Summer is a lot of people's favorite season for a couple of reasons. The sun is out, the winter jackets are tucked away deep in the closet, beach days become a weekly occurrence, and for many summer represents the vacation portion of a calendar year.
For hockey players, summer can start on a sour note - if your team did not make the playoffs; a sad note - if your team gets eliminated in the playoffs; or on the highest point of a player's life - thanks to a Stanley Cup victory.
One thing that is a constant positive across the board come summertime for the majority of players, though, is the possibility of cashing in on a big new contract come July 1 (or earlier, for some). Free agent frenzy has become a yearly splurging event, where general managers overpay for players based largely off a season where the player in question was motivated by the dollar signs dancing around his head all season long.
This season's crop of unrestricted free agents is not overly impressive, which means that the "cream of the crop" of this year's free agents will likely have an opportunity to strong-arm general managers into hefty deals that they wouldn't be able to get in a year with a stronger group of free agents.
There are also a number of restricted free agents who've proved themselves over the past couple of seasons and will be looking to lock down big long-term deals that will set them up for many years down the road and solidify their status amongst the NHL's elite.
* Stats are correct as of April 9th, 2015 and are taken from Hockey-Reference.com.
20 Andrew Hammond
On February 18th, Andrew Hammond was the relative unknown who was expected to get lit up by the Montreal Canadiens in his NHL debut at the Bell Centre. Hammond and the Sens ended up winning that game 4-2. Since then, Hammond is 17-1-2 and has practically dragged the Senators back from the Eastern Conference cellar and into playoff contention. Hammond will likely never have a better chance to cash in, and will certainly see a bump up from his current $720,000 average.
19 Andrej Sekera
Andrej Sekera was one of the most highly sought-after rental players at this year's deadline, and ultimately the Los Angeles Kings were forced to cough up a prospect and a first-round pick for the Slovakian rearguard. Sekera broke out offensively last season with 44 points in Carolina, but his decline in production this year combined with the Hurricanes struggles forced Ron Francis' hand. Sekera has been solid in LA and he'll have no problem finding suitors come July 1. Sekera has made an average of $2.75 million over the past four seasons - there's a good chance he'll double that number this summer.
18 Tyler Toffoli
Tyler Toffoli has began to show off the tantalizing offensive flair that made him such a highly-touted prospect within the Kings organization. His rookie contract is up this summer, and his big spike in production this season despite limited ice-time and an injury mid-season means the Kings will have to pay up to lock-up the young rising star for the long-term (if they choose to do so). Either way, Toffoli will definitely see a big rise from his current $960,000 average.
17 Brandon Saad
Brandon Saad has established himself as a top-line winger, which isn't easy to do on a team that boasts the likes of Hossa, Sharp, Toews and Kane. Saad is a staple on one of the top two lines and has meshed well with Toews, having scored 19 and 22 goals over the last two seasons. His point totals have gone up every year and at 22 years old the best is yet to come. Like Toffoli, Saad will see hefty spike as he is wrapping up his rookie deal this summer (average salary of $795,000).
16 Matt Beleskey
Matt Beleskey came a bit out of nowhere this year - he's found pay-dirt 22 times already this season, obliterating his former personal best of 11 goals in 2009-2010. General managers who are thinking of bringing Beleskey on board should remember the cautionary tales of David Clarkson and Ryan Clowe - two big-grinders who had offensive outbursts in their contract years, only to regress on their new team. At the right price, though, Beleskey would be a solid addition for several franchises - either way, Beleskey will no doubt get a raise from his current $1.35 million average.
15 Zbynek Michalek
Zbynek Michalek, like Sekera, was one of the top prizes of this year's trade deadline, and surprisingly ended up on an already strong St.Louis Blues defense corps. Michalek has morphed himself into more of a lock-down defenseman, and even at 32 years old, a big, right-handed defenseman will attract a lot of attention on the open market. This might be Michalek's last chance at a big contract, and he'll be looking to get a bump up from his current four million dollar average salary.
14 Gustav Nyquist
Gustav Nyquist is the latest example of textbook player development out of the Ken Holland-led Detroit Red Wings organization. After spending a couple of seasons honing his skills in the American Hockey League, the young Swede has taken the league by storm with 28 and 27 (so far) goals over the last two seasons. Nyquist's goal totals figure to continue to rise and he has the look of a consistent 30-goal scorer, at worst. That'll cost the Wings a pretty penny - much more than his current $950,000 average.
13 Mike Green
Mike Green has seen his stock fall off quite a bit over the past few seasons. Gone are the years where Green had free reign and putting up 70 points a season. He's still a good offensive blueliner, but he's definitely past his prime. Regardless, offensive defenseman aren't available in July very often, so there's a team out there that won't have any qualms about handing Green another $6 million dollar salary, or close to it, over the next few seasons.
12 Francois Beauchemin
Returning to Anaheim has clearly been the best thing to happen to Francois Beauchemin since the Ducks traded for him the first time around in 2005. Beauchemin has been a rock on the Ducks back-end over the past few seasons, but if the Ducks want to keep the wily veteran around they'll have to give him much more than the $3.5 million he's making now. Beauchemin should be able to eclipse $5 million this season, even if it is for a few less years than some of his counterparts.
