It's never too early to look ahead, right? That's why we figured we'd take a look at the early free-agent lists for next summer. We separated the potential free agents into two groups -- unrestricted and restricted.
We decided on 10 players in each category. We did, however, leave out a few potential UFAs (Joe Sakic, Scott Niedermayer and Sergei Zubov, to name three) because we believed those players might seriously consider retirement and/or seem highly unlikely to leave their current locale. A quick peek at our UFA list will tell you this: Detroit GM Ken Holland and his Minnesota counterpart, Doug Risebrough, have some serious negotiating in their futures.
The RFAs will have less freedom of movement (than the UFAs) due to the current rules of the collective-bargaining agreement, but we have seen some offer sheets in the past couple of offseasons. It was for that reason we thought it worthwhile to compile our top 10 RFAs.
Potential unrestricted free agents
1. Henrik Zetterberg, 27, Detroit Red Wings, C/W: If the Conn Smythe Trophy winner hit the open market, he'd easily be the most sought-after commodity. We expect Holland to do everything he can to keep that from happening. In fact, we hear that process has already started. Zetterberg is coming off a career-best 43-goal, 92-point season and added 27 points in 22 playoff games en route to a title. No doubt, he'll get a huge raise over his current $2.9 million salary. We'd be very surprised if he left Hockeytown.
• We ask former NHL HM Jay Feaster, keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep at any cost. Zetterberb is a franchise player, and teams don't allow franchise players to walk or trade them for speculative value.
2. Marian Hossa, 29, Detroit Red Wings, RW: There's a good chance Hossa will hit the market for a second straight summer. In July, he shocked most observers when he opted for a one-year deal ($7.4 million) in Detroit, rather than a multi-season contract to stay alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Hossa impressed with 26 points in 20 playoff games for the Pens. Even if things don't work out as planned in Detroit, Hossa should find several interested parties in the marketplace.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, and try to win another Cup. If he walks at the end of the season for nothing, so be it, particularly if you made another Cup run. Unlike a draft pick, all this UFA cost you was money, and you get that back if he leaves.
3. Marian Gaborik, 26, Minnesota Wild, LW: Risebrough is currently making every effort to get Gaborik under contract before the start of the season. To this point, those efforts have fallen on deaf ears. If the Wild can't get his signature on a new deal, they might consider dealing him. The Slovakian-born sniper posted career bests (42 goals, 83 points) in 2007-08. In two of the past three seasons, however, he has been bothered by the injury bug. Published reports claim he's looking for more than his current $7.5 million salary. We expect he'll get it ... from the Wild or another club.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, only if you can get him signed. If it appears he won't sign, for whatever reason, he can't be allowed to walk for nothing in return ... a lesson I learned the hard way.
4. Niklas Backstrom, 30, Minnesota Wild, G: If available, the late-blooming Finnish goaltender would be the most attractive stopper on the market. In two NHL seasons, Backstrom has 56 wins, a 2.17 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. If he can put together another strong season, he'd rate a significant raise over his current $3.1 million salary.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, if demands are reasonable and you can get him signed. Same as Gaborik; if it appears he won't sign, for whatever reason, get value at the deadline.
5. Johan Franzen, 28, Detroit Red Wings, C/W: "The Mule" had a breakthrough season in 2007-08. Including the playoffs, Franzen netted 28 goals in his last 32 games. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he's a terrific combination of size and skill. Holland certainly wants to lock him up long term. Currently, Franzen is a real bargain at $1.15 million.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, but not at any cost. He needs to want to remain a Wing; but, as with Hossa, it's still worth keeping Franzen for a long playoff run and then taking your chances in the summer.
6. Mike Komisarek, 26, Montreal Canadiens, D: The rugged 6-foot-4, 240-pound defender brings a physical edge to the rink. That's an element that teams love to have on their bench. Montreal GM Bob Gainey, who has several key free agents on his roster, will work to keep the Long Island native in Montreal. Komisarek will earn $1.9 million this season.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, but only at your number. No one is bigger than the team, and GM Bob Gainey will find a replacement, if needed. Just as he dealt Cristobal Huet at last season's trade deadline, he will deal Komisarek if he doesn't believe the contract demand makes sense for his team.
7. Jay Bouwmeester, 25, Panthers, D: The smooth-skating Bouwmeester will test the market if things don't get better in South Florida. He could have signed a long-term deal but opted for a one-year extension ($4.875M) because he's tired of being in a losing environment. There's a good chance the Edmonton native will be elsewhere next season.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em. Mike Keenan traded away franchise cornerstone Roberto Luongo, and you can rest assured Jacques Martin will not deal another franchise player.
8. Alexei Kovalev, 35, Montreal Canadiens, RW: If this enigmatic Russian star were a bit younger, he'd be much higher on the list. He's coming off a bounce-back season in which he scored 35 goals and dished out 49 assists. He also chipped in 11 points in 12 playoff games. Kovalev keeps himself in terrific condition and figures to have a few more productive years left. He seems to like being in Montreal, but if things don't materialize for the Habs in their centennial season, Kovalev could be looking for a new address. He'll make $4.5 million in 2008-09.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Ship 'em, and be thrilled with whatever you can get for him at this stage. Despite last season's performance, age and on-again/off-again interest in team concept make him an ideal rental player, but not someone you invest in or try to build around.
