Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Slava Voynov, Robyn RegehrCary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsA lack of team chemistry was detrimental to the Sharks during this year's Stanley Cup run.
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson had been so open about his offseason plans that he seemed a little surprised when he was asked for further details at the draft.

“I can’t be any more honest than I have been,” he said. “What did I leave out?”

Really, nothing.

It just seems hard to grasp from the outside. The Sharks put up 111 regular-season points, more than both Chicago and Los Angeles. They jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Los Angeles before the Kings came charging back to win the series. It was a devastating moment but one that doesn’t look quite as damning after the Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup in impressive fashion.

If Marc-Edouard Vlasic (knee) is healthy and the Sharks get a little bit better goaltending in Round 1, they probably finish the job. And then who knows?

It seemed like a pretty easy fix. Bring in another top-four defenseman in place of Dan Boyle, who was traded, upgrade your goaltender, and take another stab at it next season.

Up close, it was a different story.

“When you watch that series, when [the Kings] dug down deeper, we had players trying to do it themselves,” Wilson said. “We missed Vlasic, he was our most irreplaceable player. I can’t avoid the truth of that. Then you watched the odd-man rushes given up. Game 5 in our building -- they re-established their game. We looked like we never played together.”

It got only worse after that.

“We kind of unraveled. That’s when it showed its head,” Wilson said.
Mike Green, James Reimer & Evander KaneGetty ImagesTeams that missed out in free agency could look to Mike Green, James Reimer or Evander Kane.
While holding court with reporters in Philadelphia after the draft, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz explained how he saw the next week or so playing out. He anticipated very little serious trade talk until teams figured out how they did in free agency.

Then would come the next step.

“I don’t think you’ll see many trades until after July 6,” he predicted.

At the time, he wasn’t armed with the information we know now: namely, that the first day of free agency would be completed at a breakneck pace, where clubs would spend half a billion dollars to improve their teams.

As the dust settles and teams examine what’s left on the open market, they might want to speed up Trotz’s timeline. Not much is left, and the trade route is the best way to add an impact player at this point. One agent who has a remaining player drawing interest on the free-agent market said he suspects general managers have now shifted more focus on to trades.

“The sense I get are teams, after going at warp speed yesterday, took a deep breath last night and are settling into ‘Where are we at?’ mode,” he said. "I suspect there’s a lot of trade talk going on today, where yesterday there was not a lot because they were focused on getting to the UFAs [unrestricted free agents].”

Considering the huge haul on defense that Trotz and Washington landed in free agency, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan may be the target of his colleagues looking to pick at some of the surplus on defense in Washington.

“I think it’s harder now to trade than ever before,” Trotz said. “The dollars have to line up, and the fits have to line up.”

With that in mind, here’s a look at players who could be on the move as the NHL offseason shifts into its next phase:

Mike Green, D, Washington Capitals

There was heavy demand on the market for defensemen who are a right-handed shot, and guys like Matt Niskanen, Dan Boyle, Anton Stralman and Tom Gilbert got snapped up quickly. Now, with the massive spending on defense in Washington, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals would consider an offer on their righty Mike Green.

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Brooks Orpik, Paul Stastny & Jonas Hiller Getty ImagesThe new deals for Brooks Orpik, Paul Stastny and Jonas Hiller met with very different reactions.
The opening hours of NHL free agency were truly frenetic, with signings being announced in a flurry shortly after noon ET.

Some teams made their mark ahead of time -- the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars made major upgrades down the middle by trading for Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza, respectively -- but for the rest of the teams that made impact signings, it's time to grade just how well they did for themselves on Day 1.

Note that these grades reflect the talent and fit of the players signed, as well as the reported length and dollars in their deals.

Buffalo Sabres: C-plus

The Sabres are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project under GM Tim Murray, but it was important for him to surround the young talent with veteran leaders who can help break them in to the NHL. In former Canadiens captain Brian Gionta (three years, $12.75 million) and Matt Moulson (five years, $25 million) the Sabres have done exactly that.

