NHL Free Agency 2012: 5 Storylines As July 1 Approaches

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NHL Draft weekend was full of trades and rumors, but that's nothing compared to what we'll see as July 1, the start of NHL free agency, approaches.

Now that the NHL Draft is complete, it's time to focus on free agency, which is now less than a week away.

(As usual with the draft, the biggest drama involved had nothing to do with the selections, and instead was all about trades that were made, most notably involving Jordan Staal, Luke Schenn, James van Riemsdyk, and Sergei Bobrovsky this year.)

The free agent pool isn't terribly deep. It's quite top heavy, with one forward and one defenseman grabbing all the headlines. Other quality players have already re-signed with their teams, taking away some of the drama that remained.

That said, there are still some big stories that bear watching as July 1 approaches.

The lockout

It's practically a four-letter word among NHL fans at this point, but the reality is it will likely be a factor in how things play out this summer.

We know changes are coming. We don't know what changes will be, and how they will affect player salaries and the salary cap starting next fall.

Some teams will steam forward, seemingly unaware that these changes are coming. They'll burn that bridge when they get there. For now, it's all about spending to the cap and trying to build a championship-caliber team under the rules that currently exist.

There will, however, be teams that spend conservatively this summer, preferring to wait and see how things play out with the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Players have a decision to make, too. Sign now, and forgo any trepidation over changes that could be made in the CBA, or wait and see what rules are changed and see if patience pays off for them.

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter

Even if they aren't a package deal, as has been rumored here and there, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are easily the two most interesting players to watch as free agency approaches.

In the final days before July 1, the players' current teams will have a decision to make. It doesn't appear likely that Parise (Devils) and Suter (Predators) will sign new deals with their current teams, so will the respective general managers -- Lou Lamoriello and David Poile -- trade negotiating rights for a 2013 draft pick or two (conditional, of course)?

Poile might consider this move, even though he's said he won't. Lamoriello has no history of trading a player's negotiating rights, preferring at this point -- apparently -- to lose the player for nothing.

The salary cap isn't an issue for either team, but it looks like both players want to take this opportunity to see the interest that's out there.

Local radio in Minnesota is all about Parise at this point. Former Minnesota North Stars general manager Lou Nanne -- a regular on multiple sports radio stations in the Twin Cities -- has said the Minnesota Wild will not be out-bid for Parise. Speculation is out there Minnesota will offer Parise a 13-year contract, though no one knows where it came from.

As for Suter, it seems that speculation starts and ends with the Detroit Red Wings, largely because of Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement. If the defenseman doesn't want to play in Detroit for whatever reason, it seems that the focus is more generally on Midwest teams, meaning the Wild -- in need of a top-flight defenseman -- could be in the mix there, too.

With the likely CBA changes, the long-term deals Parise and Suter will likely command might become a thing of the past.

The next tier

There isn't a lot of top talent available beyond those two players. The most intriguing forward on the market will be Washington Capitals wing Alexander Semin. While he's extremely talented, Semin is among the most inconsistent high-end players you'll find anywhere. Sometimes, the effort is good, but there are too many instances where Semin is lazy and seemingly uncaring to pay him a top contract.

On the blue line, there are some good players available. Philadelphia has to be considered a favorite to re-sign Matt Carle, unless the Alaska native wants to move further west. If that's the case, Minnesota could become a bidder if it can't get Suter in the fold. Carle's puck-moving ability would be a good fit in Mike Yeo's system.

Florida Panther Jason Garrison sure is interesting. The former college free agent blossomed under Kevin Dineen this season, posting career highs in goals (16) and points (33) while posting only 32 penalty minutes in 77 games. He'll get a hefty raise over his 2011-12 salary of $700,000. In fact, there was speculation on NHL Network last week that Garrison could be seeking a salary in the area of $4 million per season.

It's a lot for a player who had one really productive season in the NHL, but his big shot could be a serious asset to someone's power play if he doesn't stay in south Florida.

Trades to come

There were some big trades at the draft, but with so few players involved in free agency's top tier, there are probably going to be some more trades to come.

Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo might have a contract that you think can't be traded, but if the Canucks are motivated to move him, they'll find a way to clear the way for Cory Schneider to be the No. 1 goalie.

The other big name, obviously, is Rick Nash. The Columbus captain is practically a lock to be moved, and while the Rangers look to be the favorite, there is nothing uncertain until it happens. I just can't see Nash returning to Columbus, as too many relationships there appear to be damaged beyond repair.

With cap changes and other rule changes possible with the new CBA, some teams may look to unload bad contracts to get in better position for the new world, whatever it brings.

Keep up with all the NHL free agency news at SBNation.com. For team-by-team coverage, stick with our network of team blogs.

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