As the season winds down, it's already time for some teams to start making plans for next year. One way to do that is to address holes in the lineup through free agency.
In this week's edition of Backchecking, TSN.ca's Scott Cullen takes a sneak peek at this summer's free agent market.
We can assume, in the vast majority of cases, that teams will have some interest in their own free agents at a certain price, but there is always the risk that once a player reaches the open market, they can be lured away to a new team.
Top Unrestricted Free Agents
Marian Hossa, RW, Pittsburgh - It hasn't been a banner season for the 29-year-old sharpshooter, as it appears unlikely he'll continue his four-year streak of scoring at least 80 points. Nevertheless, the Penguins will be faced with the prospect of trying to keep Hossa along with their current roster of premier young talent and there will be no shortage of suitors if he gets to the open market on July 1.
Brian Campbell, D, San Jose - The 28-year-old has been a perfect fit in San Jose, so the Sharks will be highly motivated to get him signed to a long-term extension, but Campbell's strong play has been raising the stakes with every game.
Mats Sundin, C, Toronto - Though he seems committed to signing one-year deals at this stage of his career, the 37-year-old Swede is still producing a very high level. It seems clear that Sundin wants to stay in Toronto, but if there is an organizational re-shuffling in the summer, perhaps it will pave the way for Sundin to play elsewhere while the Leafs try to re-build.
Jaromir Jagr, RW, N.Y. Rangers - It's extremely unlikely that Jagr will reach the scoring milestone necessary for his contract to vest into next season, so the 36-year-old is likely to hit the open market this summer, coming on the heels of a season in which he is set to finish with the lowest point total since his rookie season. There have been reports that Avangard Omsk is interested in luring Jagr to Russia, but there should be other NHL teams interested in his services too.
Daymond Langkow, C, Calgary - Long considered a number two centre, Langkow's production over the last couple of seasons has elevated his stature and the 31-year-old who plays both ends of the rink will draw much interest if the Flames can't get him signed to an extension.
Wade Redden, D, Ottawa - While Redden's been better this season than he was last, his game has slipped from what it had been in the previous five seasons with the Sens. Now 31, Redden has shown no inclination to leave Ottawa, holding firm to his no-trade clause, so that might mean a hometown discount is possible for a new contract. On the other hand, the Senators may decide that, even at a discount, the future of the team doesn't necessarily include Redden.
Kristian Huselius, LW, Calgary - Streaky scorer who, like Langkow, has been producing at a first-line pace over the last couple of seasons. The 29-year-old is very skilled and will attract interest from any number of teams that need a scoring boost.
Ron Hainsey, D, Columbus - The 27-year-old tends to fly under the radar in Columbus, but he's a solid puck-moving defenceman with size and logs better than 22 minutes per game; an attractive commodity on the open market.
Sean Avery, LW, N.Y. Rangers - One of the league's most annoying players, the 27 year-old self-promoter has raised his game since arriving on Broadway last season. So long as he stays healthy, and shows at least some level of judgment when wreaking havoc on the ice, Avery brings an improving offensive game to his disturber role.
Ryan Malone, LW, Pittsburgh - Playing alongside Evgeni Malkin has worked wonders for the 28-year-old power forward, who has set career-highs in goals, assists, points, plus-minus and penalty minutes. Can he be a 30-goal threat on another team?
John-Michael Liles, D, Colorado - Entered the season with high expectations after three productive NHL seasons, but this year has been a bit of a step back. Nevertheless, a 27-year-old who can skate and move the puck is going to generate interest.
Michal Rozsival, D, N.Y. Rangers - Solid offensive defenceman who has developed to the point that he now plays more than 24 minutes per game for the Blueshirts and the 29 year-old has also notched a career-best 13 goals this season.
Cristobal Huet, G, Washington - The French puckstopper was already putting up very good numbers in Montreal before getting dealt to the Capitals at the trade deadline. His numbers since (7-2, 2.03 GAA, .922 SVPCT) indicate that the 32-year-old is ready for a team to commit to him as a starter.
