by Rob Joyce

Oh, how quickly time goes by. Just a few short weeks ago the Penguins were hoisting the Stanley Cup. The month isn’t even over, and there’s already been the NHL Draft, and now free agency, as the push towards 2016-17 has been well underway. Unlike last year, when there weren’t many high-profile players available (this list last year featured Mike Ribeiro and Mike Green, among others), this year features a forward-heavy class led by one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league.

Teams can sign their own free agents, but the fun really begins in the open signing period on July 1. Here are the five players to watch as the new league year starts:

5) Andrew Ladd, Blackhawks:

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Ladd doesn’t bring the name recognition of an Eric Staal or a Thomas Vanek, both of whom are free agents, but the 30-year-old is a top-six forward on just about any team. Chicago traded for him at last year’s deadline from Winnipeg as a rental to help win another Cup, but the Blackhawks are cash-strapped and likely can’t afford the $5-6 million Ladd will get on the open market. A team like Florida, who stunned everyone by winning the Atlantic Division and has plenty of cap space, would be a nice destination for a young team that could use another 60-point guy.

4) Kyle Okposo, Islanders:

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

New York general manager Garth Snow told SiriusXM a few weeks ago, “We wish him nothing but the best.” After a year of really not ever coming close to a contract it appears the two sides are moving on. The 28-year-old had reached the 60-point mark in two of the last three seasons playing on John Tavares’ right wing, and has netted 67 goals in that span. He’s reportedly looking for $7 million a year, but if he agrees to something a little cheaper he might not have to look far. He’s a good fit in Philadelphia, as the Flyers could use another right-handed shot, and could help the power play.

3) Milan Lucic, Kings:

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Though he hasn’t hit the 60-point mark since his age 23 season in Boston four years ago, there’s plenty of value for a power forward capable of scoring 20 goals still in his prime. He and the Kings share mutual interest in re-signing, but with an estimated $6 million available in cap space it may not be possible. Lucic’s cap hit last year was exactly $6 million, leaving little-to-no space for signing other free agents. Should he leave Los Angeles, his hometown could be in play. The Canucks have the money and need to get younger up front, with the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows hitting age 36 by the end of next season.

2) David Backes, Blues:

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The St. Louis captain wasn’t dealt at the deadline, but his days with the Blues are likely over. GM Doug Armstrong has said the team’s first priority is re-signing restricted free agent Jaden Schwartz, meaning Backes could be the odd man out. One of the best defensive forwards in the league, Backes is also good for 20-25 goals a year, and at 32 this is likely his last chance at a long-term deal. Toronto could be a decent fit for a team with James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul. Of course, they are in the mix for another forward…

1) Steven Stamkos, Lightning:

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Players with a 60-goal season on their resume don’t come around too often, especially at age 26. Alas, Stamkos is set to hit the market come Friday. He missed the vast majority of the playoffs with a blood clot, but he’s a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner and has just under a point per game average for his career (562 points in 569 games). He’s obviously going to make Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews type money (somewhere in the neighborhood of eight years, $84 million). The question is whether Tampa Bay can pony it up. If they can’t, signs have been pointing to Stamkos heading to Toronto, which is near his hometown of Markham. But with the talent of Stamkos, just about every possibility is in play.

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