Impending Free Agents Whose Stock Has Soared in 2014 NHL Playoffs
There's nothing like a strong Stanley Cup run to improve a free agent's bargaining position.
Last year, for instance, Chicago's Bryan Bickell scored 17 points on his way to landing a rich four-year, $4.0 million dollar deal that would have been inconceivable just two months previously.
Which free agents could be pumping up their offers this year?
To answer that question I studied a variety of different analytics for each of the pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who have seen postseason action. Red-hot restricted free agents like Lars Eller and P.K. Subban were excluded.
Any established stars who merely reinforced their perceived value were ignored—like Jarome Iginla or Andrei Markov. Only those whose negotiating positions were substantially improved by their playoff performances were included.
The speculative nature of this analysis leaves a lot of room for subjective opinion, so be sure to weigh in with your own. Let's begin!
All advanced statistics are from Extra Skater or via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
10. Dominic Moore, New York Rangers
A year ago it looked like Dominic Moore's NHL career could be over.
Shopping around nine different teams in seven seasons, Moore took a year off after losing his wife following a long battle with liver cancer. This was yet another tragedy for a man whose older brother Steve was badly injured as a result of the infamous Todd Bertuzzi attack.
The 33-year-old nevertheless made a brave return to the NHL, signing a one-year deal with the New York Rangers.
After a fine season where he scored 18 points as a serviceable fourth line center, Adam Rotter speculated that "Moore will get an extension of probably one year and a slight raise over his salary of $1 million."
Moore has been a defensive stalwart for the New York Rangers, handling the bulk of their own-zone shifts alongside Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett and keeping the team largely even.
The veteran is doing all the little things that matter. He's third among the team's forwards in penalty-killing time, has won 53.0 percent of his faceoffs and his eight drawn penalties are one back of Ryan McDonagh for the team lead.
His ice time has gradually increased throughout the postseason to the point where he's playing 15 minutes a game in the Conference Finals.
Offensively, Moore has six points in 17 games for the Rangers—including the game winning goal in Game 5 of the opening-round series with the Flyers.
Moore is making the case that he is not just a replacement-level fourth-line center and is positioning himself for more than a "slight raise"—though he may sacrifice part of that raise for a longer-term deal. Except Moore to sign a career-best deal if his play continues.
9. Jonas Gustavsson, Detroit Red Wings
Jonas Gustavsson's five-season career save percentage of .900 is the lowest among any of this season's goalies who have at least 50 games over that span. The 29-year-old Swede is consequently not very highly regarded—even with a relatively low annual cap hit that has been between $1.35 and $1.5 million over the past four seasons.
Gustavsson did have a strong start to the season with a .933 save percentage through December 12, but his .886 save percentage the rest of the way will make it difficult for "Monster" to secure NHL employment for 2014-15.
It's hard to find any UFA goalie who increased their value this postseason. Ryan Miller, Ray Emery, Ilya Bryzgalov, Jonas Hiller and Tim Thomas all failed to impress even those who had more modest expectations.
It was equally hard to find any UFA on the Red Wings that improved their negotiating position for the summer. Daniel Alfredsson, David Legwand, Todd Bertuzzi, Kyle Quincey and Mikael Samuelsson all failed to make an impression.
The only UFA goalie and/or Red Wing to build his case was Gustavsson, who saw his first playoff action when starter Jimmy Howard fell victim to the flu.
He stopped 37 of 40 shots in Game 4's overtime loss, and then 27 of 30 in game five.
Though not a masterful performance, it was quite solid, and his .917 save percentage was second among UFAs to San Jose's Alex Stalock.
Even in just two games Gustavsson may have done enough to secure himself an NHL backup job next year and a deal that will remain north of a million per season.
8. Benoit Pouliot, New York Rangers
Benoit Pouliot, a former fourth overall selection, signed a simple one-year, $1.3 million deal with the New York Rangers last summer. It would make the fifth time in five seasons that the 27-year-old would start an NHL season with a new team.
It was a strong season for one of New York's many reclamation projects. Pouliot set a career high of 36 points and topped 1000 minutes for the first time. He entered the playoffs hot—scoring nine points in the final 10 games.
The Rangers have outscored opponents 16-7 while Pouliot's been on the ice, the second greatest margin on the team to Brad Richards. Pouliot himself has three goals and eight points in 17 games—four each against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—including the series-winning goal against Philadelphia.