Jose Theodore, G, Colorado - Was a total bust in Colorado before re-establishing his value in the second half of the season. While teams aren't going to be lining up to match his current $6-million salary, the 31-year-old has shown that he's still a capable starter.
Dan Ellis, G, Nashville - The 27 year-old has taken over as the Predators' starter and has put up sensational numbers along the way (2.38 goals against average, .922 save percentage). He doesn't have a lot on his resume, but he could prove to be the best goaltending value if he reaches the market.
Radim Vrbata, RW, Phoenix - A stunning career year from the 26-year-old winger sets him up for a nice pay bump in the summer, though his spotty history in other locations (Colorado, Carolina and Chicago) might indicate that staying in Phoenix is in Vrbata's best interests.
Brian Rolston, LW, Minnesota - Now 35, Rolston has become one of the league's best on the power play, utilizing his rocket shot more effectively than he had before arriving in Minnesota. A reliable veteran who still has plenty left in the tank, as he is on pace for his third straight 30-goal season.
Jason Williams, RW, Chicago - An injury-plagued 2007-2008 season has hurt Williams' overall production, but his per-game numbers are solid (32 points in 38 games), and should see to it that the 27-year-old gets a nice contract in the summer, if not before.
Vaclav Prospal, LW, Philadelphia - The on-again, off-again winger has had a fine season in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia this season, perhaps setting up for next year's disappointment, but the 33 year-old has scored at least 54 points in six straight seasons.
Brad Stuart, D, Detroit - Since getting traded from San Jose in 2005, Stuart has become something of a hockey nomad, playing in Boston, Calgary, Los Angeles and now Detroit. In the right situation, which seems to mean with a good team, Stuart can provide effective top-four minutes.
Brooks Orpik, D, Pittsburgh - Rock-solid blueliner who should draw a lot of interest because of his consistent physical presence on the back end. Just 27, Orpik could be tough for the Penguins to keep in the fold.
Jason Smith, D, Philadelphia - The 34-year-old captain has been steady in his first season with Philadelphia and his hard-nosed style of play will generate interest if the Flyers don't get him signed to an extension.
Mark Streit, D, Montreal - The 30-year-old Swiss swingman has been extremely valuable for Montreal this season, tallying 31 of his 55 points on the league's best power play. While the Habs would figure to want him back, it will surely cost them a hefty raise.
Joe Sakic, C, Colorado - It's been a tough season for the 38-year-old pivot as he's battled injuries and he's managed just 33 points in 40 games. However, if Sakic still feels inspired enough to give it a go next season, the Avalanche have to be interested in bringing him back.
Peter Forsberg, C, Colorado - Injuries have been a major problem as the 34-year-old hits the latter stages of his career, but he's put up six points in six games since signing with the Avalanche. If Colorado holds their playoff spot and perhaps has a decent run in the postseason, Forsberg might be prepared to make a bigger commitment for next season.
Teemu Selanne, RW, Anaheim - After weighing his retirement decision for half of this season, the 37-year-old Finnish Flash has been productive since his return (ten goals, 19 points in 22 games), though it seems he's in for this year's title defence if not much more.
Adam Foote, D, Colorado - 36-year-old warrior who was having a fine season in Columbus before a deadline deal back to the Avalanche. Foote had a set price in mind when negotiating an extension with the Blue Jackets, so the team that is willing to meet that asking price may be able to secure his services this summer.
Michael Ryder, RW, Montreal - After three strong seasons to open his career, the soon-to-be 28-year-old has been a terrible disappointment in his free agent year, scoring just 14 goals. Nevertheless, Ryder's previous track record will surely prompt another team to make a bid for his services.
Markus Naslund, RW, Vancouver - No longer an elite scorer, even though he's paid like one, the 34-year-old has still put up 24 goals for the second straight year. For the right price, he'd still have some value.
Jeff Finger, D, Colorado - Blue-collar defenceman who has worked his way up from the minors and, now 28, he's proven to be a solid top-four defenceman, playing a steady physical game. It should earn him a sizeable raise this summer.