Neither player is the kind of impact player who is going to put the Sabres in any danger of spoiling the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, but both are quality players and individuals who will help Ted Nolan instill a professional culture in Buffalo. The Sabres also inked Andrej Meszaros to a one-year deal that’s a pricey $4.125 million. On the bright side, he gives them more trade ammunition at the deadline.

Calgary Flames: C

The Deryk Engelland contract (three years, $8.7 million) was immediately criticized, considering he’s a borderline No. 6 defenseman on a good team. That’s a lot of dough for that kind of player, but at the same time, the reality is that teams in Calgary’s position have to pay a premium to land anyone on the first day of free agency, and there was competition for his services.

“There are lots of teams after him,” said one source close to Engelland on the eve of free agency. And, he certainly fits the truculent identity Brian Burke and GM Brad Treliving are trying to build in Calgary, along with bringing strong character. The Flames may not make the playoffs, but they’ll be miserable to play against. Landing a starting goalie in Jonas Hiller on such a short term (two years at a total of $9 million) helps make up for the questionable Engelland deal.

Chicago Blackhawks: A

Considering the high price his counterparts paid to address their needs at center, Chicago GM Stan Bowman deserves credit for bringing in Brad Richards on a one-year deal worth just $2 million.

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The deal

Stars get: Jason Spezza, Ludwig Karlsson

Senators get: Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nicholas Paul and 2015 second-round pick

Dallas Stars: A+

When GM Jim Nill first arrived in Dallas, his immediate priority was strengthening the team down the middle. No easy task in a league where everybody from Anaheim to Winnipeg is looking to fortify their center position. Now, in just two offseasons, he’s built a team that has Tyler Seguin centering the top line and Jason Spezza anchoring the second line. That’s impressive.

He’s done it without trading a single first-round pick, an important distinction for a GM who still believes he’s building this team through drafting and player development.

Spezza has his flaws. For one, he has trouble staying on the ice and a player with a history of back problems comes with risk. Second, he was ill-suited as the captain of the Senators -- although this is something that won’t be an issue in Dallas, where Jamie Benn has grown into the leader -- and isn’t necessarily the strong two-way center other top centers are in the West. He’s a rental, in that he’s entering the final year of his contract, but even that has its advantages. Spezza has a $7 million cap charge, which isn’t an issue for a team like the Stars who haven’t been a cap team. But the final year of his deal carries an actual salary of just $4 million, no small consideration for a budget team in Dallas.

According to an NHL source, a contract extension with Dallas wasn’t discussed as part of this deal. If it doesn’t work out for whatever reason in Dallas, Nill can always spin him at the 2015 trade deadline, when contending teams will better be able to fit his high cap number because it will be pro-rated at midseason.

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Paul StastnyKarl Gehring/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny's destination in free agency could shift the balance of power in the Western Conference.
Editor's note: This column posted prior to Paul Stastny agreeing to a four-year, $28 million deal with the Blues.

It’s the one day a year teams that can close the gap on the NHL’s best without giving up an asset outside of cap space. The prices today at the start of free agency are going to be inflated -- and GMs are going to be a little uneasy about it -- but that’s how it goes when parity rules and there’s a gap to erase between the best and those trying to catch them.

There’s no better example of this than the battle to fortify the center position in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings are set, with four high-end centers, anchored by Anze Kopitar. The Anaheim Ducks took care of their business early with the Ryan Kesler trade. The Chicago Blackhawks have an advantage simply because they have Jonathan Toews.

That leaves teams in the middle such as the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild figuring out the best ways to counterattack these powerhouses down the middle.

Today becomes a critical day in that effort, with Paul Stastny in the middle of it.

Stastny is the best center available, the only one on the free agent market who can be in the same conversation as some of these other elite Olympians. Where he ends up could help shift the power of the West.