Of course, those were relatively easy minutes.
Pouliot's job isn't to play defense or kill penalties. It is to provide secondary offense. He gets the largest offensive zone boost on the team, plays against average opponents and enjoys 40.4 percent of all power play minutes.
Pouliot's fine performance down the stretch and throughout the postseason may provide some teams enough confidence that he is showing signs of that initial promise and is, therefore, worth gambling some decent money that he could play on a top-six scoring line.
7. Mike Weaver, Montreal Canadiens
Mike Weaver has been one of the NHL's great values for years. He has been handling some of Florida's toughest minutes for an annual cap hit of $1.1 million or below for four years.
If Weaver couldn't get a big deal in that time then it is unlikely he can get one now at age 36.
Montreal has amazingly outscored opponents 9-3 when Weaver has been on the ice at even strength—the largest advantage on the team—despite being used almost exclusively in the defensive zone. Granted most of that was against the depth lines, but it's still an impressive feat.
Weaver himself has four points in 14 games.
That may not seem like much, but when his six points in 17 post-trade games is added in and then extrapolated over a full 82-game schedule the resulting 26 points would blow away his 12-season career high by 10.
As expected he has also been a key member of the penalty kill, eating up over 60 percent of such minutes to essentially tie Josh Gorges for the team lead.
Weaver's solid postseason play has no doubt extended his career and possibly will lead to his most lucrative contract ever.
6. Dany Heatley, Minnesota Wild
Nothing damages a player's reputation quite like a bad contract.
Heatley's $7.5 million annual cap hit over the past six seasons overshadowed the fact that he was still a decent top-six winger for the majority of that period, during which time he ranked 25th in goals and 42nd in points.
However, any credit Heatley may be due ends there. This season the 33-year-old managed just 12 goals and 28 points, and his minus-18 was the team's worst by 11 goals.
Only the most daring of teams would consider reserving a precious top-six role for Heatley, and for potentially about only a small fraction of his customary compensation.
Heatley was a healthy scratch for the first two games of Minnesota's opening round series against Colorado (both losses). The team then won four of its next five games after his re-insertion.
He was an especially integral part of their 5-4 Game 7 overtime victory overly the Avalanche in which he scored three points.
In all, Heatley scored six points in 11 games—all but one of which was earned against the Avalanche. The key was being used primarily versus Colorado's notoriously weak depth lines. Chicago's great depth could be why Heatley was shut down and used far less frequently as that series progressed.
Minnesota had a 135-85 advantage in attempted shots when Heatley was on the ice this postseason, outscoring opponents 8-2 for a team-best plus-6.
His success this postseason establishes his superiority to the average bottom-six forward while still possessing the potential upside of being a scoring line option and/or power specialist.
While not exactly an earth-shattering performance, it could be enough to warrant gambling a non-trivial sum on one of the game's most prolific former snipers.
5. Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Niskanen already boosted his value in the regular season. Devastating blue line injuries, especially to Kris Letang and Paul Martin, gave Niskanen lots of time with Pittsburgh's two scoring phenoms Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
He consequently managed 46 points in 81 games—more than he managed in the 178 games he played over the preceding three seasons combined.
Despite a general awareness that his numbers may have been boosted, Niskanen established himself as a legitimate top-four defenseman who was due for a big increase from his current $2.3 million cap hit.
Any remaining doubts about Niskanen were erased by his nine points in 13 games. Through two rounds of postseason action that was good enough for fourth among the league's defensemen, tied with the highly respected Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty.
Niskanen also reinforced his status as one of the postseason's better puck-moving defensemen. He was on the ice for all seven of Pittsburgh's power play goals, scoring or assisting on all but one.
On the flip side, the playoffs also served to confirm some perceived flaws in Niskanen's game too.
He didn't kill penalties, took four minor penalties while drawing none, struggled at times in his own zone and was kept to just a single point in the second-round matchup against the Rangers.
Free agent defensemen can sometimes go for quite the premium, and Niskanen could easily sign a deal that carried an annual cap hit of $5.0 million or more.
It is at least conceivable that the most lucrative deal for a UFA blue liner this year could be for his services.
4. Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche
Paul Stastny scored 83 goals and 264 points in his first 274 games and 77 and 194 in the 264 that followed.
Despite the U.S. Olympian's undeniably strong two-way play on a rebuilding team, that roughly one-quarter drop in scoring is enough to suspect that the 28-year-old would not be able to exceed his current $6.6 million deal.