Jan Hejda, D, Columbus - The 29-year-old has surprisingly emerged as a defensive force in Columbus, playing more than 21 minutes per night on his way to a plus-20 rating.
Andrew Brunette, LW, Colorado - He's not much of a skater, but who cares? The 34-year-old has such sweet hands that he's carved out a niche as a down-low scorer, particularly on the power play. If the Avs don't have room for him, there will be several teams happy to add Bruno's 50-plus points.
Pavol Demitra, LW, Minnesota - Injury-plagued but talented 33-year-old forward is on pace for his lowest goal total in a decade, perhaps making his free agent price more reasonable.
Cory Stillman, LW, Ottawa - While the 34-year-old has enjoyed something of a bounceback season, with 64 points in 77 games, he's going to need a strong playoff with the Senators to hold his credentials as a scoring winger.
Brendan Morrison, C, Vancouver - Injuries suddenly cropped up this season for the former NHL ironman, but the 32-year-old is still productive enough in a second-line role. Now he just has to get healthy after suffering a torn ACL.
Sergei Samsonov, LW, Carolina - Salvaged off the scrap heap by the Hurricanes, the enigmatic 29-year-old winger has put up 29 points in 33 games with Carolina. His play in recent seasons will likely keep the bidding to a minimum, but Samsonov has proven that he's still able to put the puck in the net and that tends to get rewarded.
Martin Straka, LW, N.Y. Rangers - A 35-year-old winger who has high-end skills, but tends to go through some down seasons -- often due to injury -- and this year has been one of those more challenging campaigns.
Miroslav Satan, LW, N.Y. Islanders - The 33-year-old is on pace for a career-low in goals, but some of that may be attributed to a lacklustre supporting cast on the Island. In the right situation, though, he might be of some value on the second line.
Niklas Hagman, LW, Dallas - Hard-working 28-year-old Finn has shown an improved scoring touch in Big D, netting 42 goals over the last two seasons, so he should be able to parlay his ability to chip in offensively into a better salary.
Jay Pandolfo, LW, New Jersey - Excellent defensive winger who has been a staple in New Jersey for more than a decade, but the 33-year-old winger has even shown better offensive ability when he's been healthy this year.
Paul Mara, D, N.Y. Rangers - A 28 year-old with a decent power play track record, at least before he landed in Manhattan. A fresh start with a team that needs a veteran puck-moving defenceman might be best for him.
Mike Commodore, D, Ottawa - Big and strong on the blueline, the 28-year-old has been exposed some since arriving in Ottawa, but he has experience and will have an opportunity to improve his value with a strong postseason.
Brendan Shanahan, LW, N.Y. Rangers - Now 39, Shanahan's game is starting to slip and he's on pace for his lowest point total since the 1994-1995 lockout season. At the same time, he's surpassed 20 goals for a 19th straight season, so he can still contribute if he feels the desire to play.
Rob Blake, D, Los Angeles - The 38-year-old has been logging a heavy load in Los Angeles, too heavy for what he can handle at this stage of his career, but he does seem to be interested in winding up his career as a King.
Chris Kelly, C, Ottawa - Speedy checking centre who tends to get overlooked in the Senators' scheme of things. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old plays a responsible two-way game and will have value for many teams.
Antti Miettinen, RW, Dallas - The 27-year-old has set career-highs in goals and points, though he's still very much a complementary player. He's solid in a top-nine role, however, with some upside because of his speed.
Jaroslav Hlinka, C, Colorado - After a slow start to his NHL career (five points in the first 20 games), the 31-year-old Czech has picked it up (23 points in the next 42 games). It's not enough to command a major raise, but enough to think that he can help for at least a few more seasons.
Bobby Holik, C, Atlanta - While the 37-year-old invariably ends up with an inflated contract in his free agent seasons, it might be wise for teams to temper expectations a little bit. In a thid-line role, Holik still offers a defensive conscience and a strong physical presence but, for a team to realize value, he needs to get paid accordingly.
