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Neutral Zone Wrap: 2010 Offseason Preview

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NHL 2010 Offseason Preview

After 49 seasons of hoping and waiting, Chicago can once again call themselves Stanley Cup champions. And to think at this time last year, the Blackhawks found themselves in a signing snafu when then-GM Dale Tallon forgot to dispatch the annual qualifying offers. Maybe another promising club with a few RFAs will find success by making the same mistake in the next few days. (You listening, St. Louis and Colorado?)

The league hit the Finals they wanted, with two big-market teams scoring a ton of goals. All NHL branches reaped the benefits, as fans and sponsors jumped on board to watch the games and buy the merchandise. So when the alarm clocks sound Thursday morning, a new wave of players will also be able to cash in.

July 1st can best be described as the Christmas for general managers. All 30 of them have been evaluating their rosters and will be lining up to see if they can be the first to find the newest and shiniest present. The following shows each team's notable recent transactions and their needs to fill/salaries to shed:

Anaheim: Scott Niedermayer has retired for the umpteenth time. Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu may be next-in-line. Lubomir Visnovsky (at $6M) qualifies as the only reliable blueliner under contract, but James Wisniewski will be re-signed as an RFA and draft-day steal Cam Fowler (12th overall) will probably fit right in to the lineup. If the Ducks had a nickel for every offer they've received for Bobby Ryan, then they'd probably have the extra funds to sign him right now.

Atlanta: Life seems different without Ilya Kovalchuk, since there are no big names threatening a trade. Without any major contracts on the books, Atlanta has started spending by acquiring Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel from Chicago. Without a superstar, you would think the Thrashers are in the midst of another rebuilding phase. No wonder Maxim Afinogenov and others seem set to bolt for the KHL, although Bryan Little, Niclas Bergfors, and Ondrej Pavelec are clearly in the plans.

Boston: Figuring out whether Marc Savard (at $7M) will stay with the Bs depends on what minute you're following the news. The perennial leading (and recently concussed) scorer apparently wants to be traded to Toronto, a point that has baffled everyone including Leafs GM Brian Burke. With Nathan Horton's escalating contract on board ($4M this season, $4.5M in 2011 and $5.5M in 2012) and a few skaters to complete the roster, Boston will need to ship salary elsewhere. Dennis Wideman and Vladimir Sobotka said their goodbyes, but a lot of work still must be completed. Think anyone is lining up for a chance at a $6M Tim Thomas, a $5.75M Patrice Bergeron or a $4M Michael Ryder?

Buffalo: The Sabres' offseason looks to be calm, with their core remaining for at least one more campaign. Most of their upcoming transactions will cover forwards, since the defense corps is set and only a backup is required for Vezina winner Ryan Miller.

Carolina: After a disappointing 2009-10, the Canes will look to rebound. Good news they have almost $18M to spend with only a few vacancies to fill (Rod Brind'Amour's retirement announcement not included).

Calgary: Unlike last summer where they splashed some cash on Jay Bouwmeester, the next couple of days should be quiet in Calgary. That'll happen when 18 individuals are under contract and you boast a $53M payroll. The Ales Kotalik situation may be the only interesting news story coming out of Southern Alberta, but the veteran Czech winger will soon find himself in another NHL city or playing out his days in Europe.

Chicago: Success sucks when business gets in the way. The Hawks didn't want to lose Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, or Brent Sopel, but they needed to clear funds for key RFAs Antti Niemi, Andrew Ladd, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Cristobal Huet is the latest albatross hanging over the finances, but who would want a 34-year netminder with a gigantic price tag ($5.625M for each of the next two seasons)? Still, there's no reason to cry for Chicago ... unless word leaks that their offers didn't dispatch in time.

Columbus: Another relatively complete squad who would like to forget recent results and concentrate on improvement. Even with limited roster space, Columbus should add a veteran or two (beyond Ethan Moreau) to help Rick Nash and the young forward contingent. Steve Mason struggled at times (3.05 GAA) and Mathieu Garon didn't fare much better (2.81 GAA), but they both own manageable contracts (just under $2M combined).

Colorado: From worst to almost beating first in the opening round. Quite the turnaround in the Rocky Mountain State, with Craig Anderson's emergence in net and an explosive scoring unit supplemented by RFAs Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller, and Brandon Yip. Kyle Quincey deserves a sizable raise (from $550,000), but oft-injured forwards Marek Svatos and Darcy Tucker do not and will be moving elsewhere. Even holding a nice chunk of change (something in the $15-20M range), the Avs may opt to keep the money and continue to stick with the system.

