The playoffs can give UFAs and RFAs a final proving ground to boost their stocks – or drain them, depending on how they play.
Recency bias is real. It helped Corey Perry win the Hart Trophy in 2011 after a blistering finish to his season. It’s also a big reason why so many top-ranked prospects in our annual Future Watch edition happen to be standouts from the World Junior Championship, which concludes just before out scouting panel votes.
And it can impact contract negotiations too, for better or worse. Post-season play is the final thing that sticks in GMs' minds before hammering out new deals. Which free agents, restricted or unrestricted, have affected their wallets the most based on their performances in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals (UFA)
Carlson was already set to earn the most money of anyone not named John Tavares this off-season. When you’re a right-shot defenseman in his prime and lead all NHL blueliners in scoring, that’s a license to print money. But, especially for big-minute defensemen, the playoffs are an important proving ground. Look at how the perception of UFA-to-be Kevin Shattenkirk changed last spring when he struggled in the post-season. Carlson, though, has been a horse for the Caps, averaging more than 27 minutes and better than a point per game. If Washington upsets Pittsburgh, Carlson will be a big reason why. He was set to command a $7-million AAV on the open market but might be pricing himself into the $8-million range with his play so far this post-season.
Connor Hellebuyck, G, Winnipeg Jets (RFA)
All-Star Game appearance: check. Vezina Trophy finalist: check. The only thing working against Hellebuyck earning a monster extension was the fact he’s only been an elite goaltender one season. The playoff performance serves almost like a second sample size, though, and should ensure he gets a big long-term contract this off-season. He rebounded from being pulled in Game 3 against the Minnesota Wild to post consecutive shutouts and close out the series, and he’s also outduelling probable Vezina winner Pekka Rinne in Round 2 thus far. There’s no reason Winnipeg shouldn’t lock Hellebuyck up to something at least as good as what the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Frederik Andersen as an RFA before he even played a game for them: a five year, $25-million deal. That’s the floor for Hellebuyck.
Paul Stastny, C, Winnipeg Jets (UFA)
It didn’t take long for Stastny to earn an “overpaid” label when he inked a four-year, $28-million deal with the St. Louis Blues in July 2014. He ranks 40th among all NHL centers in scoring since, which doesn’t cut it considering he’s 15th at his position in AAV. The Jets acquired him as a useful rental who can play in all situations, but the thinking was he’d be a “swing-man” with Bryan Little, centering the second or third line.
Instead, Stastny has blown past little and formed an outstanding No. 2 trio with Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine. Stastny averages better than a point per game in the 2018 playoffs and is playing his best hockey since his early Colorado Avalanche days. He’ll never be a $7-million dollar man again, but he’s played his way back into $5-million territory. Heck, maybe more, considering how big the dropoff at center is after Tavares in this year’s UFA class. The Jets count Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey among their big-ticket RFAs needing new deals this summer, so they may have trouble finding room in their budget for Stastny, but it sure feels like he’s a great fit in Winnipeg now.
Honorable mention: Evander Kane, LW, San Jose Sharks (UFA)
Michael Grabner, RW, New Jersey Devils (UFA)
Over the past two regular seasons, Grabner is tied for ninth in even-strength goals at 51, the same as Patrik Laine (!). We know who Grabner is at this point: a handy third-liner with great speed who is disruptive on the penalty kill and scores more than he should. At least, that’s who we thought Grabner was when the Devils rented him as a UFA. After he potted two goals in 21 games post-trade, he wound up a healthy scratch in four of New Jersey’s six playoff games. Ugh. Press box time is never a good look for a pending UFA. It may have shaved a million bucks off Grabner’s next deal.
William Nylander, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs (RFA)
Look: I’m as much a Nylander apologist as anyone. But that doesn’t change the fact tangible results matter in contract negotiations. We knew entering 2017-18 that Auston Matthews was guaranteed a monster deal once eligible to sign an extension this summer – think eight years and at least $10 million per season. Mitch Marner, a 2019 RFA, and Nylander, a 2018 RFA, would either secure big contracts in the David Pastrnak/Leon Draisaitl range or enter the bridge-deal realm if they didn’t show growth.
Marner was arguably Toronto’s best player this season and will get his long, lucrative contract at this point. Nylander, though, had a down year and wound up in coach Mike Babcock’s doghouse in Round 1 against Boston, demoted at times from the top line and sometimes buried as low as the fourth. Nylander will be just fine, but it’s difficult to imagine him earning something similar to what Marner will get at this point. If Nylander ends up taking, say, a pseudo-bridge deal in the four-year range, it might actually help the Leafs financially, so Nylander’s stagnant season could be a blessing in disguise.
Nick Ritchie, LW, Anaheim Ducks (RFA)
Ritchie was picked directly after Nylander and Ehlers and before Kevin Fiala in the 2014 draft. Ritchie has provided the physicality he was always supposed to when Anaheim took him, but he’s not the dominant power forward they hoped he’d be. The playoffs should be his wheelhouse when the officials pocket their whistles more often, but he didn’t record a point and managed just three shots in four games. He was a non-factor in Anaheim’s sweep loss to San Jose. Ritchie hasn’t shown enough to earn a long-term deal with the Ducks as an RFA – unless he wants to bet against himself and take a boatload of years at a low AAV, like Calle Jarnkrok did with the Predators.
Dishonorable mention: Leo Komarov, Toronto Maple Leafs