Sergei Fedorov, C, Washington - At 38, Fedorov is no longer the premier two-way player he was in his heyday, but he's a useful two-way player that might be a good fit as a role player with a contender at this stage of his career.
Aaron Ward, D, Boston - Though he's moved around a bit, the 35-year-old defenceman is a steadying influence and there will surely be interested parties if he hits the open market.
Kurt Sauer, D, Colorado - Not very mobile, and limited with the puck, but the 27-year-old has good size and is showing promise as a stay-at-home defensive defenceman.
The next best:
David Vyborny, RW, Columbus; Michael Peca, C, Columbus; Craig Conroy, C, Calgary; Karel Rachunek, D, New Jersey; Ladislav Nagy, LW, Los Angeles; Dmitri Kalinin, D, Buffalo; Mattias Norstrom, D, Dallas; Andreas Lilja, D, Detroit; Chris Chelios, D, Detroit; Pascal Dupuis, LW, Pittsburgh; Ruslan Fedotenko, LW, N.Y. Islanders; Keith Aucoin, C, Carolina; Glen Metropolit, C, Boston; Mark Recchi, RW, Atlanta; Doug Weight, C, Anaheim; Dominik Hasek, G, Detroit; Steve Montador, D, Florida; Jim Vandermeer, D, Calgary; Bryce Salvador, D, New Jersey; Matt Cooke, LW, Washington; Marek Malik, D, N.Y. Rangers; Sheldon Brookbank, D, New Jersey; Bret Hedican, D, Carolina; Owen Nolan, RW, Calgary; Randy Robitaille, C, Ottawa; Bryan Berard, D, N.Y. Islanders; Dick Tarnstrom, D, Columbus; Petteri Nummelin, D, Minnesota; Sandis Ozolinsh, D, San Jose; Jassen Cullimore, D, Florida; Kris Beech, C, Pittsburgh; Stephen Valiquette, G, N.Y. Rangers; Alex Auld, G, Boston; Keith Carney, D, Minnesota; Mark Eaton, D, Pittsburgh, Patrice Brisebois, D, Montreal; Jeremy Roenick, C, San Jose; Mike Mottau, D, New Jersey; Wade Dubieliwicz, G, N.Y. Islanders; Jan Hlavac, LW, Nashville; Kevin Dallman, D, Los Angeles; Nolan Pratt, D, Buffalo; Aaron Miller, D, Vancouver, Alexei Semenov, D, San Jose; Curtis Sanford, G, Vancouver; Niko Kapanen, C, Phoenix; Joe DiPenta, D, Anaheim; Chris Gratton, C, Tampa Bay; Gary Roberts, LW, Pittsburgh; Glen Wesley, D, Carolina; Luke Richardson, D, Ottawa; Martin Rucinsky, LW, St. Louis; Jeff Taffe, C, Pittsburgh; Andrei Zyuzin, D, Chicago; Matt Bradley, RW, Washington; Ryan Bayda, LW, Carolina; Bryan Smolinski, C, Montreal; Curtis Brown, C, San Jose; Yanic Perreault, C, Chicago; Patrick Rissmiller, LW, San Jose; Patrick Lalime, G, Chicago; Olaf Kolzig, G, Washington; Jaroslav Modry, D, Philadelphia.
Last summer's forays by the Edmonton Oilers into the restricted free agent market showed a boldness that has long been lacking from NHL general managers.
Will that open the floodgates for more offer sheets this summer?
It might be the best way to land some of these top young talents.
Top Restricted Free Agents
Corey Perry, RW, Anaheim - The Ducks have been very savvy in handling their salary cap situation, with an eye towards signing 22-year-old Perry to an extension, but the financial maneuvering could get more difficult if a team is willing to overpay to lure Perry away.
Jay Bouwmeester, D, Florida - While the 24-year-old hasn't yet hit his peak, he's still a viable top-pair defenceman able to handle more than 27 minutes per game. If a team wants to challenge the Panthers financially, a massive offer for Bouwmeester might do it.
