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nhl free agency

NHL free agency could be a different animal this year because of a change made under the last collective bargaining agreement: Since the middle of last week, teams have been allowed to talk contract terms with unrestricted players rather than having to wait until the July 1 beginning of free agency.

So what used to be called "tampering" is now simply "due diligence."

And not everyone is happy about it. The shift in timetable disrupted the NHL entry draft, according to New Jersey Devils' general manager Lou Lamoriello, and added a new wrinkle to what is already the busiest time of the year. Instead of just exploring trades and drafting prospects, teams were also having to lay the groundwork for possible free-agent signings as well.

"It was a distraction, to be perfectly honest," Lamoriello told reporters in Philadelphia. "This has been a very peculiar week as far as free agency, the draft and then the signings of your own players. You're divided in so many different directions."

Some trade discussions have been put on the back burner until free agency sorts itself out. The Ottawa Senators, for example, still have centre Jason Spezza on the trading block, but the two teams thought to be the most serious suitors for his rights, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, are also in the running to sign Colorado Avalanche centre Paul Stastny, the most prominent available free-agent centre.

Whichever team fails to land Stastny would then likely circle back to the Senators and make another pitch for Spezza.

Anticipating they could lose Stastny, the Avs made a pre-emptive strike Monday, acquiring centre Daniel Brière from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for right winger P.A. Parenteau and a fifth-round draft choice.

By introducing a negotiating window into the free-agent process, there could be a flurry of signings as soon the market opens at 12 p.m. eastern on Tuesday, instead of the twiddling of thumbs fans saw on those TV panels in years past. It also means that some of the most prominent free agents – such as Stastny, the Canadiens' Thomas Vanek and the St. Louis Blues' Ryan Miller – may not have to linger on the market for days or even weeks at a time the way they once did, weighing offers and trying to coax teams into bidding wars.

Two summers ago, it took until the fourth day of free agency before the Minnesota Wild signed defenceman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise to identical 13-year, $98-million contracts. Their additions were transformative to a team that is now suddenly one of the more attractive destinations for free agents, after making the playoffs in each of the past two years and getting to the second round this past spring.

The Wild will be worth monitoring again, if only because general manager Chuck Fletcher has an extra $7-million to spend, thanks to Dany Heatley's expiring contract. Vanek, a former University of Minnesota star whose wife is from the area, has long been linked to the Wild as a possible fit, although his stock sank following a disappointing playoffs with the Canadiens. And Minnesota is unlikely to offer the sort of long-term deal Vanek can likely get elsewhere.

Jarome Iginla, who may need to move on to his third new team in three years because of the Boston Bruins' salary-cap quandary, is reportedly being targeted by the Wild.

The free-agent market for defencemen is so weak that the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Niskanen pretty much has the market cornered for teams such as Minnesota or Colorado that are looking for a player in his prime (27).

Dan Boyle, at 38, will be a viable option for some – you can see him landing with the Detroit Red Wings on a two-year deal because Detroit always seems to extract the last bit of juice from a player nearing the end of his career.

Christian Ehrhoff is on the market again after the Buffalo Sabres bought him out, and he'll land a job in short order at a significant discount from the $40-million contract he earned last time around.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will likely be in the running for Boyle or Ehrhoff after a feverish 48-hour period in which they traded Teddy Purcell to the Edmonton Oilers for Sam Gagner. Tampa then flipped both Gagner and B.J. Crombeen to the Arizona Coyotes for a sixth-round draft choice – a salary dump in effect, with Tampa retaining a third of Gagner's contract. Tampa also traded Nate Thompson to the Anaheim Ducks, which gives the Lightning the flexibility to add an experienced defenceman in addition to Jason Garrison, who they acquired from the Vancouver Canucks last week.

The Canucks have been the busiest team in the past week and will likely make a big push to sign Miller, the U.S. Olympic hockey hero in 2010. New Canucks general manager Jim Benning knows Miller well from his days in Boston, when the Bruins faced Miller and the Buffalo Sabres lots over the years.

Most teams tend to shy away from exploring the market for restricted free agents, because the players' existing teams have the right to match any offer sheet they may sign. But negotiations for an extension between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ryan Johansen appear to have stalled. Johansen scored 33 goals as a 21-year-old last year. His upside would make him an extremely attractive candidate for another team looking to make a big splash.