Capitals won the President's Trophy with ease in 2015-16, but once again couldn't get out of the second-round, as the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins sent them home with ease.
Though the Caps are dangerous at both ends of the ice, they could use another proven playoff performer like Troy Brouwer. Yes, he played four years in D.C. before playing last season with the Blues, but they need a guy like him back.
His Stanley Cup championship experience is vital for teams that can't get over the hump. It'd make sense for them to entice him with a nice offer on a great team.
11 Alexander Radulov, New York Rangers
Alexander Radulov has been rumoured to be willing to return to the NHL for the right price. So far, the Detroit Red Wings appear to be the favourites to land him, but the Rangers make plenty of sense for the Russian superstar.
He has 47 goals and 102 points in just 154 career games. The Rangers Cup window will close if they don't make any significant additions. Adding Radulov gives them a much-needed sniper to carry an offense that is seeing its core players slowly decline.
It wouldn't be shocking if they handed him a three-year deal. They can certainly pay him more money than most people would. Wade Redden, Scott Gomez or Chris Drury, anyone?
10 Kris Russell, Vancouver Canucks
There are plenty of suitors for one of the league's better defencemen. Why would a rebuilding team want to pay a 29-year-old blueliner when their backend has Alex Edler, Ben Hutton, Chris Tanev, Erik Gudbranson, and Nikita Tryamkin?
Ownership refuses to admit to a rebuild. They want to get back to the playoffs right away. Their defensive core is fairly young, so adding a solid veteran to play with Edler and/or mentor the youngsters would be a smart move on Jim Benning's watch.
Stay-at-home defenders like Kris Russell don't usually make more than $4.5 million a year. The Canucks, with over $15 million in space, could make it work.
9 Brian Campbell, Chicago Blackhawks
The 'Hawks were thrilled to move out Brian Campbell's ridiculous contract to the Florida Panthers at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He was solid, but Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were making less as the team's top pairing.
At 37 years of age, and a Stanley Cup ring, Campbell will probably prefer to take a pay cut to land with a contender. The 'Hawks can't offer a lot of money, but they can offer him the best chance at adding another championship to his resume. A reunion makes sense. He was a good fit there, but his contract had to be moved out. A short-term deal would benefit both parties.
8 Dan Hamhuis, Calgary Flames
Once the Canucks acquired Erik Gudbranson, it just about shut down any hopes or dreams Dan Hamhuis had of returning to his home team. They couldn't find a move he was willing to accept at the trade deadline.
He didn't want to go to Boston because he didn't think they were a contender. The Dallas Stars almost closed out a deal, but they ended up with Russell and backed out of the Hamhuis sweepstakes.
Hamhuis will still want money and the top-tier contenders (Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and St. Louis) either don't need or can't afford him. Going to Calgary makes sense. They're on the rise, badly need blueline depth, and he could mentor their young players.
7 Keith Yandle, Los Angeles Kings
Keith Yandle could land a nice pay day and the Kings can't afford to pay top dollar for most marquee free agents, but this smooth puck-moving defenceman could be just the guy they need to earn a third championship.
With Milan Lucic likely headed to free agency, they can use that cap space to land Yandle. The Kings could not score or defend against the San Jose Sharks in the first round, hence the early exit. Yandle and Drew Doughty could quarterback a dangerous powerplay, and their blueline depth would significantly be upgraded.
6 Andrew Ladd, Anaheim Ducks
Aside from Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler, there isn't a whole lot of starpower up front for the Ducks. They need a proven playoff performer if they're going to find a way to advance to the third round for the first time since 2007.
Andrew Ladd, a two-time Cup winner, is a proven leader, clutch playoff performer, and can score 30 goals a season. He's effective at both ends of the ice and could be an ideal fit in the Ducks top six forward group. No doubt he'll want to get paid and play for a contender. Anaheim seems to be missing a piece to go all the way and Ladd is exactly what they need.
5 Loui Eriksson, New York Islanders
Loui Eriksson is still looking for a way to reach a deal to remain in Boston. In the mean time, many believe the Canucks will go hard after the slick Swede. But don't overlook the Isles' chances of landing him.
They're not bringing back winger Kyle Okposo and John Tavares could use a 30-goal scorer to maximize his talents. The Islanders don't have enough overall star power to compete for a Stanley Cup. Their young guys will get better, but adding a veteran like Eriksson would give the Isles an elite top line.
One that would instantly put them in the running for the Metropolitan next season.
4 Kyle Okposo, Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings need to make some moves. Yes, they kept their playoff streak in tact, but it was the third-straight year and fourth time in five seasons where Detroit went home in the first round. With a lack of depth in elite prospects, now's the time to break the bank.
If they don't get Alexander Radulov and/or Steven Stamkos (both guys they've been linked to) then Kyle Okposo should be next on their list. If Pavel Datsyuk really does bolt for Russia, then they'll need to replace his offensive skills right away.
Okposo has 30-goal potential and the Wings have plenty of cap space to sign him. With Detroit featuring young talents in Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Dylan Larkin, a veteran scorer like Okposo could be all they need to go from playoff hopeful to Cup contender.
3 David Backes, San Jose Sharks
The Sharks just lost a crushing six-game series in the Stanley Cup Final. The best way to keep that short window open is to add to the talented forwards they already have.
Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will be 37 this summer. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture could only do so much. The Sharks lacked a solid two-way playoff hockey forward like David Backes. Adding him would be huge in their chances of repeating as Western Conference champions.
Normally, a team who loses in the Cup stays afloat and doesn't make a big change, but this is a necessary one for the Sharks.
2 Milan Lucic, Montreal Canadiens
Milan Lucic could possibly rejoin the Kings if they can find a new contract, but the Canucks and Oilers have been the two teams mostly linked to winning the services for hockey's ultimate power forward.
He's a big guy at 6-foot-4 who can score 20-30 goals a season. He's a high impact player in the playoffs and could go anywhere. But the Habs are a darkhorse for him. He makes sense as a guy who can protect their undersized forwards and provide the scoring they always lack.
Why are the Habs a darkhorse? Well, he did have a fierce rivalry with them during his time in Boston, but if the Canadiens let bygones be bygones and put the proper cash on the table, Looch may be willing to join his old enemies.
1 Steven Stamkos, Ottawa Senators
It's unlikely for Steven Stamkos to remain with the Lightning. A new contract would surely have come out by now. They can't afford to pay him top dollar and they did reach the Eastern Conference Final without him.
Of course, the Leafs appear to be the top destination for him. But the Red Wings are also going to be in the mix. Perhaps the Vancouver Canucks would make a pitch for him as well. Basically, Stammer can choose his team.
Ottawa is a surprise landing spot in the fact that owner Eugene Melnyk doesn't like to spend top-dollar as a budget-conscious owner. But he expressed major frustration over his team's inconsistency and mercilessly fired the coaching staff after calling them out near the end of the season.
If he wants to get Ottawa into Cup contention right away, and wants to win back fan patience and interest, then sucking it up and just handing a huge check to Stamkos would be a huge moment for the Senators. The only question is if he'll be willing to do it?
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