Shea Weber, D, Nashville - Injuries have sabotaged the 22-year-old's season, but he's still an enticing package of skill and toughness on the blueline. The Predators have been notoriously responsible with their finances, so they may be tempted not to match an outlandish offer for Weber.
Mike Green, D, Washington - The 22-year-old has emerged as one of the rising star offensive defencemen in the game and, while it would seem unlikely that the Caps would let him go, a big offer could force their hand.
Jeff Carter, C, Philadelphia - A strong finish to the season has elevated the 23-year-old's profile and there will surely be teams that are ready to give Carter a more prominent role than he has in Philly (at least when everyone is healthy). With the Flyers already committing huge contracts to Daniel Briere and Mike Richards, they may not be prepared to pay through the nose for their No. 3 centre.
Patrick O'Sullivan, C, Los Angeles - Though it's most unlikely that the Kings would let the 23-year-old playmaker slide through the cracks, O'Sullivan has emerged this season as a player who can play a first-line role for years to come and some team may be willing to pay for those skills.
R.J. Umberger, LW, Philadelphia - The 25-year-old winger has been effective in his third NHL season, scoring a career-high 49 points, but the Flyers are tight against the cap, and will only be in a tougher spot if they re-sign Carter, leaving them vulnerable to lose another quality young forward.
Ryan Suter, D, Nashville - Though the 23-year-old has had an up-and-down season, he's had a strong second half and if the Predators have to pay big money to keep Weber, they could be reluctant to do the same for Suter.
Andrei Kostitsyn, LW, Montreal - Montreal's in good shape under the cap to match any offer, and you might think that there would be a tendency for Kostitstyn to stay on the same team as his brother, but his breakthrough performance this season sure makes it look like stardom is just around the corner, and that could draw a serious offer.
Dustin Byfuglien, RW, Chicago - A raw project, Byfuglien dropped weight to make himself a legitimate NHL prospect and he's now shifted from defence to forward because the Blackhawks envision the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder as a power forward in the making. He's already scored 18 goals this season and there are surely other teams that would be interested in adding his massive presence.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, LW, Minnesota - The 23-year-old playmaker is very skilled with the puck, but his game might flourish in a more free-wheeling style, however the Wild are in good cap shape to match any potential offers.
Andrej Meszaros, D, Ottawa - The Sens could get positioned tight against the cap -- perhaps depending on Wade Redden's status -- which might make it more feasible for another team to pry the 22-year-old Meszaros away.
Martin Erat, LW, Nashville - The 26-year-old tends to be underrated even though this is his fourth straight season of putting up at least 49 points, the kind of numbers that would fit on just about any team's second line.
Pascal Leclaire, G, Columbus - It's inconceivable that a team so void of stars like the Blue Jackets wouldn't match any offer for the 25-year-old who is coming off a breakout campaign.
Marek Svatos, RW, Colorado - Injuries opened the door for playing time this season and the 25-year-old winger capitalized with 26 goals in 62 games. A season-ending ACL injury should temper any enthusiastic suitors who might have thought Svatos could be a 35-goal scorer in the near future.
Wojtek Wolski, LW, Colorado - Only 22, Wolski went through a tough stretch this season, scoring one goal in 25 games over one span, but he has size, skill and potential that could attract interest from other teams.
Valtteri Filppula, C, Detroit - The 24-year-old has just scratched the surface this season and the Wings wouldn't likely let him go, but a young player with potential as a top-six forward is intriguing at the very least.
Joni Pitkanen, D, Edmonton - If any team is going to draw offers on restricted free agents, it would figure to be the Oilers, who had the audacity to make such offers last year. The Oilers also have Jarret Stoll, Robert Nilsson and Tom Gilbert also heading for RFA status. But, the engimatic 24-year-old defenceman, Pitkanen, may be the one who could be plucked away if the Oilers decide they aren't inclined to match a sizeable offer.
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com