10 NHL Players to Watch in Their Contract Years During 2017-18 Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2017

10 NHL Players to Watch in Their Contract Years During 2017-18 Season

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    Opening night for the 2017-18 NHL regular season doesn't arrive until Oct. 4, but it's never too early to start looking at the next crop of unrestricted free agents who could soon be switching teams.

    Some big names who could have gone to free agency during the summer of 2018 have already taken themselves off the market. Players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones of the San Jose Sharks, Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens all signed long-term contract extensions with their teams as soon as they were able to do so.

    With those two defensemen and two goalies out of the picture, the list of potential UFAs for next summer is heavy on forwards.

    Here are 10 players to watch this season. Will they re-sign, will they be traded or will they hit the open market on July 1, 2018?

10. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

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    Player Profile

    An undersized center at 5'9" and 174 pounds, the undrafted Jonathan Marchessault was a longtime minor leaguer before breaking through with 30 goals for the Florida Panthers last season. The 26-year-old was one of the best-value signings in the NHL during 2016-17, playing the first season of a two-year deal with a cap hit of $750,000 per annum.

    Despite his breakout performance, the Panthers left Marchessault unprotected for the expansion draft. He was subsequently selected by the Vegas Golden Knights, who will rely on him to be one of their key scorers in their inaugural season.

         

    Key Factors

    Marchessault is the definition of a late bloomer. Undrafted out of junior, he put up 24 goals and 64 points on an AHL contract with the Connecticut Whale. That led to an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Marchessault appeared in just four NHL games over the next three seasons.

    Traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2014 trade deadline, he broke through to play 45 NHL games in 2015-16 before his first crack at free agency. His success in Florida came seemingly out of nowhere.

         

    Outlook for 2017-18

    According to Shawn P. Roarke of NHL.com, the Golden Knights roster includes just two players who have scored more than 100 career goals—James Neal (238) and David Perron (159). Without much competition for an offensive role on the expansion team, Marchessault should get plenty of quality ice time, at five-on-five and on the power play.

    If he can prove last season's scoring outburst was more than a fluke, Marchessault should be able to sign the first big contract of his career at season's end—and choose his optimal destination as an unrestricted free agent. His scoring skill could also make him a prime trade-deadline target for a playoff-bound team, allowing Vegas to flip him in exchange for future assets and continue building their team.

9 and 8. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks

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    Player Profiles

    Respectively chosen second and third overall in the 1999 draft, wonder twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin have spent their entire NHL careers as members of the Vancouver Canucks. Both have won the Art Ross Trophy—Henrik in 2009-10 and Daniel in 2010-11.

    Henrik is the Canucks' franchise leader in games played (1,248) and points (1,020). Daniel is second in both those categories, with 1,225 games and 986 points, but he is the franchise leader with 370 goals.

          

    Key Factors

    The twins turn 37 in late September and are entering the final year of their contracts. Never the fleetest of foot, their trademark cycle game is at odds with the NHL's trend toward speed, which could be part of the reason why they struggled to score in 2016-17. Both players finished the year with 15 goals; Henrik ranked second in team scoring, with 51 points, while Daniel earned 44. 

          

    Outlook for 2017-18

    The Sedins came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, but the Canucks have struggled in recent years and don't look like they are set for any kind of rebound in 2017-18. After maturing into community-conscious family men, though, Daniel and Henrik have put down deep roots in Vancouver.

    On September 4, Daniel told Jawn Jang of Sportsnet 650 (via Sportsnet) that the twins' "mindset" is to retire in Vancouver. It remains to be seen whether that means their careers will continue beyond this season, or will changing circumstances see the Sedins move on for a run at the Stanley Cup, either separately or together?

7. Rick Nash, New York Rangers

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    Player Profile

    Drafted first overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets back in 2002, Rick Nash is entering the final year of a mammoth eight-year contract with a cap hit of $7.8 million per season. He signed the deal as a contract extension with Columbus on July 3, 2009. It took effect at the beginning of the 2010-11 season.

    Nash has spent the past five seasons with the New York Rangers, following a trade in July of 2012. With 989 NHL games played, Nash leads all players in his draft class in goals (416) and points (771). 

         

    Key Factors

    Now 33, injuries have limited Nash's production significantly since his 42-goal campaign during the 2014-15 season. He also carries a reputation as an underwhelming playoff performer, with just 41 points in 77 career playoff games.

