Follow this column long enough and you are bound to hear me discuss the pursuit of impending unrestricted free agents in their final contract year. On more than one occasion this strategy has been utilized with great success, so it’s only right to cover some names both this week and the next who will fall under this jurisdiction in 2018-19. All of the following are known commodities in the fantasy landscape, which stand to put out a career year in order to secure financial wealth albeit at different rates of pay. All but one of the players covered this week are smack dab in their prime and stand to sign at least a five year contract should they perform admirably this year. The draw of millions of dollars is all most anyone need to put on their best performance.
The one player covered this week that is no longer on the right side of his prime at 33 years of age, there’s no denying the former Carolina Hurricanes captain has seen his career revitalized after a move out to the state of hockey (Minnesota). As a Rangers fan, I find it quite frustrating to see him score 40 plus goals for the Wild when he could not so much as look like a decent third line center in Manhattan. Alas, the move to the Wild proves that in order for Staal to be the player he is, he must be a focal point offensively and not a complimentary piece to others. When the season is all said and done, the Thunder Bay, Ontario native will be 34 years old. Likely looking at the last lucrative deal of his career, the motivation to set his family up for life after hockey is more than enough driving force to post another 70-point season. The Wild are more or less the same team, especially in the top six, so expect Staal to once again center the top line and primary man advantage unit.
Skinner above all others might be the one playing for the most, as he now must prove that the trading of future considerations was worth it to the Buffalo Sabres brain trust. He now finds himself with an opportunity to play with Jack Eichel and the two could make magic together. Two campaigns removed from a 37-goal output and still netting 24 in what was a down year last season, Skinner is looking for that long term deal as he enters his later twenties. 30 goals or more is what he needs to ascertain this; no ifs, ands, or buts. The Toronto native is an enigmatic case, as his 2017-18 production will be considered a letdown, yet he shot a meager 8.7% and was strong in possession posting a 55% Corsi while being centered by the not otherworldly Derek Ryan. 2016-17 saw him shooting 13.2% leading to 37 goals, so if he can attain somewhat close to this he will certainly score said 30 goals with him being one of the more dangerous snipers in the game. Pray for a better usage scenario in Buffalo, preferably the top six. One cannot envision him in anything less after what Buffalo had to give up. Still a healthy source of shots with 277 last year, bank on statistical regression towards the mean regarding shooting leading to more goals.
Amidst the soap opera that was and still is Ottawa, Matt Duchene quietly put together a productive campaign with the Senators after a slow start post-trade. Posting 39 points over the final 42 games, Duchene was back to being the slick player he showcased at times with the Colorado Avalanche. In watching him, I noticed he was very reminiscent of his 70-point output in 2013-14, making quick confident decisions with the puck and relishing his position as the top pivot. In a featured role, Duchene did all he could do collect some wins for a flailing Ottawa squad. A high-end option for faceoffs in multi-cat settings with 717 draws won last year, Duchene will make for a bargain pick in coming drafts. The drama surrounding the team on top of them just not being great these days will lead to adherence. Now 27, Duchene is playing for what will likely be the highest dollar/longest term deal of his career. Gone from the Avalanche organization, Duchene’s mind is clear of all non-hockey related shenanigans and ready to help your team rack up some victories.
Playing for a team that was a pleasant surprise across the roster, Nate Schmidt came over from the Washington Capitals in the expansion draft and established himself as an important piece of the Vegas Golden Knights blue line. Going from 15 minutes a night in his final year in the District of Columbia to 22 minutes a night in Sin City, Schmidt more than doubled his prior career high 17 points. With a five goal, 31 assist output in 2017-18 seeing top pairing duty with Brayden McNabb, the University of Minnesota product made for a wonderful waiver-wire addition in most leagues. A nice source for blocks with 121, Schmidt made for a good depth piece on your blue line essentially free of charge if you were lucky enough to scoop him up early on. He faded somewhat in the fourth quarter, but I am willing to give him a pass as this was his first go as a top-four defender and overall performed well. A summer to prepare for what he now knows it takes, I see another strong season for the Golden Gopher.
Ellis will more than likely go down as the bargain of all bargain offensive blueliners in 2018-19 so highlight his name triple-fold. In a great situation as far as obscurity buried behind more household names P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, the 27-year old posted a 0.73 PTS/GM in 44 games played last year. At that rate of production, had he played an entire season he would’ve been in 60-point territory. Nonetheless his 32 points scored in half a season is nothing to sneeze at and savvy owners need to recognize the coming breakout. Playing on the top pair with Josi at even strength, he’s in a great position to surpass the 40-point threshold easily with potential for far more. Subban and Josi will absolutely go before Ellis, yet he will arguably provide better production for the price to be paid. Going plus-26, he is essentially never a liability while being strong in possession posting a 55.64 CF%. Ellis is flying under the radar like a Nick Leddy, albeit without horrendous plus-minus, which only makes him a better investment. Leddy was a player I discussed last summer to nab and besides plus minus he produced offensively. Ellis needs to pull a 2017-18 John Carlson to secure a big payday in lieu of any past offensively prolific campaign. Go get this guy. You won’t be disappointed.
When Lee usurps the 30-goal mark in the post-John Tavares era, maybe he will finally be recognized as a top-end goal scorer in this league. Not to say Tavares did not play some part in his success, but Lee needs more credit for the player he is in his own right. Mathew Barzal has already proven his high-end playmaking ability in year one, he will step right into the void. Though not able to fill Tavares’ shoes in all-around fashion, can certainly set wingers up routinely. Lighting the lamp 74 times in the past 162 regular season games, Lee is one of the better goal scorers in the game today, end of story. When Lee wants to go to the net, he cannot be stopped – plain and simple. I’ve watched many a game in Brooklyn whilst living in New York City and never have I seen him outmuscled. Everyone is going to bring his uncharacteristically high shooting percentage to the table when discussing future production, but believe me he just knows how to score. This is because he is more than willing to go to the dirty area in front of the net and find those rebounds. Now 28 years old, he will be relied on even heavier to produce goals with the franchise center gone. Alongside him, Jordan Eberle also finds himself ready to become a UFA, so keep him on your draft radars also everyone.
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