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Every NHL season sees some veteran stars playing in their contract years. In 2017-18, notables such as New York Islanders center John Tavares and Toronto Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk must prove they are deserving of lucrative, long-term deals.
Tavares ranks among the top centers in the league, while Van Riemsdyk is a reliable scoring forward. However, their value in next summer’s free-agent market will be affected by their performances this season.
Here’s a look at what the top NHL unrestricted free agents in 2018 have to prove in their contract years. Feel free to offer up your opinion on this topic in the comments section.
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Mike Green is a skilled veteran presence on the rebuilding Detroit Red Wings blue line. Entering his contract year, the 32-year-old must demonstrate he remains a worthwhile two-way defenseman.
Earlier in Green’s career, he twice exceeded the 70-point plateau (2008-09 and 2009-10) with the Washington Capitals. Injuries, however, hampered his speed and forced him to change his game.
Still an effective offensive contributor, Green has exceeded 30 points in every season since 2013-14. Joining the Wings as a free agent in 2015, he led their defensemen in scoring over the past two seasons. In 2016-17, he was also their leader in time on ice per game, averaging 23 minutes and 33 seconds.
Green is completing the final year of a three-year contract worth $6 million per season. At this stage in his career, he will have to accept a pay cut on his next deal. If the Wings are out of the playoff race by the Feb. 26 trade deadline, they could try to peddle him to a postseason contender.
While Green’s best seasons are behind him, another big-minute, 30-point effort in 2017-18 should improve his free-agent value. It could also help him land another three-year contract.
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A physical veteran scoring winger, James Neal was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL expansion draft. Hampered by injuries in recent years, the 30-year-old must show he’s still an effective offensive presence.
Now in his 10th NHL season, Neal has a solid resume. He’s tallied 20-plus goals nine times and at least 40 points six times. The 6’2″, 221-pounder can skate at either wing and uses his big frame to win puck battles along the boards and in front of the net. He also possesses a quick, accurate shot.
Neal’s physical style, however, has also taken its toll on his body. Since 2013-14, he’s played more than 70 games in just one season (2015-16). He’s also reached the age when maintaining his production and bouncing back from injury becomes difficult.
Now in the final season of a six-year contract, Neal is earning $5 million per season. He could find it tough landing a similar deal with the Golden Knights or another club via free agency next July. He must also decide whether he wants to re-sign with the expansion Knights or test the market in the hopes of landing with a Stanley Cup contender.
With five goals in his first three games this season, Neal is off to a terrific start. While that level of production is unsustainable, he could reach 30 goals if he stays healthy this season. That would improve his value to the Knights, as well to clubs seeking scoring punch in the free-agent market.
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A fine two-way forward, Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund enjoyed a career-best performance (22 goals, 31 assists, 53 points) in 2016-17. If the 28-year-old hopes to re-sign with the Flames, he must prove to management that last season wasn’t his career peak.
Since 2013-14, Backlund has steadily improved as a reliable second-line center. In 2015-16, he reached 20 goals and 40 points for the first time. Backlund is an effective special teams player, netting 16 power-play points and three short-handed points last season. He also led the Flames with seven game-winning goals.
Injuries hampered Backlund’s performance earlier in his career. In the past two seasons, however, he missed only one game. As a result, his game noticeably improved.
Backlund’s contract is a three-year deal worth $3.575 million annually. Given his value to the rising young Flames, he could seek a seven- or eight-year contract worth over $5 million per season.
Skilled two-way centers are highly prized in the NHL. Another 20-goal, 50-point performance would bolster Backlund’s free-agent value. It would also put pressure on Calgary management to get him re-signed before next July.
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Buffalo Sabres left wing Evander Kane could be the best power forward in this year’s unrestricted free agent market. However, the 26-year-old must overcome the inconsistency and immaturity that have dogged him for most of his career.
A strong-skating, physical scorer, Kane has three 20-plus goal seasons and four 40-point campaigns on his resume. That includes a career-best 30 goals and 57 points in 2011-12 with the Winnipeg Jets. Last season, he led the Sabres in goals (28) and penalty minutes (113).
However, Kane has struggled to reach his potential. His physical style also makes him susceptible to injuries.
Off-ice issues, including an incident in a Buffalo bar in June 2016, also hurt Kane’s reputation. He was a frequent topic of trade speculation throughout last season.
Kane is in the final season of a six-year contract worth an annual average value of $5.25 million. If he hopes to earn another profitable long-term contract, he must demonstrate he’s put his troubled past and inconsistent play behind him.
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Since joining the Ottawa Senators midway through the 2011-12 campaign, Kyle Turris has established himself as a first-line center. Eligible for unrestricted free agency in July, the 28-year-old must prove to Senators management that he’s worth re-signing to a seven- or eight-year contract.
Since 2013-14, Turris exceeded 20 goals and 50 points three times, including a career-high 64 points in 2014-15 and 27 goals last season. He’s a smooth-skating playmaker and also plays a solid defensive game. He won’t lack for suitors if he hits the open market.
Turris is in the final season of a five-year contract worth an annual average value of $3.5 million. He could receive offers worth around $6 million annually on a long-term deal via free agency. However, that might not be easy to get from the budget-conscious Senators.
On Sunday, the Ottawa Sun‘s Bruce Garrioch reported the Sens would prefer to sign Turris to a five- or six-year deal but the center seeks a lengthier term. Garrioch also cited a report by TSN’s Darren Dreger on Oct. 5 that speculated Turris could be moved if an agreement isn’t reached by the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
At this stage of the season, it’s far too early to assume the Senators will shop Turris by the trade deadline. Another strong performance on his part could convince management to make a longer investment in his services.
