When Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe first failed to lure restricted free agent Thomas Vanek from Buffalo, then did succeed in securing Dustin Penner from Anaheim last summer, it triggered league GMs to proactively sign a number of young stars who might have been targeted for similar offer-sheet signings by rivals in the offseason.
In this week's rankings, we examine who is the most important player to get signed for each team, whether it be someone due for restricted or unrestricted free agency this summer or someone who is a likely candidate for a contract extension.
Power rankings are updated every Tuesday.
1. Ottawa Senators (29-11-4, Previous: 2) – A lot of attention is focused on Wade Redden and the fact the 30-year-old could depart via unrestricted free agency, but fellow defenseman Andrej Meszaros, 22, is more part of the team's core. He's set to be a restricted free agent.
2. Detroit Red Wings (33-9-4, Previous: 1) – Henrik Zetterberg is a bargain at an average of $2.8 million until his current deal expires after next season, but the Wings certainly don't want the 27-year-old star bolting in his prime. Look for GM Ken Holland to follow through on extending Zetterberg similar to the $6.7 million Pavel Datsyuk is making annually through 2014-15.
3. San Jose Sharks (25-12-7, Previous: 3) – The Sharks have been very proactive, extending Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo, Kyle McLaren and Matt Carle. Next on the list is 25-year-old defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who is set to be a restricted free agent at season's end.
4. New Jersey Devils (26-15-3, Previous: 5) – GM Lou Lamoriello has had to walk a tightrope with the salary cap since the end of the lockout, but he has most of the important pieces signed to term. Defenseman Karel Rachunek, injured since just before Christmas, is set to be an unrestricted free agent, yet he averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time a night and he's just hitting his prime at age 28.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-16-3, Previous: 10) – Lots of places to look here, too. There's Evgeni Malkin set to be a restricted free agent after next season. Hard-hitting defenseman Brooks Orpik is due for unrestricted status along with forward Ryan Malone this summer, but the key guy would appear to be injured 23-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, set to be a restricted free agent at season's end.
6. Minnesota Wild (26-17-2, Previous: 12) – Pavol Demitra is 32, injury-prone and only modestly productive, so his pending unrestricted status probably means bye-bye. They need to focus on young forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, 23, who has the speed and scoring touch that is attractive to GMs who might be tempted to tender an offer to the pending restricted free agent.
7. Vancouver Canucks (25-16-4, Previous: 4) – Lots of decisions to be made here. Popular longtime veterans Markus Naslund, 34, and Trevor Linden, 37, head a deep list of players due to be unrestricted. Naslund may still have value to the team. Both the Sedin twins – Daniel and Henrik – are set to be UFAs, too, after next season. They are 27 now, and making $3.575 million apiece.
8. Montreal Canadiens (22-14-8, Previous: 8) – Not many players signed long term, so the Habs have to prioritize. Goaltending is an area to look at because veteran Cristobal Huet, 32, is set for unrestricted status and 22-year-old Jaroslav Halak will be a restricted free agent. Obviously Carey Price is the goalie of the future, so maybe the team turns instead to veteran Michael Ryder, 27, who has been unproductive during the last year of his current deal.
9. Philadelphia Flyers (23-15-5, Previous: 14) – Those in the know say Jason Smith's leadership has been a big part of the Flyers' turnaround, and the 34-year-old captain is set to be a UFA. Philadelphia has a decision to make regarding its aging captain.
10. Dallas Stars (25-17-5, Previous: 7) – Wingers Antti Miettinen, 27, and Niklas Hagman, 28, rank Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, as the Stars' leading scorers. Both are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer. And both currently earn less than $1 million this season.
11. St. Louis Blues (22-15-6, Previous: 11) – The knocks on Brad Boyes included not being a great skater, not fast and not all that durable, but the 25-year-old has more than twice as many goals as anyone else on the team and he's due to be a RFA this summer.
12. Anaheim Ducks (24-17-6, Previous: 9) – Brian Burke's decision not to match the Penner offer sheet started this trend, and the obvious target to secure next is 22-year-old forward Corey Perry. Backup goalie Jonas Hiller, 25 and with a promising future, also is set to be a restricted free agent.
13. Calgary Flames (22-16-8, Previous: 6) – GM Darryl Sutter has a full plate, but the main course is no doubt defenseman Dion Phaneuf, whose agent is said to be in negotiations with the club over an extension that would preclude the 22-year-old hard-hitter from being a restricted free agent this summer. Forwards Kristian Huselius, Daymond Langkow, Craig Conroy, Stephane Yelle, Owen Nolan and Mark Smith are all set to be UFAs.
