NHL Players Who Must Stand Out in Contract Years
Playing for a new contract is one of the most powerful motivators in sports.
This is especially true in the NHL, where owners open up their checkbooks every summer to sign, and in most cases overpay, the top free agents on the market.
The 2014 class of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) features a lot of star players (Joe Thornton, Dion Phaneuf, Henrik Lundqvist, etc.) who will likely earn a sizable contract regardless of how well they play next season. With that said, there are many players who won't earn a massive payday without a tremendous year in which they raise their performance to another level.
Let's look at some notable players who must stand out in the 2013-14 season to cash in as UFAs.
Note: All salary information via CapGeek.
Marian Gaborik, Columbus Blue Jackets
Marian Gaborik has been one of the league's best goal scorers since the 2004-05 lockout. In that time, he has scored 38 or more goals four times.
But there are two concerns with the 31-year-old winger.
Gaborik's durability is always a question given his troubles staying healthy consistently. Over the last eight years, he's missed 148 games with just one 82-game season. Another issue with Gaborik is his playoff pedigree. In his last 31 playoff games, he's tallied just 14 points (six goals, eight assists).
The Columbus Blue Jackets star is entering the final season of a five-year, $37.5 million deal. If Gaborik wants to earn a new contract with an annual average value (AAV) anywhere close to the $7.5 million he will receive in 2013-14, the Slovakian must stay healthy, score goals and help the Blue Jackets reach the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche
Paul Stastny was a budding superstar after the 2010 Winter Olympics, but the Colorado Avalanche center hasn't improved his skills or offensive production over the last three years.
Here's a look at his recent scoring totals starting with the 2009-10 season.
It's going to be extremely difficult for Stastny to earn his current average salary of $6.6 million with the next contract he signs. A player who has failed to reach his potential and keep his role of No. 1 center is not someone the Avalanche should commit a lot of money to long term.
Complicating matters further for the 27-year-old is the impressive amount of depth that Colorado has at the center position. No. 1 overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon, two-way star Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene give the Avalanche three young, talented centers to build around for the future.
Unless he has a tremendous year and finally scores at a point-per-game level, Stastny could find himself as the odd man out down the middle in Colorado.
It will be interesting to see how he responds to the pressure of playing for what could be the final major contract of his career.
Mike Cammalleri, Calgary Flames
Mike Cammalleri has underperformed throughout his five-year, $30 million contract. After an impressive 2008-09 season in which he scored 82 points in 81 games for the Calgary Flames, Cammalleri has failed to tally more than 50 points or play in 70 games in each of the last four years.
The 31-year-old winger has missed 52 games over the last four years due to injuries. Cammalleri's inability to play a full season has prevented him from being productive on the ice, evidenced by his failure to score 20-plus goals since finding the back of the net 26 times in 2009-10.
If Cammalleri proves his durability next year and performs at the level expected of a top-six forward (50-80 points), he will earn another long-term contract as a UFA.
A midseason trade from the rebuilding Flames to a playoff contender would be a good situation for him in 2013-14. His impressive postseason resume (32 points in 32 career playoff games) is one of the biggest reasons why teams will pursue him in free agency.
Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues
Jaroslav Halak's breakout performance in the 2010 NHL playoffs, when he led the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens on an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference Final, earned him a four-year, $15 million contract from the St. Louis Blues after they acquired him that summer via trade.
Unfortunately for both parties, injuries have prevented Halak from carrying the Blues past the second round of the playoffs in his three years with the club.
When healthy, Halak has been a legitimate No. 1 goaltender for St. Louis. Over the last two years, he posted a combined 2.05 GAA, a .913 save percentage and a record of 32-17-8.
The goal for Halak next year is to stay healthy and help the Blues reach the Western Conference Final for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
A fantastic regular-season and playoff run would make Halak the top UFA goalie on the market in 2014, which could result in a massive payday because there are a few high-spending teams that might be looking for a new No. 1 goaltender next summer, including the Philadelphia Flyers.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chicago Blackhawks
Niklas Hjalmarsson became one of the Chicago Blackhawks' most important players last season and played a key role in the team's Stanley Cup run.
