The top NHL free agents for 2017

Joe Thornton is still playing at a high level at age 37. Where does he rank among all the players hitting unrestricted free agency next summer? Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire

The looming expansion draft and a salary cap that doesn’t project to go too much higher than where it is this season makes this a less than ideal time to be entering the final season of a contract.

But come July 1, general managers always find a way to spend millions and millions to improve their teams in free agency because it’s the only way to do it without giving up an asset.

One agent suggested that the expansion draft may even free up money for his clients.

“You know there’s going to be good players exposed because teams want to get rid of those contracts,” said the agent of one prominent free agent on Tuesday. “It’ll be interesting to see if some of these high-end guys go. What if you expose a guy and he doesn’t go? There are some weird X factors this spring.”

The loss of Brent Burns was a big one for the free-agent class of 2017, one that doesn’t have quite as much depth as last year's. But there are some interesting names on the list all the same -- starting with a man playing his way into "legend" status at the end of his career.

Here’s an early look at the unrestricted free-agent class of 2017, including updates on where negotiations stand with each player's current team: