Paul StastnyKarl Gehring/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny's move from Colorado to St. Louis greatly altered two Central Division contenders.
The Nashville Predators' trade for James Neal had only been official for a few minutes when the questions started as to who would be the center feeding him the puck in Nashville. In Pittsburgh, he had his biggest success with Evgeni Malkin. In Dallas, he played well with Brad Richards.

GM David Poile stood behind a podium at the draft in Philadelphia and explained that the Predators' focus would be shifted to the middle of the ice now that they had acquired the scoring winger they needed.

The problem was, that was also the focus for half of the Western Conference. Ryan Kesler went to Anaheim. Brad Richards went to Chicago. Paul Stastny went to St. Louis. Jason Spezza went to Dallas.

Making things worse for the Predators, Mike Fisher was lost for four to six months with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

So when Poile got a call from Mike Ribeiro's agent suggesting he’d be a good fit with the Predators, he listened with an open mind.

“Mike has been a top center, he’s a veteran in his experience. Equally and more important, he was looking for a place to re-establish with his family,” Poile said when we chatted last week.

The last thing Poile wanted for his young group trying to establish itself with a new coach was distractions. He was well aware of the off-ice issues that led to Ribeiro’s departure in Arizona. So this wasn’t a normal hockey transaction. A four-day Nashville visit from Ribeiro and his wife helped ease the concerns, even if Poile still understands the one-year deal comes with risk.

“We have been out to dinner. We have met about hockey and not about hockey. He’s met with Peter Laviolette. I’ve talked to both of them about a lot of situations -- 90 percent of which have nothing to do with hockey,” Poile said.

Last week, the Predators signed Ribeiro and Derek Roy, two more veteran centers to add to a roster that already had Fisher, Olli Jokinen, Calle Jarnkrok, Paul Gaustad and Matt Cullen.

After missing out on the biggest center names available, Poile’s moves make for an interesting Plan B. With Jokinen, Ribeiro and Roy all on one-year deals, it’s a low-risk Plan B.

“We’re looking for offensive players. We had some holes to fill,” Poile said. “We’re looking for depth and flexibility, and this is what we’ve come up with.”

With Shea Weber anchoring a dynamic, young defense and Pekka Rinne healthy again, the Predators are trending in the right direction this summer, but the Central Division is as tough as they come. Here’s a look at how the rest of the teams in the league’s deepest division are trending this offseason, in order of 2013-14 finish:

Colorado Avalanche

Points last season: 112
Key additions: Jarome Iginla, Danny Briere, Brad Stuart
Key losses: Paul Stastny, P.A. Parenteau, Andre Benoit
Trending: Down

Stuart, Briere and Iginla are all strong veterans who will help teach a young team how to win, but Colorado already had a great dressing room with emerging leaders in Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene. Losing Stastny to rival St. Louis is a huge blow that the addition of Iginla doesn’t erase. The Ryan O'Reilly contract negotiations have the potential to create animosity between the two sides, which may ultimately lead to his exit at some point. So much of Colorado’s regular season success was predicated on the success of Semyon Varlamov, and it’s asking a lot for him to replicate last season’s .927 save percentage. This has the makings of a great young team, and Nathan MacKinnon will be a superstar, but there might be a small step back from last year’s breakout season before this group joins the league’s elite.

St. Louis Blues

Points last season: 111
Key additions: Paul Stastny, Carl Gunnarsson
Key losses: Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, Brenden Morrow, Roman Polak
Trending: Neutral

The Blues were Stanley Cup contenders last season, and they will be again this season. GM Doug Armstrong is making a calculated risk with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen in goal, but spending just $3.3 million on goaltending allowed him to spend on Stastny who should help fix the offensive issues that led to the Blues' early playoff departure.
David Booth #7 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates Derek Leung/Getty ImagesDavid Booth will finally take advantage of an offseason without injury.
Last summer, Mason Raymond didn’t sign his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs until Sept. 23. He went on to score 19 goals and got a three-year deal with the Calgary Flames on July 1. Ron Hainsey completed his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 12, and the Canes were so pleased with his play he earned a three-year contract extension in June.

The late offseason was dotted with nice value deals signed by teams that took advantage of a tight cap space. Guys like Dustin Penner or Tim Thomas who weren’t snapped up in the initial frenzy ended up making contributions to their teams both during the season and at the trade deadline.

It’s gone quiet right now in hockey, but teams are now starting to look at the best of what’s left on the free-agent market. Nashville grabbed two centers this week, Derek Roy and Mike Ribiero. The New York Rangers gave a two-year deal to Matthew Lombardi.

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Jonathan ToewsBill Wippert/NHLI via Getty ImagesNew contracts for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews can pave the way for other NHL stars.
The new deals for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews make them the highest paid players in the NHL on an annual-average basis.

How long will that last? That’s up for debate.

The Kane and Toews contracts came in right about where you’d expect. What it means moving forward is it gives future franchise players closing in on unrestricted free agency a new baseline in which to negotiate. To one agent, who has a prominent player who could be in extension talks next summer, it’s confirmation that teams believe the cap will be going up every bit as aggressively as the players believe.

“People are in agreement the cap is going up,” he said. “You’re probably looking at $80 million in a couple years. That’s a clear indication that there are teams that believe it as well.”

The other thing that stood out to this agent?

“It was pretty interesting in the way they structured it. If you did present value, it’s closer to eight times $11 million. Getting the money up front,” he said.

His conclusion on the value of the deals?

“I think it’s dead on,” he said. “It’s healthy for the league. I know a lot of free agents coming up saw that and were like ‘Perfect.’”

Kane and Toews are unique in that they were slated to hit unrestricted free agency in their primes, which doesn’t happen for franchise players anymore with so many locked up long-term. There aren’t many who will be in that position the next couple years, but here’s a look at players who will ultimately be impacted by the Kane and Toews contracts in the next couple years:

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning -

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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.

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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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