During the 2013 NHL playoffs, the Swedish defenseman led the Blackhawks in takeaways among defensemen (16), finished third with a plus-10 rating and ranked second in blocked shots (42).
As the 26-year-old enters the prime of his career, he has the potential to become an elite, shutdown defenseman. Hjalmarsson's consistently strong performance was a major reason why Chicago ranked first in GAA and third in penalty-killing percentage last season.
He's capable of logging 20-plus minutes against the opposing teams' top scorers and shutting them down while also adding scoring production from the blue line with his puck-moving skill and powerful shot.
Hjalmarsson will make $3.5 million in the final year of his contract, and another impressive season could result in that salary doubling in his next deal.
The starting point for the Blackhawks defenseman in his next contract negotiatons will likely be the new seven-year deal worth $36 million that Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian just signed. Hjalmarsson is a much better and more accomplished player than Bogosian.
Devan Dubnyk, Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers are expecting a breakout season from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk. The 27-year-old has shown flashes of impressive play over the last few years, but he has yet to prove that he deserves to be the team's No. 1 goalie of the future.
Dubnyk will get that opportunity in 2013-14, and his performance may be the biggest factor in the Oilers' chances of ending their seven-year playoff drought.
After the team improved the blue line by drafting Darnell Nurse with the seventh overall pick and with the UFA signing of Andrew Ference, Dubnyk will have a better group of defensemen in front of him that will likely lessen the amount of high-quality scoring chances for him to stop each game.
The goal for Dubnyk is simple: If he leads the Oilers to the postseason and performs at a high level consistently, he will likely become a $5 million player signed to a long-term deal.
It's hard to imagine him earning another chance to prove himself in Edmonton beyond the 2013-14 season.
Dan Girardi, New York Rangers
Dan Girardi is the heart and soul of the New York Rangers' blue line.
He blocks shots, kills penalties, logs over 20 minutes per game against the opposing teams' top scorers, wears down opponents with physical play and excels in a leadership role.
He led the NHL in blocked shots last season (125), one year after finishing fifth with 185. Girardi also plays a valuable role on special teams, evidenced by his 3:02 of short-handed ice time and 2:08 of power-play ice time for New York in 2013.
As an elite defenseman, Girardi has been one of the league's most underpaid players over the last two years with an annual salary of $3.325 million.
If he doesn't get a lucrative long-term contract from the Rangers before next summer, he will on the open market because every championship team needs a stay-at-home defenseman who excels against the league's best offensive players.
Another all-star-caliber year from Girardi could result in him earning well over $5.5 million per year in his next contract.
Matt Moulson, New York Islanders
Matt Moulson is one of the NHL's most under-appreciated players. He's scored 30-plus goals in each of the last three non-lockout seasons and tallied 44 points in 47 games last year, setting a new career-high of 0.93 points per game.
The veteran winger has benefited greatly from the playmaking skills of Hart Trophy finalist and No. 1 center John Tavares on the New York Islanders' top line, and it's vitally important that the team keeps this duo intact for the foreseeable future.
The 29-year-old is entering the final year of a three-year deal that has an average salary of $3.33 million. If Moulson scores 30 or more goals next season and maintains his impressive consistency offensively, he will deserve a new contract that pays him at least $5 million per year.
He's in the prime of his career and has already developed strong chemistry with the face of the franchise in Tavares, which is why there's no reason for the Islanders to allow Moulson to hit the free-agent market.
Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Corey Crawford joined the NHL's elite last season with a remarkable regular season (19-5-5, .926 SV%, 1.94 GAA) and a stellar playoff performance (16-7, .932 SV%, 1.84 GAA) that culminated in a Stanley Cup title for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Crawford, 28, proved his doubters wrong and made the big saves when it mattered most after failing to perform at a high level in the team's two previous first-round playoff exits.
His next challenge will be to handle the expectations and pressure that all top-tier goalies deal with for a full season and show the consistency that Chicago will want to see before giving him a lucrative, long-term deal.
With a salary of $2.67 million next season, Crawford will be underpaid, but he has a great opportunity to become a $5 million man with another good season in which the Blackhawks make a deep playoff run as defending champions.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.