Every summer, National Hockey League general managers prepare to pull out the owner's checkbook and dangle millions of dollars in front of the crop of free agents that made it to the open market.
For the most part, the free agent crops over the past few years have missed the kind of star power that the free agent classes of the mid-2000s had during the early years of the salary cap era. Over time general managers have returned to emphasizing drafting properly and retaining homegrown talent, meaning players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were able to cash in with their respective franchises without having to play hardball by going to free agency.
This offseason, though, has the added intrigue of several big names potentially becoming available come July 1. Eric Staal was unable to reach an agreement with the rebuilding Carolina Hurricanes and will likely be looking to cash in on one more big contract this summer. Milan Lucic has spoken about the possibility of going home to Vancouver, but money talks, and if Lucic doesn't resign in Los Angeles, he'll be a highly sought after commodity this summer.
A lack of depth quality blueliners will heighten the value of names like Kris Russell and Dan Hamhuis, both decent defenders but neither truly worthy of the top-end money they'll likely get from a team in need of adding on the back-end (we're looking at you, Edmonton).
The cherry on top, though, is the likely addition of Steven Stamkos to the 2016 free agent list. The Tampa Bay Lightning superstar has had plenty of chances to re-up long-term with the Bolts, but a clear tension between the player and the organization have managers around the league revving up for a big run at the perennial 40-goal scorer.
With all the intrigue and uncertainty heading into the summer, there's no telling what could happen, but one thing is for certain: there's bound to be a few surprises once the free agent frenzy begins.
15 Cam Ward Will Sign on as a "1-B"
For several seasons following the Carolina Hurricanes surprising Stanley Cup run, Cam Ward was considered one of the best netminders in the game. Ward put up five thirty-win seasons in six years during the prime of his career. In a league predicated on good goaltending, Ward will still be viewed as a legitimate option by goalie-hungry franchises. However, what Ward won't get is a crease to himself - he'll draw interests from teams looking to mirror what the Dallas Stars have done with Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen (despite what many, including myself, might have to say against that theory). Look for teams like Winnipeg, Calgary or Philadelphia to take a run at Ward to bring in some competition for their respective starting goaltender(s).
14 Keith Yandle Won't Break the $6 Million Mark
During his best years in Arizona, Keith Yandle was viewed as one of the league's premier offensive defenseman - a "poor man's" Erik Karlsson. His defensive numbers were never great, but he masked over any defensive deficiencies with his offensive output. Since the blockbuster trade that sent him to the Rangers last season, though, Yandle has cooled off. He's still putting up decent offensive numbers, but his point totals and minutes have dipped ever since joining the Blueshirts.
While Yandle will draw a lot of interest from teams around the league, general managers will have learned from the Dion Phaneuf contract gone wrong and tread with caution when it comes to Yandle. Barring an incredible playoff performance that significantly boosts his value, expect Yandle to slot into the same pay grade as the likes of Andrei Markov and Nick Leddy.
13 Lee Stempniak: The Crown Jewel of the Secondary Scoring Market
In a matter of months, Lee Stempniak has gone from needing a professional tryout to crack a seemingly offensively challenged New Jersey Devils roster to becoming a hot deadline commodity. Stempniak has shattered expectations all year and could now set himself up nicely if he produces during a Bruins playoff run. Once the top names like Stamkos, Okposo, Ladd and Backes are snatched up, expect teams to come running to Stempniak with offers averaging out to nearly $4 million dollars over the next couple of seasons.
12 Loui Eriksson Will Sign in Nashville
Loui Eriksson was looking like this generation's Marco Sturm for awhile, but he's turned it on this season and has helped carry a surprisingly potent offense in a nice bounceback season for the Bruins. Eriksson's name was floating around the rumor mill in the leadup to the trade deadline, but the Boston brass decided to hang on to Swede for what they hope will be a lengthy playoff run come spring.
Boston will be hard-pressed to match the offers Eriksson will command come July 1, though, as he'll be looking to cash in on one last big contract.
The Predators have made it clear to the rest of the league that they're done with their reputation of being an offensively-challenged, defense-first team. Eriksson will fit in nicely alongside Forsberg, Johanssen and Neal in Music City.
11 Andrew Ladd Will Stay in Chicago
After playing the "face of the franchise" role for several years in Winnipeg, Andrew Ladd will be looking to stick in a city that can offer him another shot at Lord Stanley's holy grail. Ladd, if you remember, won a Cup with Chicago earlier in his career, but was subsequently shipped out during the first of Chicago's post-championship liquidation sales. Ladd and the Hawks have a great shot to win it all again this summer, and if they do, don't expect Ladd to leave the Windy City for the second time.