His agent, Matt Keator, has said he’ll give the Avalanche the opportunity to match any offers out there, and Stastny loves playing in Colorado, so they still have that edge. If it’s not them, the Blues are the other leaders. Chicago is a wild card if GM Stan Bowman decides he’s willing to make the space for him.

That puts pressure on the other Western Conference teams to find a way to keep pace with the contenders at center.

“I can’t control that part,” said Stars GM Jim Nill, who is on the prowl for a center. “Of course, you have to keep up with them. Maybe our 'keeping up' is our kids getting better. We can’t speed up our process. That’s when we get in trouble. If I try to speed this up... that’s where you get in trouble.”

In Minnesota, GM Chuck Fletcher has a similar philosophy. He saw strides from Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula last season, and Haula played really well for the Wild in the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeWild
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesWild rookie Erik Haula had five points during the six-game series against the Blackhawks.
The Wild may close the gap, not by entering the arms race at center, but by strengthening the team around incumbents Mikko Koivu, Granlund and Haula. They have cap space, would like to add help on defense and for the right price (and term) will be in on Thomas Vanek.

The complication with the Wild is that they have restricted free agent contract negotiations coming over the course of the next couple years with Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Haula, Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and others. With Zach Parise and Ryan Suter already locked in long term, Fletcher will be trying to lure players without a big appetite to match some of the term other teams will offer.

“Our fear is going out too far with too many players, without knowing what the young guys are going to cost us,” Fletcher said. “What exactly is the role? Last year by the end of the playoffs, we had Niederreiter and Coyle on the second line. We had Pominville and Parise on another line. If you’re fitting someone in, how does that change our lines? There’s a lot into this.”

In Winnipeg, they made a bid for Stastny, but according to colleague Pierre LeBrun, didn’t find themselves on the pared-down final list.

Like the others, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is leaning on drafting and developing, but he’s also open to being creative to find other ways to fill their need at center.

“You’re looking at free agency, a lot of times those things aren’t necessarily there for everybody. Someone might get the couple players that are there. You look at it from a trade perspective,” Cheveldayoff said. “Sometimes you end up staring at it. It’s something you’re consciously trying to do, but there are only opportunities maybe to do it at different times. Nothing is ever final. You’re always looking.”

The Stastny domino is a key one, but there are a lot of other moving parts as free agency gets rolling at noon ET today:

• Vanek was offered some monster contracts from Buffalo and the Islanders, but has been insistent since day one that he’s going to test the market. While the preference is always to go long-term for the player, that won’t be a deal-breaker for him today. If there’s a fit on a team Vanek is comfortable with, he’s willing to go shorter on the term of the deal.

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EhroffFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesAfter being bought out, Christian Ehrhoff has risen near the top of many teams' shopping lists.
Initially unable to finalize a deal to send Sam Gagner to the Arizona Coyotes from Tampa Bay, Arizona GM Don Maloney came up with a plan with Steve Yzerman.

“I said, ‘I’m going to have a beer. You have a glass of wine,’” Maloney said. “If you can come up with an idea, call me back.”

Internally, the Coyotes concluded that if the Tampa Bay Lightning could retain enough salary on Gagner, he was the guy they wanted. But they couldn’t do it otherwise.

A determined Yzerman made it happen. He kept one-third of Gagner's salary; that is better than buying him out, which was likely the other option.

And now, the question for Tampa Bay is this: What was all of this for?

With the trades, the Lightning have an additional $5.65 million in cap space after sending Teddy Purcell to Edmonton, Gagner and B.J. Crombeen to the Coyotes and Nate Thompson to the Anaheim Ducks. According to, the Lightning now have $9.5 million in cap space, and that’s before they put Mattias Ohlund on long-term injured reserve. In October, the Lightning will have even more flexibility.

It makes the Lightning one of the most fascinating teams to watch when free agency finally opens on Tuesday at noon ET.

A couple of factors may provide clues as to exactly what the Lightning are looking for. Colleague Pierre LeBrun reported that the Lightning made a push for the No. 1 overall pick before the draft in Philadelphia. It was the package that came closest to making Panthers GM Dale Tallon pull the trigger.