Dallas: Mike Modano has been the face of the franchise for the last two decades, but he was unceremoniously dismissed in a 15-minute press conference. Kari Lehtonen has been dubbed the future between the pipes, so Marty Turco can concentrate on struggling elsewhere. Super sophomore James Neal (55 points) will hit the jackpot - and deservedly so.

Detroit: More decisions, albeit not with anyone in the top-tier. You'd think RFAs Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader should return. Ditto for Kirk Maltby. However, the statuses of Jason Williams and Andreas Lilja are unknown. The tandem of Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood (at $1.9M combined) each have another season and then, well, we know what'll happen. Oh, and welcome back, Jiri Hudler.

Edmonton: The future is now in Oil City. Literally. #1 pick Taylor Hall is set to join the rookie ranks with the likes of Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and lead Edmonton out of the basement. To clear room, a couple of loyal skaters have been waived (Ethan Moreau) or traded (Patrick O'Sullivan). The remaining veterans can be classified as either underperforming or expensive, the most notable being Sheldon Souray ($4.5M, at $1M less than last season) who qualifies under both categories.

Florida: New GM Dale Tallon arrives at the perfect time, having had six selections in the first two rounds of the draft. Dennis Wideman was acquired for his offensive abilities, which allowed them to send Keith Ballard to Vancouver. In that trade, Florida received underachiever Steve Bernier and promising winger Michael Grabner. The Nathan Horton deal also cleared $4M, perhaps for a run at a major forward.

Los Angeles: The Kings look poised to make that next step and have the cash to do so, if that's their intention. Loaded at D and solid enough in net, but probably a top-six forward and a major injury away from offensive stability. Whether that means re-signing UFA Alexander Frolov is anyone's guess, although the odds say the Russian enigma has worn out his Hollywood welcome.

Minnesota: Scoring, scoring, and more scoring. These are the top three concerns for the Wild going into the free agency period. For a side that finished in the lower half in goals last season (tied for 20th with 214), expect Minnesota to go hard after a top-notch forward. RFAs Guillaume Latendresse and Josh Harding are musts to sign, but the remainder (probably somewhere around $9M) will probably only be enough for one major body or two lesser likes.

Montreal: While Habs fans are still recovering from the loss of Jaroslav Halak, there at least has been an effort to provide stiff competition for Carey Price -- in the form of ex-Nashville starter Dan Ellis. This will either spur The Golden Child into improving his game or cause him to regress to his self-doubting ways. RFA Sergei Kostitsyn, a streaky producer during his three years in Montreal (68 points in 155 contests), heads the other way. Without many spots to fill, signing both Price and Ellis will be the priority.

Nashville: Another summer, another round of exiles from Music City. Dan Hamhuis was the casualty among the plethora of D-men and his rights have already been traded twice (currently being used as bait in Pittsburgh). It must have been decided that age (35) and salary ($4.5M) were factors for sending Jason Arnott back to Jersey. Assuming they ink newbie Sergei Kostitsyn, re-up Patric Hornqvist, Cody Franson, and Ryan Parent, then Nashville will only be able to purchase a backup goalie and a large coffee.

New Jersey: If management is intent to recapture the Devils' glory days, then the team is on the right track. Jason Arnott will inject immediate offense and clutch performance to an attack that sorely missed either trait in 2009-10. UFA Paul Martin is Jersey's top blueliner and will definitely fetch a serious price tag on the open market, so it's essential he is re-signed. As for Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils may like their appearance up front and would therefore not get involved in any auction-style proceedings.

NY Islanders: When Thursday rolls around, the Isles will be ready with their dump truck full of dollars. The problem may be that not a lot of prospective free agents will want to come to Long Island. With several in-house deals to work out (the biggest ones being RFAs Matt Moulson and Rob Schremp), GM Garth Snow will be very busy in his quest to push his club closer in respectability to that other New York franchise.

NY Rangers: The Blueshirts have already learned the pitfalls of acquiring Olli Jokinen, so it's safe to say their money won't fall in his pockets. RFA Marc Staal would be considered a priority to re-sign, if he wasn't intent on leaving. Rumored buyouts, cash flow problems, disgruntled players. All in a day on Broadway.

Ottawa: The whole Jason Spezza escape story rings familiar when considering what happened with Dany Heatley a year ago. Although Spezza has never explicitly demanded a trade, he does look unhappy in Ottawa. But so would anyone making $8M in a city that hasn't tasted hockey success since Al Capone was bootlegging sticks across the border. RFAs Peter Regin and Nick Foligno will get what they deserve and then they'll be enough left over for Anton Volchenkov's replacement.

