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Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK)
Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK)

NHL offseason

Mirtle: Trade, free agent talk overshadow NHL draft Add to ...

It is shaping up as potentially one of the most interesting draft weekends in NHL history, at least based on all the talk.

And it has nothing to do with the fresh-faced teens stumbling about here in the historic downtown waiting for their big day on Gary Bettman’s stage.

Consider all the various storylines beyond those of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart.

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A handful of stars – led by Jason Spezza and Ryan Kesler, two high-profile centres for Canadian teams – are on the trade market and expected to be dealt as soon as Friday.

A handful more are either in Philadelphia or have their agents representing them as part of the new free agency interview window, which has kept all 30 teams busy as they vie for the limited talent that officially becomes available on July 1.

The Florida Panthers continue to make noise about trading the No. 1 pick, which general manager Dale Tallon is anxious to move for more immediate help.

The Chicago Blackhawks are dealing with the two faces of their franchise, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, asking for contract extensions reportedly worth nearly $12-million a season.

And often overlooked teams such as Dallas and Minnesota are suddenly flush with cap space and anxious to bid on multiple players.

So much is happening, in fact, that general managers were having a hard time fitting it all in on Thursday. Typically, the focus on the day before the draft has been on – imagine – who they wanted to pick in the draft.

But not wanting to miss out on a potential blockbuster trade or lining up free agents, GMs have been pulled in several directions, which makes having one of those multiheaded front offices, so popular of late, more useful than otherwise.

“A lot of things are squished into a pretty short period,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said. “I think that’s making it a little difficult.”

“There’s not a lot of high-end free agents out there,” added Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, one of six brand new executives in yet another complication to getting deals done. “It’s going to be a lot of teams going after the same guys.”

A year ago at the draft, it was crafty Devils GM Lou Lamoriello that stole the show, stealing netminder Cory Schneider from the Canucks in front of a hometown crowd.

The Flyers could well have something similar brewing after dealing Scott Hartnell to Columbus earlier in the week, as veteran centre Vinny Lecavalier is on the block and one of a huge number of quality centres expected to move in the coming days.

Leading that list is Paul Stastny, who would like to return to Denver with the Avs, but is being courted by more than half the league this week in advance of free agency.

He is expected to give Colorado vice-president Joe Sakic the chance to match whatever number he gets, but for a team badly in need of help on the blueline, it could be a dollar figure too rich for a squad with several rising stars.

The other most highly sought names for interviews on Thursday were Penguins defenceman Matt Niskanen, Habs winger Thomas Vanek and Bruins vet Jarome Iginla. Of those three, only Iginla has a shot at returning to his former team, but Boston has run into some serious cap issues and may not be able to meet a number north of $5-million again.

One of the unique aspects of all of this pending movement is how much control the players have. With so many teams locking up their own talent (including no-movement clauses) and so few stars making it to free agency, it’s a sellers’ market.

Spezza and Kesler, for example, control their destinies with no-trade clauses and ridiculously short lists of teams they will accept a trade to. Free agents like Stastny and Niskanen, meanwhile, have so many suitors they can afford to be picky and ask for ridiculous term and dollar figures.

For contending teams like Chicago, that’s (mostly) great news, as players want to go there to win.

For rebuilding clubs – like the majority of those in Canada right now – it’s far more difficult to make inroads, which is partly why the Edmonton Oilers were forced to overpay defenceman Nikita Nikitin with a two-year, $9-million deal.

So while much of Thursday’s focus was on the flashier names out there, the focus for a lot of these teams is going to be on the draft board. Five of the seven Canadian NHL teams are picking in the top nine this year – a sign of how far they’ve fallen – and the reality is they’ll have more success rebuilding that route than any other.

They’ll more than likely be bystanders in the frenzy – aside from selling off a couple of their first rounders from drafts gone by.

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