Chicago, for their part, are probably tired of having to give away their shiny new toys after only a few months of playing with them. They'll find a way to keep Ladd around.
10 Dale Weise: 2016's Matt Beleskey
Different year, same story.
Every season, a bottom-nine forward in a contract year gives a little more gas throughout the season, has a breakout performance and suddenly becomes one of the hottest commodities on the trade market. The most recent examples of these players, David Clarkson and Matt Beleskey, have brought back mixed results for their new teams.
This year's surprise sniper is Dale Weise. The former Hab was shipped to Chicago at the deadline and will get a chance to prove he truly is a clutch playoff performer after scoring big goals in each of Montreal's playoff runs since he joined the team a couple of seasons ago.
It's hard to pinpoint where Weise will land thanks to a likely stagnant cap, but don't be surprised if a team takes the plunge and throws Weise somewhere near $4 million a year - this for a guy who couldn't solidify a spot in the top six for the popless Canadiens after starting the season on fire.
9 Radim Vrbata: Looking for a Chance
After several solid seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, Radim Vrbata was one more decent season away from setting himself up for one more big pay day before riding off into the sunset.
Unfortunately for Vrbata, things haven't gone as well as hoped this season on Canada's west coast. Vrbata is sitting on 13 goals and 25 points - not to mention his horrendous -31 rating - after lighting the lamp 31 times last season.
The drastic drop-off in production, combined with his now advanced age, will scare teams off to the point where Vrbata will have to get invited to a training camp just to have a shot to make a roster.
8 Kris Russell Will Get Top-10 Defenseman Money
Somehow, someway, Kris Russell has managed to flip his image of being a stay-at-home defenseman with elite shot blocking ability to one of a mobile, offensive-minded rearguard with a strong defensive IQ.
Russell's numbers have dipped a bit this year, but in a crop of free-agents devoid of a name truly worthy of a max contract, Russell will be courted as if he were Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty. He won't make that kind of money (we hope, anyway), but he'll no doubt make the argument that if Mike Green is worth $6 million a season, then he should be falling in around the same number.
That would make Kris Russell one of the ten highest paid defenseman in the league, ahead of names like Burns, Keith and Ekman-Larsson.
7 David Backes Will Sign in Minnesota
Unless you've watched certain episodes of How I Met Your Mother, it's hard to pinpoint why exactly Minnesota boys seem to actually go back to play in their hometowns more than any other hockey hotbed across North America. We saw it happen recently when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter teamed up and came home to a hero's welcome after they both signed with the Wild back in 2012 (for 13 years each, no less).
The Wild have clearly been looking for an upgrade from Mikko Koivu up the middle of the ice over the past several seasons and might look to move him again this summer. That would make way for Backes, the Robbinsdale, Minnesota native, to return home and help solidify the middle of the Wild roster.
6 Eric Staal Stays in His New Home
The Staal brothers established themselves among hockey family royalty a long time ago, but over the past few seasons the luster on the family name has worn off thanks to several disappointing seasons from the Staal boys. Marc Staal has taken a bit of a backseat in New York after projecting as a top-end No. 1 defenseman during his early days in the Big Apple. Jordan was supposed to morph into an offensive dynamo after waiting patiently behind Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh for several seasons, and he was supposed to do so alongside eldest brother Eric, a bonafide superstar for the majority of his time in Carolina.
Age and wear and tear have clearly started to slow down Eric, but he still has the size and ability to be a top-end center. As his years in the league dwindle down, the oldest Staal brother will get the best of both worlds by riding out the string in New York, playing on a Stanley Cup contending roster while still getting a chance to play with one of his brothers.
5 Mikkel Boedker Gets a Reality Check
Mikkel Boedker's name has garnered a lot of attention throughout the 2015-2016 thanks to the hot start he got off to early on in the year when the Coyotes seemed primed to surprise the hockey world by being this year's version of the Calgary Flames - that is, stealing a playoff spot despite going into the season as a projected cellar-dweller.
There's no doubt that Boedker has plenty of offensive upside, but it's become clear this season that he's a "situational" point-producer, at best. He's never hit the 20 goal mark, is a liability in his own zone and, of late, has put up the majority of his points on the powerplay.
Boedker might be dreaming of a big money contract, but he'll be hard-pressed to get more than $5 million a year, unless a team blindly falls in love with him.
4 Kyle Okposo Will Sign With the Montreal Canadiens
It's been a nightmare season for Montreal Canadiens fans, to say the least.