9. Francois Beauchemin, 28, Ducks, D: A steady minute-eating defenseman, Beauchemin has made a name for himself in Anaheim and was a key part of the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup run. There are many teams that need tough, quality blueliners with championship experience. If Beauchemin tests the market, there will be more interest than you might think. He'll earn $1.65 million during the upcoming season.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Let's see what he does for the club this season, and then decide. He was a huge part of their Cup-winning team, but not as dominant since, so the burden and pressure rests on him this season.
10. Mattias Ohlund, 32, Canucks, D: The underrated Swede is entering his 11th (and maybe last) season in Vancouver. Ohlund was bothered by a knee injury, which forced him to miss 29 games last season. New Canucks management might not see him in the club's future. He'd still be an excellent addition to most back lines. In the final season of a three-year deal, he'll earn $3.5 million.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Ship 'em, unless it looks as though Vancouver has a legitimate shot to win it all, then you may want to re-evaluate. Age is a big factor, and a new GM may want to use that money elsewhere to put his own stamp on the team going forward.
Other potential high-end UFAs include: Gs Tim Thomas, Martin Biron and Nikolai Khabibulin; D Derek Morris and Fs Martin Havlat, Jere Lehtonen, Erik Cole, Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu, Brian Gionta, John Madden, Mike Comrie, Mike Knuble, Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald and Nik Antropov.
Potential restricted free agents
1. Paul Stastny, 22, Colorado Avalanche, C: In 148 NHL games, Stastny has produced 149 points. Young players who can produce a point per game are hard to find. It's difficult to imagine the Avs letting Stastny slip away.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, and do it before someone tenders an offer sheet.
2. Anze Kopitar, 21, Los Angeles Kings, C: The lanky (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) Slovenian-born center has been a terrific find in Hollywood. Last season, in his sophomore campaign, Kopitar totaled 32 goals and 45 assists. If he continues along his current path, he'll be due a big raise in the offseason.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em. L.A. simply cannot afford to lose him to an offer sheet because the draft picks you acquire will not make up for his loss.
3. Jordan Staal, 20, Pittsburgh Penguins, C: The 6-foot-4, 220-pound pivot seems to get a little better every day. In Pittsburgh, where they have a number of top young players under long-term contract, Staal might want more than the club can offer. In that case, the Pens might choose to swing a deal. If he does get to RFA status, he could be a target of an offer sheet.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, even though it is getting tougher by the minute in Pittsburgh to keep a special team intact. I feel GM Ray Shero's pain.
4. Jack Johnson, 21, Los Angeles Kings, D: We see a lot of upside in Johnson's game. So do the Kings. Barring something unforeseen, he'll be staying in L.A.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em. When I was GM in Tampa, one of our interview questions the year at Johnson's draft was "Tell us something you fear." A lot of players said "Spiders, snakes, heights, etc." One player didn't miss a beat and answered, "Jack Johnson!"
5. Kari Lehtonen, 24, Atlanta Thrashers, G: It's a big season for Lehtonen, who'll be feeling some internal pressure from minor-league stopper Ondrej Pavelec. Lehtonen's .913 career save percentage is impressive when you consider the subpar defense he works behind. Thrashers management will be watching him closely. If he shows further maturity, they'll be much more likely to keep him.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Ship 'em, unless he makes major strides this season. Many in Atlanta believe hot-shot youngster Pavelec is the better goalie prospect at this point, and Lehtonen needs to demonstrate beyond a doubt this season that the Thrashers need him more than he needs them.
6. Tomas Plekanec, 25, Montreal Canadiens, C: The Czech-born Plekanec has shown steady improvement over his past three seasons in Montreal, posting 29 goals and 69 points last season. We figure he'll be staying put in Montreal.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em. 162 games, 49 goals and plus-25 in the past two seasons! Enough said.
7. Christopher Higgins, 25, Montreal Canadiens, C: The Long Island native has scored 20-plus goals in each of his first three NHL seasons. Like Plekanec, Higgins likely will remain with the Habs.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em. Heart-and-soul guy, character, courage, leadership, skill ... thiis kid has it all and can play on my team anytime.
8. Alexander Edler, 22, Vancouver Canucks, D: The young Swede enjoyed a quietly impressive rookie year in Vancouver, finishing with a plus-6 on a non-playoff team. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Elder has great size. He figures in the club's long-term plans.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, but not at any price. Classic case of a team being vulnerable to an offer sheet, as someone will do something outrageously stupid to steal him away from the Canucks.
9. Brandon Dubinsky, 22, New York Rangers, C: In his rookie season, Dubinsky had an opportunity to skate alongside superstar Jaromir Jagr. Dubinsky responded with 14 goals and 40 points. It will be interesting to see how he fares in his second season (without Jagr). The Rangers have every intention of re-signing their homegrown pivot.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Keep 'em, but not at any price. Same principle holds true here as with Edler. The team will want to keep him, but if they don't have him locked up before July 1, someone will pull a Forrest Gump here also: stupid is as stupid does.
10. Nikolai Zherdev, 23, New York Rangers, LW: The fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft, Zherdev skates from small-market Columbus to New York for his first season on Broadway. He possesses the skill to be higher on the list, but most NHL execs question his work ethic. If things don't go well with the Rangers, Zherdev might opt to return to Russia.
• Keep 'em or ship 'em?: Ship 'em ... now, if there are any takers ... before the residents of the cheap seats at the Garden make him afraid to step on the ice. As my former director of player personnel Bill Barber was fond of saying, "You can't change the spots on a leopard!"