Early Predictions for Where NHL's Top 2014 Unrestricted Free Agents Will Land

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2013

Early Predictions for Where NHL's Top 2014 Unrestricted Free Agents Will Land

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    The NHL's 2014 unrestricted free-agent period is still months away, but that hasn't stopped speculation over which stars could be available in July.

    As per CapGeek.com, next summer's pool of unrestricted free-agent talent is a deep one. Teams in need of an experienced starting goalie will seek out Ryan Miller. Clubs seeking a top-two defenseman will pursue Dion Phaneuf. For those in need of skilled scorers, Joe Thornton, Marian Gaborik and Thomas Vanek will be tempting targets.

    Several of these players could be re-signed during the season, but given the large number of notable stars due to become UFAs next summer, several notable stars should still be available by July 1.

    Here's a look at next summer's 10 most prominent NHL unrestricted free agents and our projection for where they'll land.

Jonas Hiller

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    Since 2008-09, Jonas Hiller's won 123 regular-season games for the Ducks and has a superb 2.31 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 20 playoff games. He's also shaken off the vertigo-like symptoms which plagued him in 2011.

    Viktor Fasth and Frederik Andersen are challenging Hiller for the starter's job, which could make him the odd man out by next summer. The Edmonton Journal reports the Oilers will pursue him. The New York Islanders and Florida Panthers could also come calling, but Hiller will get bigger bucks from the desperate Oilers.

    Verdict: Signs with the Edmonton Oilers.

Paul Stastny

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    Paul Stastny hasn't panned out as a first-line player, and given the Avs depth at center, the Denver Post speculated Stastny could be on his way out of Colorado. He will attract interest from teams seeking a skilled second-line pivot.

    Trade rumors have linked Stastny to the Toronto Maple Leafs for nearly a year, while the Calgary Flames need depth down the middle. Given the frequent injuries to Ryan Kesler, the Vancouver Canucks could make a serious pitch.

    Verdict: Signs with the Vancouver Canucks.

Ryan Callahan

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    It's no coincidence the New York Rangers struggled earlier this season when Ryan Callahan was sidelined by injuries. His leadership and physical two-way style has made him indispensable to the Rangers and a fan favorite in New York.

    Those skills will also make Callahan attractive in next summer's free-agent market. Currently earning $4.25 million, the New York Post speculated he could receive between $6 to $7 million on the open market. Given Callahan's importance to the deep-pocketed Rangers, don't be surprised if they pay that much to retain him.

    Verdict: Re-signs with the Rangers.

Patrick Marleau

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    Patrick Marleau is the San Jose Sharks all-time leader in several offensive categories, including career goals, power-play goals and game-winning goals. Though the 34-year-old winger is approaching the final stage of his long career, he remains a key component of the Sharks attack, currently averaging a point per game.

    The Sharks opened contract talks this past summer with Marleau and teammates Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle, so they're obviously keen to retain him. Marleau has spent his entire NHL career with the Sharks, and there's mutual interest in ensuring that relationship continues.

    Verdict: Re-signs with the Sharks.

Marian Gaborik

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    Despite a lengthy injury history, Marian Gaborik remains a highly skilled scorer, with three 40-plus goal seasons on his resume. ESPN's Craig Custance reported Gaborik expressed a willingness to re-sign with the Blue Jackets, but Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch believes he could be shopped by the trade deadline.

    Gaborik's willingness to stay in Columbus suggests he'd prefer playing for a small-market club in need of a proven scorer, such as the Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers or Phoenix Coyotes. The Predators' desperate need for a scoring star makes them the best fit.

    Verdict: Signs with the Nashville Predators.

Dion Phaneuf

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    Since 2005-06, Dion Phaneuf ranks among the top 10 defensemen in several categories, including goals, points and average ice time. Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos believes it could cost the Toronto Maple Leafs $50 million over seven years to re-sign their captain.

    Phaneuf's critics consider him overrated, but the Leafs have no defensemen in their system to replace him, and trading for a comparable talent is simply too expensive. There's also no upgrade available via free agency next summer. The Leafs simply cannot afford to let him walk.

    Verdict: Re-sign with the Maple Leafs.

Thomas Vanek

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    As a two-time 40-goal scorer, Vanek will be among the most popular players in next summer's free-agent market. Islanders general manager Garth Snow hopes to re-sign Vanek, but the Minneapolis Star-Tribune noted he has ties to Minnesota.

    Vanek played his college hockey in Minnesota, met his wife there and lives in the state during the offseason. His good friend and former Sabres teammate Jason Pominville also plays for the Wild. With Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million coming off the books next summer, the Wild have the cash to pursue Vanek.

    Verdict: Signs with the Minnesota Wild.

Ryan Miller

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    Despite the recent change in Buffalo Sabres management, Ryan Miller remains a fixture in the trade rumor mill. It's believed he'd prefer to join a California-based team to be close to his actress-wife, but those clubs are already deep in goal.

    The St. Louis Blues could be an intriguing option for Miller. TSN's Pierre LeBrun believes the Blues could pursue him if current starter Jaroslav Halak (like Miller a UFA next summer) struggles later in the season. A former Vezina Trophy winner, Miller could be the missing piece for the Blues Stanley Cup hopes.

    Verdict: Signs with the St. Louis Blues.

Joe Thornton

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    The 34-year-old Joe Thornton had led the Sharks in scoring six of the past eight seasons and is on a point-per-game clip this season. Though it's been seven years since he won the Art Ross and Hart trophies, Thornton remains among the league's elite forwards.

    CSN Bay Area reported the Sharks opened contract talks this past summer with his agent (and brother) John Thornton, who sees Joe staying in San Jose beyond this season. Given Thornton's ongoing value to the Sharks and his love of the San Jose area, expect him to sign another three-year deal.

    Verdict: Re-signs with the Sharks.

Henrik Lundqvist

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    Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 and won 30 or more games in each of his first seven NHL seasons. Without him, the Rangers lose the foundation upon which they've built their Stanley Cup hopes.

    The Rangers could offer Lundqvist over $7.5 million per season, making him the NHL's highest-paid goalie. Because he turns 32 next March, the New York Post suggests contract term could be a sticking point for the Rangers. Ultimately, they simply cannot afford to lose one of the NHL's elite goaltenders to free agency.

    Verdict: Re-signs with the Rangers.