Players in contract years seem to perform at a different level in order to land the big time contracts. Then, when said player lays an egg during subsequent seasons, we can complain about the contract. All the players mentioned below are top shelf fantasy options and will all be drafted in the upper half of our drafts. And, like it or not, free agents, restricted or unrestricted, all seem to step up their game, and this group will be no different. So, remember these names on draft day and expect production, possibly more production than usual since larger pay days loom on the horizon.
1) Brent Burns - UFA (D/RW, San Jose): The high-scoring defenseman is up for grabs at season’s end if the Sharks cannot lock him down ASAP, and there will be 29 offers on the Burns table. San Jose is up against the salary cap and will need to sign UFA’s Burns, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, and with the Sharks contending for a Cup, this will be interesting to watch unfold. Burns is a top-15 pick and will never disappoint fantasy drafters.
2) Ben Bishop - UFA (G, Tampa Bay): The Tampa management has some crucial decisions to make right now, let alone when next year’s RFA crop needs contracts. Right now, Nikita Kucherov (RFA) is still unsigned, and Bishop will be an unrestricted free agent by season's end. The team could decide to play the season out, make a deep Cup run, and risk losing Bishop for nothing. Or, they could trade Bishop to Dallas or another team in need of one of the best goalies on Earth, run with Andrei Vasilevsky and save some money to sign Tyler Johnson, Ondej Palat and Johnathan Drouin next year. Something’s got to give in Tampa unless the salary cap jumps $10 million. Irrespective where Bishop suits up, he will play outstanding, and due a pay raise from his current $5.9 million salary, expect production.
3) Ryan Johansen - RFA (C/RW, Nashville): Johansen will be a prime candidate in a prime position to play beyond his statistics of last season. With a salary of $6 million and with a $4 million cap hit, the Predators certainly can afford to increase Johansen’s salary when he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the 2016-17 campaign. Ryan is in a great spot, with an excellent supporting staff in place to help his cause, and at 24, he’s beginning to tap his potential. This all should earn the former disgruntled Blue Jacket a multi-year contract for over six million per, if he performs to the dominant level he has flashed in the past.
4) Brad Marchand - UFA (LW, Boston): If Marchand can top his campaign from last year, he will indeed turn that into a nice pay increase from his current $4.5 million per anum. Just into his prime years (at 27), the Nova Scotia native lit it up for the Bruins with 37 goals, though only six were on the power play while four came short-handed. With Loui Ericsson in Vancouver, Brad will slot top unit power play minutes and can match his production from 2015-16. Marchand fills the stat sheet for us in fantasy, and expect him to play very well for the possible money on the line.
5) Kevin Shattenkirk - UFA (D, St. Louis): The Blues are clueless if they don’t re-sign their top four defensemen, and all the talks of trading Shatt may come to fruition due to the deeper defensive corps in St. Louis. But, the team better get better than Rick Nash for him. Now in his prime, expect Shattenkirk to continue his steady play and a solid 22-23 minutes per game and 40-50 points, and if the Blues can’t sign him, expect him to be traded for help up front.
6) Joe Thornton - UFA (C, San Jose): "The San Jose Sharks are in a tight spot," to paraphrase George Clooney from "O Brother Where Art Thou." With about $400K in cap space and Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau all UFA’s at season's end, it is easy to see why the Sharks are struggling with decisions. GM Doug Wilson could very well ship off all three of them for draft picks and a brighter future. Thornton was again a beast last year, but at 37, how much money can he expect, and how much longer can he play? If Joe is on top of his game and the Sharks are contending, do they risk losing all three for zero at the end? This is almost as interesting as the Tampa mess to come. Thornton will get paid, but by whom remains the mystery.
7) Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Johnathan Drouin – RFA’s (Tampa Bay): Not to throw gas on the Tampa checkbook because they still haven’t signed this year’s top RFA Nikita Kucherov, but at the end of next season, these three studs will be looking for raises as well. In my opinion, Ben Bishop is gone. There’s no way on Earth GM Steve Yzerman can afford this. It makes me wish the salary cap was gone for a decade to watch this team rack up Cups like the Oilers did in the 80’s. Drouin may just get a bridge deal for a few years, but Johnson and Palat will be due raises based on how well they play this season, or they could be traded. I’m on pins and needles waiting for this mess to iron itself out, and so are 29 other NHL teams.
Other key free agents: Tyler Toffoli, Brian Elliott, Evgeny Kusnetsov, Tomas Tatar, Peter Mrazek, Alex Galchenyuk, Alexander Radulov.