The prize of the draft was potential franchise defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who would give the Lightning a pretty darn good one-two punch with Victor Hedman and complements his style quite well.

The other factor, and it might have been absolutely coincidental, is that the Lightning cleared their cap space on the same day that defenseman Christian Ehrhoff became available.

The Sabres processed the buyout on the 31-year-old defenseman, and he immediately joined Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman and Dan Boyle as the best defensemen available in free agency. For a weak class, those are pretty good options.

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The deal

Predators get: James Neal

Penguins get: Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling

Nashville Predators: B

Predators GM David Poile needed to upgrade his offense under new head coach Peter Laviolette, and landing James Neal certainly does it. He immediately becomes one of the most prolific scorers the team has had.

In 199 games with the Penguins, Neal averaged 0.45 goals per game, which works out to be 37 goals over the course of an 82-game season. Part of that production is the benefit that comes with playing with Evgeni Malkin, with Sidney Crosby drawing the toughest matchups. The Predators don’t currently have the kind of playmaking center that Neal thrives with, and we’ll find out just how much offense he can generate without one.

Before playing in Pittsburgh, he played a lot with Brad Richards in Dallas, another high-end passer. Also, this is the second time that Neal -- who is a 40-goal scorer -- has been traded before the age of 27, which raises the question as to why teams are so willing to move him. There were concerns about his hockey IQ in Dallas, and it still shows in the form of unwise penalties.

He also wasn’t particularly productive during the playoffs this last season, scoring just twice in 13 games before the Penguins were knocked out by the Rangers. That said, the price Nashville paid for Neal was less than you’d expect for a 40-goal scorer.

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The deal

Ducks get: Ryan Kesler, Vancouver’s third-round pick in 2015 draft

Canucks get: Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, the 24th overall pick in the 2014 draft and Anaheim’s third-round pick in 2014

Anaheim Ducks: A

The Ducks went into this offseason with a clear-cut need for a No. 2 center and had Kesler at the top of their wish list. That they were able to pull this deal off without trading the No. 10 overall pick, acquired from Ottawa in the Bobby Ryan deal, is an absolute coup. It’s believed that the Ducks were willing to include that pick at the trade deadline because it meant they would have Kesler for this past postseason, but GM Bob Murray gets full marks for standing firm on this offer now that they’re guaranteed only two possible playoff runs with Kesler.

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Jonathan Toews, Patrick KaneRob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Kane and Jonathan Toews could leave up to $2 million per season each on the table.
PHILADELPHIA -- The negotiation going on right now between the Blackhawks and star players Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane isn’t typical. Even though the new contracts will end up featuring the highest average annual values in the league, the discussions aren't aimed at getting the highest possible salary.

On Thursday, the two sides met in Philadelphia while there was talk externally about demands for $12 million per season from the Kane and Toews camp. While that $12 million per season makes for a great headline, the reality is

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P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty Getty ImagesMontreal landed P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty in 2007. Oh, and there was that other player, too.
There’s a theory in hockey when it comes to the draft. Get two NHL players out of a draft class and you’re doing pretty well. Hit on three and you’re ahead of the game. Four? You could be building a dynasty if they’re impact players.

Teams that miss completely on a draft class, however, set their franchise back years. It’s devastating.

That’s what’s on the line this weekend when the NHL teams gather for the 2014 NHL draft in Philadelphia.

In the early days of the George McPhee era, the former Washington Capitals general manager didn’t like the results he was getting from his drafts. The draft is the lifeblood of a franchise, and there were just too many misses in Washington.

So they reviewed everything about the process -- a crucial exercise for any franchise.

“We didn’t change people, we changed the way we did it,” McPhee said when we chatted Wednesday afternoon. “Without giving ammunition away, we changed the way we did everything. The way we did our meetings. The way we put our list together. The way we did interviews, how we interviewed players. How we cross-pollinated with scouts and crosscheckers. And it worked.”

