Capped: Salary increases from soon-to-be free agents
Picking up from last week, we're going to cover a few more players who are set to hit the free agent market at the end of the playoffs. This is their last chance to build up their résumé for the bargaining table, and a poor regular season could be completely erased by strong play in the bubble. We're now a few games into the conference finals, and all of the teams have congregated in Edmonton. On these four teams, we have seen a few players greatly outplay expectations, and that is why they are still alive.
I know that I just said the players who were outplaying their expectations helped their teams into the final four, however the Chicago Blackhawks made it farther than they were supposed to, in part due to the load carried by a few of their pending free agents. Dominik Kubalik shouldered more than his share of the offensive burden and could be looking at DeBrincat's cap hit number as something worth aiming for now. Goaltender Corey Crawford was the backbone of the playoff push, and though he wasn't great, he was as good as he had to be to win games – which is saying something considering the defencemen in front of him. Defenceman Slater Koekkoek also showed well, and may have earned himself some rope towards earning a full-time spot in the lineup from the start of next season. He's a free agent this summer and won't be expensive.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay has the trio of RFAs that everyone will be watching this summer. Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and especially Mikhail Sergachev have outplayed expectations and proven themselves to be valuable parts of the core of this team. The other less-heralded names to consider are Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk. Maroon may re-up with Tampa Bay, as they will need to fill out some cheap depth, and Maroon has shown himself to be a valuable piece worthy of one of those contract slots. At this point in his career, the Stanley Cup opportunity may be worth more to him that the numbers on his contract.
On the back end, Shattenkirk has priced himself out of Tampa. The 10-year NHL veteran hasn't been asked to carry a heavy load in his own end, but he has been pulling more than his own weight in the offensive zone. He will be a second pair guy next year taking more than his share of the offensive zone time, and at his current projected $3 million AAV, he could still be a valuable asset for your fantasy team.
Vegas Golden Knights
There isn't a lot to say here that I haven't covered in my past few articles around Robin Lehner. He is one of the best goalies in the league, and his next contract isn't looking like it will break the bank, despite hitting the UFA market at the age of 29, right after a (thus-far) dominant playoff run. His stock isn't as low as it was mid-season, but it will continue going up for the next year. Better late than never getting on board.
Last eliminated team, I swear. On forward the two names to note for the Avalanche are Andre Burakovsky (RFA), and Vladislav Namestnikov (UFA). Both forwards are up for new deals, but of the two Burakovsky went full supernova. The 25-year-old finally hit his 400 games played breakout threshold after tantalizing poolies for years in Washington. He now looks to be hitting a new gear in the bubble playoffs. I was feeling that my projection of $5.5 million for Burakovsky was a little high, but he earned every cent of that in the postseason.
Take a quick guess who had more points for the Avalanche in the postseason, Nikita Zadorov or Ryan Graves? It was surprisingly the behemoth Zadorov who upped his offensive output in the post-season – not that extra offense is in short supply in Colorado. Zadorov was scratched a few times through the season but filled in capably in the post-season. The extra scoring was nice to see from the 25-year-old RFA who will likely fit in as a depth defenceman at a similar cost as his last deal. Graves is clearly ahead of Zadorov on the depth chart and was going to be paid the bigger bucks regardless of his postseason showing. His offence didn't show up, but he was driving play with a largely-improved shot share despite taking more ice time per game all in the defensive zone. He will be priced out of usefulness in points leagues, but in leagues counting hits and blocks among other stats, Graves is becoming one of the key guys to own.
As a feel-good story, Michael Hutchinson likely earned himself another contract, though with the packed goalie carousel, it may only be a two-way deal.
New York Islanders
The Islanders have a big set of cap trouble coming up, and a few big contracts to sign. Mat Barzal and Ryan Pulock have been solid, but they haven't necessarily upped their value from what they had already shown in the regular season. Hopefully for their fantasy owners, Lou can coax the core pieces into taking more team friendly deals in the meantime.
A couple years ago I traded a mid-round 2021 pick for Denis Gurianov in one pool, as his owner didn't have the space on his farm to keep him. Had I held onto him, this move would be paying off in spades. Unfortunately, I flipped him for some spare parts that haven't amounted to much, only to watch him break out this season. His rise should have been expected based on where he was drafted, however in the three years between, his stock dropped mightily. Good news for Gurianov, is his big season (and even bigger playoffs!) has come just as his ELC comes to an end, and he is due for a raise. My model has him projected for around $2.5 million at the moment, which would make sense for both sides as a number on a shorter-term bridge deal. However, if his playoff stats are for real, then he could be a huge steal at that price. Through 18 games thus far, he has upped his scoring to a pace that would mean nearly reaching 70 points in a full regular season, all the while posting almost three hits per game and two shots per game.
Dallas has $15 million to spend with the core of their roster locked up for next season already. Re-upping their bottom six (including Gurianov) shouldn't prove difficult, despite most of them earning moderate raises with their play of late. The one piece that is looking unlikely to return for Dallas is Anton Khudobin. The 34-year old goaltender has carried a starter's workload, and looked excellent in doing so. His ratio stats aren't quite at the elite level they were in the regular season, but his play through the summer may be the difference between starting goalie money elsewhere or backup money in a possible return to Dallas. As a backup Khudobin projects at an AAV around $2.5 million for next year; however, as a starter that would nearly double.
Programming note: NHL Free Agency is officially set for October ninth. Over the coming weeks I will be updating and releasing my final skater contract predictions and rankings (Sept 17th and 25th), as well as the inaugural goaltending contract predictions and rankings (Sept 24th and 26th). Stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you have any article topics for me to look into, give me a shout! You can find me on Twitter @alexdmaclean for questions, comments, or article requests.
And stay safe!
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