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Over the past four seasons, Cam Atkinson has blossomed into a scoring star with the Columbus Blue Jackets. To ensure a significant increase in pay and term on his next contract, the 28-year-old right wing must maintain his offensive production.
Since 2013-14, Atkinson has exceeded 20 goals four times, including a career-high 35 in 2016-17. After two consecutive 40-point campaigns, he reached 53 points in 2015-16 and 62 last season. He was also the Jackets’ leader in goals and points leader in 2016-17.
Though small by NHL standards, the 5’8″, 179-pound Atkinson proved he can handle the big league pace. With his speed and scoring prowess, he’s become a valuable member of the Columbus offense. He played a key role in their franchise-record 108-point season in 2016-17.
Atkinson’s contract is a three-year deal with an annual salary-cap hit of $3.5 million. Another 35-goal, 60-point campaign could push his next annual average value to over $6 million.
The Blue Jackets have over $54 million invested in 18 players for 2018-19. That’s sufficient room to re-sign Atkinson, but management could try to keep his next contract to within five years and $5 million per season. The right wing might have to exceed last season’s numbers to earn a more lucrative deal with the Jackets.
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Despite being a key part of the Toronto Maple Leafs offense, Van Riemsdyk faces an uncertain future. How well the 28-year-old handles that issue could determine the value of his next contract and where he ends up after this season.
Since 2013-14, Van Riemsdyk has emerged as a reliable scoring forward. He’s twice reached the 60-point plateau, including a career-high 62 last season. He’s also exceeded 20 goals three times with the Leafs, including a 30-goal effort in 2013-14.
Despite Van Riemsdyk’s scoring prowess, he’s frequently the subject of media-driven trade rumors. While the Leafs have significantly improved, they still lack depth on the blue line. With the left wing eligible for unrestricted free agency in July, speculation could arise suggesting the Leafs swap him for a defenseman.
The price of re-signing Van Riemsdyk could also be an issue for Toronto. He’s in the final season of a six-year deal worth an annual average value of $4.25 million. It could cost them over $6 million annually to get him under contract on a seven- or eight-year deal. However, they also need sufficient room to re-sign rising stars Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner within the next two seasons.
That could raise questions over Van Riemsdyk’s long-term future in Toronto. He must put that chatter out of his mind and focus on his game. Another strong performance would either improve his chances of re-signing with the Leafs or ensure he gets top dollar elsewhere via free agency next summer.
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Over the course of his career with the Washington Capitals, John Carlson has emerged as their best all-around defenseman. Eligible for unrestricted free agency in July, the 27-year-old must prove he can maintain that high level of play on a Capitals roster that underwent significant offseason change.
Since his first full NHL season in 2010-11, Carlson exceeded 30 points six times, including a career-best 55 points in 2014-15. A well-rounded blueliner with a right-handed shot, he led the Capitals last season in ice time (22 minutes and 42 seconds), finished second in takeaways (51) and third in blocked shots (127).
The Capitals, however, saw several departures from their roster in the offseason. Among the notables were defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner via free agency and Nate Schmidt through the expansion draft. Their replacements, such as Aaron Ness, Christian Djoos and Taylor Chorney, lack the skills and experience of their predecessors.
Carlson will be expected to carry perhaps a larger workload this season than in previous years. How he handles that burden could come into play when he seeks a new contract. He is in the final season of a six-year deal with an average annual salary of just over $3.9 million.
Should Carlson maintain his strong versatile game, the Capitals will do everything they can to re-sign him. Otherwise, he will be the top defenseman in next summer’s free-agent market. That could earn him a seven-year contract worth over $6.5 million annually.
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New York Rangers winger Rick Nash has long had a reputation as a high-quality scorer. However, the wear and tear of his previous 14 NHL seasons could be catching up with him. The 33-year-old must show the hockey world he’s still an effective offensive star.
Nash has an impressive resume. He’s tallied at least 20 goals 12 times, including three 40-goal campaigns. He’s also reached 50 points nine times. A versatile forward who can skate at either wing, the 6’4″, 211-pounder uses his big frame well to generate scoring opportunities. He’s also improved his defensive game.
Injuries, however, have taken their toll on Nash in recent years. In the past four seasons, he played more than 67 games only once (2014-15). As a result, his point production plummeted, with Nash tallying a maximum of 39 points three times.
In the final season of his eight-year contract, Nash carries an annual salary-cap hit of $7.8 million. In actual salary, he’s making $8.2 million. But his days of landing expensive long-term deals are over.
Nash is in line for a pay cut. How much, as well as how long his next deal might be, will be determined by his performance in 2017-18. He could get a two- or three-year contract, either from the Rangers or another team as a free agent. A healthy season in which he exceeds 30 goals and 50 points could net him $6 million per season.
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The first overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft, Tavares is the New York Islanders’ franchise player. Now in his ninth season, the 27-year-old must prove he remains among the league’s elite players.
Tavares has an impressive resume. He’s scored over 20 goals eight times and exceeded 60 points six times, including two 80-plus point campaigns (2011-12 and 2014-15). He’s a two-time finalist (2013 and 2015) for the Hart Memorial Trophy and was named to the 2015 First All-Star Team.
But since his career-best 86-point performance in 2014-15, Tavares’ numbers have declined. He had 70 points in 2015-16 and 66 last season. A further drop-off in production could affect his contract negotiations.
Doug Weight’s hiring as head coach midway through 2016-17 improved Tavares’ production over the remainder of that season. Offseason surgery on his injured right hand should also help the Isles captain return to form.
Tavares is unquestionably the best player eligible for UFA status in 2018. A return to 80-point form should ensure he gets a seven-year contract (eight, if he re-signs with the Isles) for at least $10 million annually.
Player stats via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly. Award info via Hockey Reference.