Stastny led Colorado with five goals and 10 points—including seven points in the first two games. He was, however, kept to just a single point when Minnesota was at home and, therefore, able to match lines.
His scoring totals weren't bloated by soft minutes either.
Stastny finished eight seconds behind Ryan O'Reilly for the team lead among forwards in average ice time while having the team's toughest average quality of competition, killing penalties and frequently starting his shifts in the defensive zone.
Stastny's playoff success further cements his status as the strongest top-line two-way forward available through free agency.
There could very well be several NHL teams prepared to offer Stastny this offseason's richest deal to center their top line and score 70 points. If so, it certainly wouldn't be the biggest free agent gamble recently.
3. Jussi Jokinen, Pittsburgh Penguins
Jussi Jokinen's value was quite recently next to nothing.
When playing for Carolina in late March of 2013 he actually cleared waivers, and the Hurricanes actually retained part of his $3.0 million cap hit when he was subsequently dealt to Pittsburgh for a conditional pick.
He closed the 2013 season with 10 points in 11 games and finished fifth on the team with 21 goals and 57 points in 2013-14—both his second-greatest totals in his nine-season career. Teams were no doubt already starting to look at the 31-year-old Finn in a different light.
Sidney Crosby may have struggled to score, but Jokinen led the Penguins with seven goals and finished second to Evgeni Malkin with 10 points in 13 games.
The Penguins had more attempted shots than their opponents by a 208-142 margin when Jokinen was on the ice at even strength, outscoring them 10-4, the second greatest margin on the team to Malkin, his frequent linemate (12-5).
Jokinen also turned out to be the clutch scorer for the Penguins, scoring three of the team's seven game-winning postseason goals.
There may still be some concerns about his defensive play or how much his scoring was boosted by players like Malkin, but Jokinen has clearly made the case that he still has a great deal left to contribute as a top-six forward.
He could consequently find himself the same kind of $3.0 million deal that only recently made him completely undesirable.
2. Anton Stralman, New York Rangers
Anton Stralman found a home on New York's second pairing alongside Marc Staal. The bargain-priced defender may have scored only 38 points in his three seasons as a Ranger, but his solid defensive play has been a real value at an annual cap hit of just $1.7 million.
Stralman's value has been pegged by many at the $3.0 million range and perhaps as high as $4.0 million according to the folks at Blue Seat Blogs.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Willis recently looked at comparable players to demonstrate that he was quite correct to reportedly reject a deal with a $3.0 million cap hit, believing that "it’s easy to imagine Stralman getting that much or more on the open market."
It's the top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh that generally gets matched against the top opponents, but they have also been very badly outshot. The Rangers were down 336-243 in attempted shots with Girardi on the ice at even strength, and outscored 11-9.
Despite starting shifts in the defensive zone more frequently, the Rangers actually had the edge in attempted shots 267-266 with Stralman on the ice. They also outscored opponents 14-5, the widest margin on the entire team.
Though known more for his penalty killing and defensive play, Stralman did contribute five assists of his own.
Stralman's recent success led renowned analytic blogger Tyler Dellow to write a recent piece that essentially blows the old $3.0 million valuation right out of the water.
His momentum will only continue to grow as the Rangers continue to progress, raising his price tag to nearly triple its current cap hit.
1. Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings
Marian Gaborik has never been a bargain. His expiring five-year deal carrying an annual cap hit of $7.5 million is one of the highest in the NHL.
Was he expected to sign for nearly as much this summer?
At age 32, and having scored 21 goals and 57 points in 88 games over the past two seasons, he likely wouldn't have commanded the same dollars as he had in the past.
Gaborik has achieved incredible chemistry with Anze Kopitar, and together they have been the offensive force that has unleashed Los Angeles' full potential.
The creative Slovakian leads the NHL with nine goals—seven at even strength.
The Kings have outscored their opponents 23-10 while he's been on the ice, the widest margin on the team. That includes a whopping 11 goals with the man advantage. This has also been achieved against the highest average quality of competition on the entire team.
Gaborik was especially effective in the second-round series with the Ducks, against whom he scored 10 points in seven games.
It may have appeared that Gaborik would have to entertain offers with an annual cap hit closer to $6.0 million, but his tremendous success in Los Angeles this postseason suggests that he may find an offer that doesn't require him to take any kind of pay cut at all.
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