After a scorching 9-0-0 start to the season, Habs fans were pre-ordering championship merchandise as if the return of Stanley was a foregone conclusion. Then Carey Price got injured - they didn't know it yet, but the season was effectively over for the Canadiens.
An entire season without the league's MVP and arguably the best hockey player in the world right now allows a management team to assess the rest of the roster, and what Marc Bergevin saw was a team filled with gaping holes - the biggest one being the crater on the right wing.
After the Zach Kassian and Alexander Semin experiments crashed and burned within a matter of months, Marc Bergevin will be more willing to open the vault for a proven commodity this summer - well, you would think he would be, at the very least. Expect the Habs to throw a ton of money at Islanders winger Kyle Opkoso, who would, in theory, fit nicely on the right side of Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for the next couple of seasons.
3 Milan Lucic Heads Home
The idea of Milan Lucic signing in Vancouver didn't seem that crazy earlier in the year, but the success Lucic has had in Los Angeles, combined with his seamless fit into the team, has made it more and more likely that Lucic will stay put in Cali.
Not so fast. The Kings are tight up against the cap and will have to do some crafty maneuvering in the offseason if they want to keep the big winger. That might be harder to do than Dean Lombardi might think, especially if the cap doesn't increase this summer. Lucic won't take a discount during the prime years of his career - instead, he'll take the cash and head north, back home to Vancouver where he'll ride out the second half of his career in Canuck blue.
2 James Reimer Will Get Paid Like a Top 10 Goalie
It's amazing what can happen over the span of a few seasons. James Reimer has lived through a roller coaster ride since 2013. It was, in fact, ten minutes in April 2013 that drastically changed the path the Toronto Maple Leafs were on.
The Leafs were mere moments away from knocking the Boston Bruins out of the 2013 postseason - with authority, no less. We all know what happened instead. The playoff collapse crushed the Leafs' - and the entire city of Toronto's - spirit, and things have been all bad ever since.
We'll skip past James Reimer's struggles and the incredibly strange goaltending situation that he and Jonathan Bernier have lived through over the past few years. Reimer was finally freed at the deadline and if he ends up making some noise in the playoffs with the Sharks, he'll raise his stock even more. Reimer put up good numbers this year playing behind a putrid Leafs roster and a goalie hungry team will be willing to shell out a fat contract for Reimer during the summer.
While Reimer has nowhere near the track record of the likes of Ryan Miller or Kari Lehtonen, he'll still point to their contracts as comparables, and a team like Philadelphia - who still haven't been able to find a steady option between the pipes - might say "what the hell" and take a huge chance on Reimer by dangling a $6 million plus average annual salary in front of him come July 1.
1 Steven Stamkos Won't Sign With Tampa Bay...or Toronto
For the longest time Steven Stamkos was seemingly on his way to mirroring the path of another top-end talent named Steve. That other Steve also happens to be his boss.
Yzerman, if you'll recall, wasn't viewed as the revered leader he is remembered as now early in his career. Stamkos had his own struggles during his first few seasons in Tampa, but things looked to have straightened themselves out. He had put up a 60 goal season, accepted the team's captaincy on the fly with grace and poise, and led the franchise to its first Cup Final in over a decade.
All that has seemingly gone out the window since the beginning of this season,and it's looking more and more likely that Stamkos will bolt come July 1. The consensus pick for his new home has been, and will continue to be, Toronto - but does he really want to sign on for three to four years of Mike Babcock approved "pain?" Does he want to relive the rebuilding years he went through during his early years in Tampa during the prime seasons of his career?
I have a feeling Stamkos will look at all his options and they won't include Tampa or Toronto.
The Florida Panthers have a ton of cap space, are close enough to Tampa that he won't have to move too far, and are loaded with young talent. The Buffalo Sabres are close enough to Toronto that he can still be near home without having to deal with the Toronto media on a daily basis. The Colorado Avalanche have to resign Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie this summer, but they might have some money leftover to splurge on Stamkos, a player who would likely thrive under Patrick Roy's mindset. Maybe Stamkos does want to play in a hockey market, while still having a shot at the Cup within the next few years. Where would he go? Enter Montreal, where the chance to work magic with childhood friend P.K. Subban and Carey Price might be too tantalizing a hockey opportunity to pass up.
Don't be surprised if teams like Calgary, St. Louis or Dallas try to get in on the Stamkos Sweepstakes come July 1st. Don't be surprised when he doesn't end up in Tampa or Toronto, either.