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Hockey Trade rumours fly as the busiest stretch of the NHL off-season begins

The Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, seen in action against the Penguins during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, is potentially one of the most coveted free agents in league history, and still doesn’t have a contract with Tampa Bay.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The NHL's silly season will begin in earnest this week, and there are some extra wrinkles this year. The league's 31st team, in Las Vegas, is expected to be approved on Wednesday, followed by the NHL awards, followed by the first round of the entry draft on Friday in Buffalo.

The interview period for unrestricted free agents opens a day later, giving teams six days to speak with players leading up to when they can sign them at noon on July 1.

According to several executives on the weekend, three things are conspiring to make this one of the busiest two-week periods in history for NHL player movement:

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1. The salary cap isn't expected to rise much at all. Even if the NHL Players' Association greenlights the 5-per-cent growth factor, the cap will go up only about $1.5-million to just shy of $73-million. The final cap number is expected to be announced within the next few days. It won't give teams a lot of flexibility.

2. The expansion draft in 2017. General managers are already fretting about losing a good player to Vegas for nothing and will be recalibrating their rosters all season in preparation. The guidelines for the draft are designed to give teams difficult choices in terms of who to protect, but some will be affected much more than others.

3. Steven Stamkos, potentially one of the most coveted free agents in league history, still doesn't have a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Throw into that mix a group of desperate teams trying to improve, and you have a lot of trade talk percolating around the NHL.

No team is talking more than the New York Rangers. Anxious to become competitive again right away after an embarrassing early exit from the playoffs, GM Jeff Gorton is looking at major changes.

The most intriguing name in conversations right now is centre Derek Stepan, who is signed for another five years at $6.5-million a season. There could be a fit with a team with cap space such as the Arizona Coyotes, which would free up money for the Rangers to enter the Stamkos sweepstakes on the weekend.

The Coyotes are another key player in the trade market. John Chayka, the franchise's new 27-year-old GM, has been busy, and it's clear to other teams that Arizona wants a quick turnaround after missing the playoffs four years in a row.

One asset they have to dangle is Martin Hanzal, who has one year left on a $3.1-million deal and won't be cheap to re-sign. He may be moved in order to accommodate a big contract such as Stepan's.

The Coyotes, who acquired the rights to Stars defenceman Alex Goligoski last week, are also the most likely destination for the now-retired Pavel Datsyuk's contract via Detroit. But Chayka will want a prime asset in return for taking that burden.

Again, Stamkos is likely a factor, as the Red Wings – like the Rangers – could be one of several desperate bidders hoping that adding a superstar will allow them to become competitive right away.

The position to watch in the coming weeks, however, is the blueline. A lot of teams want to reconfigure their back end after watching the Penguins win the Stanley Cup with speed and skill and that means the few defencemen available who can move the puck are going to be well compensated.

Dallas, for example, is being priced out of bringing back Jason Demers, as he wants something in the $5.5-million-a-season range. Florida is locked in difficult negotiations with Brian Campbell, another pending unrestricted free agent. And Keith Yandle is expected to be made a very wealthy man – with the soon-to-be 30-year-old likely to get a seven-year deal from someone.

The Colorado Avalanche, uneasy about their defence, could be a landing spot for Yandle, while Boston and Buffalo are possible players for Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk via trade. St. Louis has a cap crunch and wants to send him to the Eastern Conference and both teams are trying to get fleeter on D. (It's possible the Sabres move Zach Bogosian.)

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Teams still believe, meanwhile, that the Jacob Trouba saga in Winnipeg isn't over, despite pledges from the Jets to re-sign him. The Capitals also have a tough call to make with Dmitry Orlov, who is outside their top four and a prime candidate to be lost in the expansion draft.

What may happen with Trouba and other high-profile restricted free agents – including Hampus Lindholm in Anaheim and Tyson Barrie in Colorado – is a hardball approach from teams looking to keep costs down. More and more young players have been getting huge dollars right out of their entry-level contracts, but that's not a dynamic every GM wants to embrace.

Not signing them early in the summer, however, opens the door to an offer sheet – which is a key concern for a team like Columbus, which has Seth Jones as an RFA and an ugly cap situation. (David Clarkson being one reason.)

The Blue Jackets would love to offload Scott Hartnell and Fedor Tyutin but finding takers in a market crowded with crappy contracts has been difficult. Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who had to include Teuvo Teravainen in a deal with Carolina last week in order to get them to take Bryan Bickell's $4-million cap hit.

That hurts.

How the expansion draft affects the market

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How worried NHL executives are about the expansion draft next summer depends who you talk to.

Teams with a lot of young players or without much veteran depth are almost in the clear, as they won't have to expose players of tremendous value. That's a big boost to rebuilding teams such as the Maple Leafs, who at most stand to lose either a depth defenceman such as Martin Marincin or a middling prospect such as Josh Leivo.

But other teams are in a very tough spot. The Ducks, Wild and Predators all have at least four quality defencemen they would like to protect, but doing so would mean that they have to expose good young forwards. (Expansion-draft rules stipulate teams can protect one goalie and either seven forwards and three defencemen or four forwards and four defencemen.) A team deep on forwards like the Lightning, meanwhile, could easily lose someone such as Alex Killorn or Vladislav Namestnikov.

Then there are all the teams with two quality goaltenders, including the Penguins, who may be forced to trade Marc-André Fleury in order to protect playoff hero Matt Murray.

GMs are already well aware of the ramifications of expansion – even with the official announcement on Vegas pending – and it will start to affect how trades are being made.

Young players are even more valuable, for one. Florida, for example, theoretically gained an asset by moving a player it could have lost in the expansion draft (Erik Gudbranson) for a player that will be protected (Jared McCann).

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The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, are believed to be wary of dealing the fourth-overall pick for a player they would then have to protect in the expansion draft. Their likeliest course of action is to draft London Knights winger Matthew Tkachuk, who will be exempt.

Expect those considerations to loom over every deal and signing made in the next 12 months. And next June could be downright crazy as teams attempt to deal unprotected players before Vegas goes to work.

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