The McPhee era didn’t result in a Stanley Cup, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of drafts under his watch. There was and continues to be a pipeline of young talent in D.C.

In looking back at the best draft classes by team from the past 10 years, the Capitals have one in the top five. And it’s not even the one in which they landed Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green in the same year.

As they honed their strategy, they became more confident in it and how to execute it. For example, last year the Capitals identified 12 players they expected to be really good NHL players without holes in their game. After that, they had another five players they expected to be NHL players with just a few flaws that dropped them to a second tier.

That’s 17 players. The Capitals were drafting No. 23 overall.

So McPhee lined up a trade to move back if one of those 17 players weren't available. It’s about pick management as much as it is getting the right players.

When they were on the clock in Newark, however, one of those 17 players remained. They called off the trade and took the last guy in their group: Austrian Andre Burakovsky.

He put up 41 goals this past season for the Erie Otters in the OHL.

“We saw an elite talent, an exceptional hockey mind, exceptional hockey skill,” McPhee said. “It’s one of the things I liked most about the job was figuring out the draft and coming up with ways to operate so that you could be a good drafting team.”

Who are some of the best drafting teams? Here’s a look back at the 10 most impressive performances by teams in the last 10 years, weighing heavier on teams that hit on players outside the No. 1 overall pick.

1. Montreal Canadiens, Class of 2007

The Eastern Conference finals was a showcase as to just how impressive this draft was for the Canadiens, even if it might have been painful at times for Canadiens fans. On one side you had Ryan McDonagh anchoring the Rangers defense. On the other, P.K. Subban. Both picked by the Canadiens in this draft, with McDonagh going at No. 12 and Subban at No. 43.

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Sidney CrosbyAndre Ringuette/Getty ImagesPenguins center Sidney Crosby was the clear favorite on Hart Trophy ballots this year.
Aside from Cuba Gooding Jr. spicing up the proceedings with his spirited cameo during the NHL Awards Show on Tuesday night, the event went about how you would have expected. Sidney Crosby took home the Hart. Duncan Keith the Norris. Nathan MacKinnon was rightly crowned Rookie of the Year, and Tuukka Rask earned the Vezina.

In today's post, I'm joined by my colleague Corey Pronman. In the spirit of full disclosure, our entire PHWA ballots for this year are below. And in the spirit of projection, which we love to do in this blog, here’s an early look at how my 2015 ballot might look.

To the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team

Craig's five selections:
1. Sidney Crosby, Penguins
2. Semyon Varlamov, Avalanche
3. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks
4. Patrice Bergeron, Bruins
5. Claude Giroux, Flyers

The thought process: After spending hours last year settling on Alex Ovechkin over Jonathan Toews and John Tavares, this one was a no-brainer. Crosby put up 104 points, the only NHL player to crack 100 this season. He was the only NHL player to crack 90. Dan Bylsma also leaned heavily on him in tough defensive matchups because of the injuries and lack of depth up front for the Penguins.

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Ryan Kesler, Jason SpezzaGetty ImagesThe addition of Jason Spezza or Ryan Kesler would be a big boost for Anaheim. Will a trade happen?
If things go quiet on the negotiating front for teams trying to sign their own free agents, it’s understandable. Wednesday begins the interview period in which teams can begin legally contacting the free agents of other teams. If you’re a potential free agent and you’ve made it this far, it definitely makes sense to see what else is out there on Wednesday.

After the confusion last season of what was allowed and not allowed during the interview period, there appears to be more clarity this year. The league sent out a memo explaining that the parameters of a potential deal could be discussed, although July 1 remains the day new contracts can be signed. One team jokingly calls the process legal tampering.

An agent deadpanned, “What can you do, get to third but not go all the way?”

In theory, teams could have players visit as some free agents did last year, most notably Nathan Horton and his visit to Columbus. But opening the interview window the week of the draft means there might not be any team executives still behind in their home cities as the league descends on Philadelphia for the draft.

For one prominent agent, that’s a point of frustration.