14. Colorado Avalanche (24-18-3, Previous: 13) – What to do with Joe Sakic, the face of the franchise? He's probably out for the remainder of the regular season, and if the Avalanche don't make the playoffs it's possible the 38-year-old has played his last game. Gut feeling is Sakic doesn't want to go out this way, and he probably doesn't want to leave Denver.
15. New York Islanders (22-17-5, Previous: 17) – Forwards Mike Comrie and Miroslav Satan are No. 1 and No. 3 in team scoring, respectively, and both are set to become unrestricted free agents. Comrie is 27 and Satan is 33.
16. Boston Bruins (22-18-4, Previous: 15) – The Bruins are locked into most of the players on the current roster for this and next season – for better or worse – but Phil Kessel, 20, might fit the mold as a younger player other teams are locking up. He's signed through next season before gaining RFA status.
17. Phoenix Coyotes (23-20-1, Previous: 18) – With the way Ilya Bryzgalov has stepped in and solidified this team's resurgence with his play in goal, he obviously has to be priority No. 1 because the 27-year-old is due to become an unrestricted free agent. Don't forget, too, leading goal-scorer Radim Vrbata, 26, who also is set to be an unrestricted free agent.
18. Columbus Blue Jackets (21-18-6, Previous: 20) – With the breakthrough season he's had, 25-year-old Pascal Leclaire is in position to strike while the iron is hot as he is set to become an RFA this summer. The fact Sergei Fedorov drops off the books helps Columbus' bottom line.
19. Nashville Predators (21-19-4, Previous: 22) – Two cornerstones of a young defense – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, both 22 – will be restricted free agents this summer. This is a no-brainer for new ownership, which might want to get the deals done sooner rather than later.
20. New York Rangers (21-20-5, Previous: 16) – As much as veteran forward Brendan Shanahan sticks out as an unrestricted free agent, the Blueshirts can't afford to lose 29-year-old Michal Rozsival, who has developed into the team's No. 1 defenseman.
21. Carolina Hurricanes (22-21-4, Previous: 19) – Eric Staal, 23, is signed through next season before gaining RFA status in 2009-10. He's another of the young league stars who could get targeted by rival GMs. Veteran Cory Stillman, 34, the team's second-leading scorer, is set to become unrestricted this summer.
23. Edmonton Oilers (21-21-4, Previous: 24) – Ah, where all the trouble started. Funny thing is: Mr. Lowe doesn't have a lot of pressing contractual problems because those who are up are pretty replaceable. The best argument is for RFA Jarret Stoll, the 25-year-old who isn't having a great season but figures to be part of the future. Otherwise, there's the thought of extending Shawn Horcoff, 29.
24. Atlanta Thrashers (22-22-2, Previous: 25) – The team has to make a decision fairly quickly on Marian Hossa, a 29-year-old scoring winger who figures to be in demand at the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Otherwise, goalies with NHL experience are set to be either restricted (Kari Lehtonen) or unrestricted (Johan Hedberg).
25. Chicago Blackhawks (20-21-4, Previous: 23) – With reports that restricted free agent Patrick Sharp is about to sign an extension, management will have to look at three members of its maturing defense – Dustin Byfuglien, 22; Brent Seabrook, 22; and James Wisniewski, 23 – next to remove from the potential restricted free-agent list.
26. Florida Panthers (20-22-4, Previous: 26) – Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester logs 27 minutes and shows up every night. At 6-foot-4, 212 pounds and just 24 years old, he could be a target as a restricted free agent this summer if the team isn't proactive. Potential No. 1 defensemen don't grow on palm trees.
27. Washington Capitals (18-21-5, Previous: 28) – They did it when they signed Ovechkin to 13 years and $124 million last week. Wow. Goalie Olaf Kolzig is 37 and due to be unrestricted. It's probably time for new blood in goal anyhow.
28. Tampa Bay Lightning (17-23-5, Previous: 29) – Forget who needs to be signed, or better yet who needs to be cleared out. With an unstable ownership situation, nothing gets done until a probable sale is complete.
29. Toronto Maple Leafs (16-21-8, Previous: 27) – Mats Sundin, 36, will not get traded. That's all you really need to know here. And rather than talk about extensions, the team has to think about going the other direction and clearing out the dead weight.
30. Los Angeles Kings (17-27-2, Previous: 30) – Defensemen Rob Blake, Brad Stuart, Jaroslav Modry, Jon Klemm and Kevin Dallman are all due to be unrestricted free agents. There's no need to make any of those mistakes again.