Philadelphia: It's impressive to think Philly were two wins off from claiming the Cup when they were one shootout goal from missing the playoffs. The Flyers grabbed the UFA rights for Evgeni Nabokov but those talks didn't going anywhere, so they settled back with Michael Leighton ($3.1M for two years). RFA Braydon Coburn is guaranteed to make at least $3M, which leaves a bit for <strike> that scum-sucking rat </strike> their other significant RFA, Daniel Carcillo.

Phoenix: The league increased the cap ceiling and floor, but those numbers mean nothing if you don't possess a defined budget. This point didn't stop the loyalty shown by Wojtek Wolski, Adrian Aucoin, Scottie Upshall, and Taylor Pyatt, who all inked new deals in the last month. Let's see if UFAs Matthew Lombardi, Lee Stempniak, Zbynek Michalek, and Derek Morris feel the same way.

Pittsburgh: It would be obvious to believe the Pens have been relying on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin too much, but their success (and failure) should also be shared with their complementary personnel. This group of secondary scoring will obviously change since Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Alexei Ponikarovsky are surely leaving. 36-year old Sergei Gonchar wants a five-year contract and Pittsburgh isn't budging. The UFA rights of Dan Hamhuis were 'borrowed' to help with negotiations.

San Jose: The Sharks made it all the way to the conference final, but will continue to be known as perennial chokers if they can't jump over the last two hurdles. Rob Blake already has a ring and announced his retirement. Barring a trade, Patrick Marleau ($27.6M over four) and Joe Pavelski ($16M over four) will stay for the long haul. So will RFA Devin Setoguchi, although understandably at a lower rate. And if they want to make another deep postseason run, they'll need someone more experienced than Thomas Greiss to fit into Evgeni Nabokov's oversized pads.

St. Louis: Chris Mason was all set to cash in as a free-agent when in comes this Jaroslav Halak dude who only did his best 75% Patrick Roy imitation over a two-month period. Beyond Halak, the Blues must ink Erik Johnson, David Perron, and Alex Steen to multi-year deals. Without many skaters accounted for (12 under contract) and a giant sack covered with dollar signs ready to drop (somewhere in the neighborhood of $20M), St. Louis could easily be this week's most prominent mover and shaker.

Tampa Bay: Just the mention of new GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher will be able to entice prospective free agents. That could mean a stud like Ilya Kovalchuk or a reliable point getter like Ray Whitney or a solid goaltender like Chris Mason (or a mix and match of two similar commodities). RFA Steve Downie (finished with 46 points) did enough down the stretch to earn another stay. So did D Kurtis Foster (42, including 26 on the power-play), but he's unrestricted and the Bolts aren't jumping at a long-term deal for someone who shattered his leg two years ago. Quick pick: for $10M, you can acquire three decent players or one Vincent Lecavalier. Choose wisely.

Toronto: The progress has been slow, but that's Brian Burke's plan. The Leafs sorely need a couple pieces of firepower, but there won't be much left to spend if they can work out a deal with RFA Nikolai Kulemin. Thanks in that department should go to Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek, who are listed at a combined $20M for the coming season. There were many suitors asking for Tomas Kaberle's hand at the draft, but that quickly dissolved. Burke dipped back into the Anaheim talent pool to pry gritty winger Mike Brown, but that hardly qualifies as an improvement. Good thing Toronto had a high first-round selection to counterbalance the disappointment of ... oops, forgot about that.

Vancouver: A first-rounder and two serviceable forwards could be classified as a steep price to pay for Keith Ballard (although he's probably the best shutdown D at 5'11"). After consecutive exits versus Chicago, a shakeup is in order. That doesn't mean Mason Raymond or Jannik Hansen is going anywhere, but Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood should probably be searching for new homes. This resulting dearth of forwards will make a defender like Kevin Bieksa or Sami Salo (both at $3.5M) expendable if the return is acceptable.

Washington: Finishing first overall will earn you a shiny piece of silverware, but doesn't guarantee the more coveted trophy. While rushing out to spend may appear like a logical solution, the reality shows the Caps have very little cap (somewhere between $6-8M) with which to maneuver after the usual suspects (i.e. Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz) are brought back into the fold and the overpriced busts (i.e. Jose Theodore, Joe Corvo, Scott Walker) are shown the door.