“If you have a team that said, ‘Hey, we want to show you our city, our arena, training facility and schools,' all that stuff -- it’s hard to do when everybody involved in the sales process is in Philadelphia,” he said. “To me the whole thing is screwed up... I don’t think right now it’s going to work quite the way we had hoped it would. I guess it’s better than nothing.”

In theory, it would help cut down on the tampering, although even that may be wishful thinking.

“The tampering out there is ridiculous,” said one GM.

Another executive didn’t feel quite as strongly, but suspected that it’s a growing problem.

“I don’t know if it’s a function of this free-agent market being so thin and everybody trying to get out ahead of it,” he said.

From a general manager and fan perspective, opening up conversations with free agents and teams before the draft makes the coming week all the more interesting. If teams get a definite answer that they will or won’t be able to sign a free agent, it’ll impact trade talks at a draft that will be filled with them. Those trade talks have already started, and will get more intense as teams arrive in Philadelphia over the next couple of days.

“I think it’s going to be a busy week,” said one NHL source.

July 1 is obviously the big day for NHL free agents, but here are some notes on hot topics that are only going to heat up as the draft gets closer:

Waiting on Spezza, Kesler

There’s a lot of trade chatter out there, but some trades might be on hold until there’s resolution on the Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza fronts.

“There are teams we haven’t talked to within the last three weeks because we think they’re waiting on those two,” said one team executive.

The Anaheim Ducks may be the best example of a team that will put all other plans on hold until the center situation is settled. Kesler and Spezza are ideal for the Ducks, who are eager to add a No. 2 center and are believed to have four targets on their center wish list.

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Paul Stastny, Ryan Miller, Marian GaborikGetty ImagesWhere will Paul Stastny, Ryan Miller and Marian Gaborik land this offseason?
By now, you’ve heard. It’s not a great free agent class. The NHL’s general managers are expected to be active on the trade front over the next few weeks, in part because there’s not a lot of help in free agency. That’s what happens when teams put such a high priority on retaining their top talent.

Still, in the following group of players is a 28-year-old center who is a two-time Olympian. There’s a guy who just put up 14 goals in the playoffs. There are two legitimate starting goalies and no shortage of wingers capable of scoring 20 or 30 goals per season.

The prices for these players will be higher than teams want, but it’s the only time of the year you can get high-end talent without giving up anything in return, which is perhaps what makes these players most appealing.

With that in mind, here are the top 25 unrestricted free agents for 2014:

1. Paul Stastny | C | Colorado Avalanche

Talks to keep Stastny in Colorado are expected to intensify this week, although the safe bet is that Stastny at least waits until the leaguewide interview window opens to get a stronger sense of his options elsewhere. The Avalanche want him to stay, he’s loved in the dressing room and likes playing in Colorado. The challenge is finding a number that works. He’s a 28-year-old center who can anchor one of the top two lines on most teams, a rarity in free agency. Because of that, he could demand big money, with his current salary of $6.6 million a starting point for the open market. During a Thursday news conference, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy used the word "structure" repeatedly in talking about future contracts and where unsigned players fit into that structure.

“[Stastny’s] part of our core. We’re hopeful we can sign him,” Sakic said. “We have our structure, I know he understands that."

The assumption when you’re talking about salary structure is that one player sets the cap for the others. Matt Duchene's contract averages $6 million. Gabriel Landeskog's averages $5.57 million. Semyon Varlamov's averages $5.9 million. So you can get an idea of the ballpark where the Avalanche would like to fit Stastny’s next deal.

“We believe Ryan O'Reilly and Paul should fit within that structure,” he said. “We don’t believe anybody should be ahead of all those guys."

It’s a little unfair to Stastny, because none of those players were days away from unrestricted free agency where prices are higher than when you’re buying years off restricted free agency. If a deal can’t get done, Stastny will have no shortage of suitors with potential fits in New York, St. Louis and Toronto.