11 Jonathan Huberdeau
The Panthers former 3rd overall pick has finally started to come into his own in his third full NHL campaign, and it doesn't look like he'll be slowing down anytime soon. As the Panthers improve, so does Jonathan Huberdeau - the young offensive dynamo has not only seen his scoring totals rise, he's also become a more responsible player defensively as he continues to evolve into an elite two way force. Huberdeau might be able to get a long-term deal similar to the Edmonton Oilers young stars, who got paid in their second contracts as opposed to playing out a shorter bridge deal in their early twenties.
10 Dougie Hamilton
It wouldn't be all that surprising if Boston Bruins rearguard Dougie Hamilton signed one of the bigger deals of the summer, as he comes off another solid season on the Bruins blueline. Hamilton is the future of a the Bruins defense - after years of Zdeno Chara towering over cowering opponents, it's time for Hamilton's mobility and smarts to take over. Hamilton would be wise to ask the Bruins to open the vault for him, especially if Boston misses the playoffs - he's a valuable asset they can't afford to play hardball with.
9 Antti Niemi
If Antti Niemi was a free agent last summer, his name wouldn't even be on this list. However, in a year with a lackluster and thin crop of available goaltenders, Niemi might be able to parlay the reality of the market into a big contract with a goalie hungry franchise (like Edmonton, for instance). The Sharks don't seem too attached to the Finnish keeper, so he'll likely hit the open market July 1 and has a shot at raking in upwards of $5 million a year.
8 Jeff Petry
Jeff Petry was already going to make a pretty penny on the open market as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, but his impressive showing with the Montreal Canadiens since the trade deadline has only added to his appeal as a potential free-agent acquisition for teams looking to add a defenseman this summer. Petry can really solidify his stock with a strong postseason, and he'll be looking at a minimum of $5 million a year, come July.
7 Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart will be the benefactor of a small crop of big-bodied power forwards available to teams this summer, even though he hasn't been overly impressive over the past couple of seasons. He hasn't surpassed twenty goals since 2010-2011, and while he's been good during his short stint in Minnesota, it's hard to believe he'll ever re-establish himself as a potential 30 goal scorer. Of course, this is the NHL, so someone will get the thought in their head that they can "fix" Stewart and finally turn his physical ability and flashes of brilliance into a consistent NHL goalscorer - but it'll cost them.
6 Cody Franson
Cody Franson is arguably the best defenseman who will be available on the open market this summer, so there's no question as to whether he will cash in or not - it's how much are teams willing to pay him that will be the point of discussion over the next few months. Franson put up decent numbers on a pitiful Maple Leafs squad, and has been steady in his return to Nashville behind a stacked defensive corps. If he chooses to move on he might be able to get over $6 million from a defense-hungry franchise, a nice raise from the $3.3 million he made this year.
5 Derek Stepan
Derek Stepan was a key cog in the Rangers fantastic 2014-2015 season, and if the Rangers hope to get similar seasons out of the 24-year-old Minnesota native they would be wise to lock him up for the long-term this summer. Stepan has consistently hovered around the 50-point mark, but if he hadn't gotten injured this season he would have ended closer to 70. Stepan will likely command close somewhere between five and six million a year, and if Glen Sather handles this negotiation properly he'll earn that salary for the next 5-6 years, at the very least - because that will eventually look like a bargain.
4 Devan Dubnyk
Devan Dubnyk was so far off this list at the beginning of the season that he wasn't even an afterthought - he wasn't a thought at all. Now Dubnyk has found himself in a position to finally lock down a long-term commitment thanks to the phenomenal run he's gone on since being acquired by the Minnesota Wild earlier in the season. Dubnyk has made a shade over $8.5 million dollars over his six NHL seasons - he'll blow that number out of the water within the first two seasons of his next contact, wherever that may be.
3 Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby has established himself as the man in Washington - the last man standing in a goaltending battle that has spanned five years and included the likes of Tomas Vokoun, Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth and Jaroslav Halak. With the crease firmly his for the foreseeable future, Holtby has likely earned himself a long-term deal that could potentially put him among the top 5 highest paid goaltenders in the league - he'll break the top 10 at the very least.
2 Antoine Vermette
Antoine Vermette finds himself at the top of the list thanks to a lack of top-end scoring talent up front in this year's crop of unrestricted free agents. Vermette put up fairly good offensive numbers on one of the lowest scoring teams in the league, and while he hasn't produced much in Chicago, his presence should prove to be valuable come playoff time. Vermette is finishing up a deal that pays him an average of $3.75 annually, so he'll be looking at somewhere between five and six million for at least four years this summer.
1 Vladimir Tarasenko
Unless Steven Stamkos signs his extension a year early, Vladimir Tarasenko will not only get the biggest raise of the summer, he'll also sign the biggest contract. Tarasenko's rookie deal ends this year and he picked the perfect time to have a breakout season. The Blues have no reason to believe the 23-year old will be slowing down anytime soon, and with 36 goals this year (he could have cracked 40 had he not been injured) Tarasenko has established himself as one of the league's elite snipers. Expect him to rake in seven million annually, if not more, for at least the next five seasons.