THE talent pipeline -- the NHL's annual entry draft -- becomes the top focus for all 30 NHL teams once the Stanley Cup final is over.
The draft goes next Friday and Saturday in St. Paul, Minn., but clubs are already tuned into another less sexy yet critical phase of their existence.
The short annual window for buying out a player's contract begins today and lasts until June 30.
And qualifying offers to restricted free agents, a process that is required to retain a player's rights but one that can also trigger the usually unpleasant salary arbitration, must be issued by June 27.
There are no major earthquakes of news on those fronts as concerns the roster of the Atlanta Thrashers, who are moving to Winnipeg to resume play this fall.
While the buyout season is a method for teams to escape burdensome contracts, it's no walkaway freebie. For players under 26, clubs can settle for one-third the remaining value of a deal. If the player's 26 or older, it's two-thirds, and whichever the case, there's a salary-cap hit that shrinks the team's future available payroll.
Names often heard regarding buyouts this spring include Chris Drury of the New York Rangers and Sheldon Souray of the Edmonton Oilers.
There appear to be no obvious Thrashers/Winnipeg candidates in this category.
The Thrashers/Winnipeg, however, have seven restricted free agents who will require qualifying offers by one week from Monday.
Captain Andrew Ladd and fellow forwards Anthony Stewart, Blake Wheeler, Rob Schremp and Ben Maxwell and defencemen Zach Bogosian and Arturs Kulda, a top prospect, all have contracts that expire on June 30. Qualifying offers will make each of those seven Group 2 free agents, but only Ladd, Stewart, Wheeler and Schremp would qualify (age and experience) to choose salary arbitration.
That request must be made by July 5. Teams may also opt for a salary arbitration, thought it's not all that common. Players are only allowed to be subjected to that club-elected process once in their career and clubs may only do it a maximum of twice in any year.
Teams must file by today if they wish arbitration on Group 2's who made more than $1.5 million last season. Only Ladd ($2.35 million) and Wheeler ($2.2 million) would fall into that category but it's not expected that will happen today.
By July 5, teams may request salary arbitration for any Group 2's who have not accepted their qualifying offer, subject to the mentioned limits. Ladd, Wheeler, Stewart and Schremp are the only four who could fall into that process. Also by June 30, the NHL will have come up with its best estimate of what the 2011-12 salary cap and floor will be.
That number is expected to climb to somewhere between $62 million to $63.5 million from $59.4 million.