2. Thomas Vanek | LW | Montreal Canadiens

It was a wild season for Vanek, who turned down two very large offers (from Buffalo and the New York Islanders) to retain his right to pick a team on July 1. His postseason struggles might mean teams approach him with more trepidation than they might have otherwise, but his agent Steve Bartlett believes there’s a large enough history of success for Vanek to retain his value.

“Let’s be honest, if you’re coming up to free agency, you’d love to have a guy who was lights-out in the playoffs and had a hat trick against the Rangers in Game 7,” Bartlett said. “But it’s ludicrous to think that a guy who has an eight-year body of work that puts him among the elite offensive players in the league gets judged on [the playoffs]. You’re going to judge eight years, not eight days.”

Just look at Marian Gaborik for an example of how a guy’s reputation changed overnight on the right team. Vanek has the kind of offensive skill that can change games and teams, and that puts him in a category by himself on this list.

3. Ryan Callahan | RW | Tampa Bay Lightning

There have been talks between the Lightning and Callahan’s agent (Bartlett), but the lure of July 1 might be strong for Callahan, who has gone through a lot just to get this far.

“We’ve had good-faith negotiations with Tampa,” Bartlett said when we chatted before the weekend. “We’re trying to narrow the gap. He certainly liked his time there.”

If he hits free agency, the expectation is that Buffalo will make a play for him and could end up making the biggest offer, but for a guy who just saw his former team advance to the Stanley Cup finals, it might be hard to go directly into a rebuilding situation.

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Los Angeles KingsDave Sandford/NHLI/Getty ImagesAlec Martinez and the Los Angeles Kings won the 2014 Stanley Cup, which Craig correctly predicted.
We do a lot of projecting at ESPN Insider. It’s one of the fun parts of the job -- taking the information you know, projecting it forward and trying to predict the future. In the world of hockey, it’s especially challenging because one bounce, and the outcome of one team can change dramatically. The unpredictability is what makes this sport the best.

With the season over and the offseason about to get crazy, in the spirit of full disclosure, let’s take a look at some of the projections in this space that panned out and some we’d like back. Sometimes it’s the projections that go sideways that you can learn the most from.

Preseason predictions

Prediction: Kings will win Stanley Cup

Result: Got this one right. Heading into the season, I loved everything about the Kings. General manager Dean Lombardi built the Kings for playoff success, and they just had to get in, which they did without too much trouble. They didn’t make it easy on themselves but ultimately pulled it off.

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Los Angeles KingsGary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsThe journey to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships begins in the offseason.
This group of Los Angeles Kings is one that seems to enjoy a challenge. Such as entering the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and winning it all, as they did in 2012. Or dropping three games to start the first round before waking up and beating the San Jose Sharks like they did this year. Or becoming the first team to win three Game 7s en route to a Stanley Cup.

It’s a sign of talent and mental toughness, a combination the Kings are going to need if they want to become the first team to repeat in the salary-cap era. Since the Chicago Blackhawks already beat them to the punch of becoming the first two-time champ in the cap era, next season is an opportunity for the Kings to one-up their Western Conference rival as the first back-to-back champ operating under a cap.

What’s it going to take for that to happen? Here’s a look at general manager Dean Lombardi’s offseason:

What happened in 2013-14

Points: 100 (No. 10 overall in the NHL during the regular season)
Goals per game: 2.42 (No. 26)
Goals against per game: 2.05 (No. 1)
Power play: 15.1 percent (No. 27)
Penalty kill: 83.1 percent (No. 11)
Corsi for percentage: 55.7 percent (No. 1)

Expectations this year: Before the season, I picked the Kings to win the Stanley Cup, after finishing second in the Pacific Division.

Did they meet expectations? Yes. We’ll forgive their third-place finish in the Pacific behind the Ducks and Sharks.

Front-office offseason priorities

1. Sign Marian Gaborik. According to colleague Pierre LeBrun, the Kings and Gaborik’s camp have already started talking contract extension, and this is such a natural fit for both sides that it should get done.

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