        

    Outlook for 2017-18

    The Rangers' addition of Kevin Shattenkirk to their power play could spark improved offense from Nash, who loves to park his big body in front of the net during the man advantage. His strong pedigree will make him attractive to GMs around the league in free agency—especially if he can stay healthy and bounce back with 50 points or more.

6. Paul Stastny, St. Louis Blues

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    Andrew Villa-USA TODAY Sports

    Player Profile

    Drafted 44th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2005, center Paul Stastny is the son of one of hockey's greatest scorers. Peter Stastny didn't arrive in North America from his native Slovakia until he was 24. In 977 career NHL games, he collected 1,239 points—ranking seventh all time with an average of 1.268 points per game according to QuantHockey.

    Born in 1985 while his father played for the Quebec Nordiques, Paul spent two years at the University of Denver before joining the Avalanche. He spent eight seasons in Colorado before signing a four-year contract with a cap hit of $7 million per season with the St. Louis Blues during the summer of 2014.

         

    Key Factors

    Stastny's 593 points in 742 career games rank him third in his draft class behind only Sidney Crosby (1,027 points) and Anze Kopitar (736 points)excellent output for a player selected in the middle of the second round. He was most productive earlier in his career and has been slowed by injuries in recent seasons.

    Though he has been slotted in as a No. 1 center, Stastny hasn't cracked the 50-point mark in any of his three campaigns with St. Louis.

         

    Outlook for 2017-18

    Stastny will be 32 when his contract expires next summer, but his two-way game is strong enough that he should be a coveted free agent regardless of his offensive production. His cause will be helped if he can stay healthy. He has missed a total of 42 regular-season games during his three seasons with the Blues. 

    In July, beat writer Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch speculated that Stastny could be interested in re-signing with the Blues: "Would he take $5 million AAV on his next deal from the Blues? I don't know. Could he get more elsewhere? I don't know. We'll see."

5. James van Riemsdyk, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Player Profile

    Now an elder statesman on the young Toronto Maple Leafs, James van Riemsdyk is in the prime of his career at 28. Drafted second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, Van Riemsdyk was signed to a six-year contract extension by the Flyers in August of 2011, with a cap hit of $4.25 million per season.

    Four months before that new deal was scheduled to kick in, Van Riemsdyk was dealt to the Leafs in a one-for-one deal for defenseman Luke Schenn in June 2012.

         

    Key Factors

    At 6'3", Van Riemsdyk is not afraid to use his size to drive to the net, which often puts him in good scoring position. A bit of a late bloomer offensively, he hit a career high with 62 points last season. Nineteen of those points came on the power play, including 13 assists. Though he is primarily perceived as a scoring winger, he's also a savvy setup man.

          

    Outlook for 2017-18

    Van Riemsdyk finished the 2016-17 season ranked second in Leafs scoring, behind Auston Matthews, and he provided some stability for his young team. He's valuable to coach Mike Babcock, but Toronto will need to start clearing cap space in order to be able to sign their burgeoning stars to their next deals.

    A good trade chip whose next deal could break Toronto's budget, Van Riemsdyk is likely to be traded during the season—possibly sooner rather than later.

4. Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres

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    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

    Player Profile

    Drafted fourth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, Evander Kane skates well for a big man. He doesn't shy away from the physical side of the game and showed an impressive nose for the net by scoring 30 goals for the Winnipeg Jets in their inaugural season in 2011-12.

    Injuries and off-ice distractions have slowed Kane's trajectory, but after recovering from an early-season rib injury, he came back to lead the Buffalo Sabres with 28 goals in 70 games last season.

    All told, Kane has collected 157 goals and 300 points in 497 career games over eight seasons with the Thrashers, Jets and Sabres. He ranks third in his draft class in goals, behind John Tavares (235) and Matt Duchene (174).

           

    Key Factors

    After completing his entry-level contract with that 30-goal season in 2011-12, Kane was signed to a six-year contract with a cap hit of $5.25 million a year. The Jets were seemingly convinced he would be their offensive engine for years to come, but injuries and locker-room issues led to Kane's blockbuster trade to Buffalo in February 2015.

    Now 26, Kane is looking to build off his best season in five years before hitting unrestricted free agency.

         

    Outlook for 2017-18

    The Sabres have gone back to the drawing board after just two seasons under coach Dan Bylsma and three under general manager Tim Murray—a supposed rebuilding period that didn't see the team move any closer to respectability.

    Kane did well under Bylsma in 2016-17, so it will be interesting to see how he fits into the system of new coach Phil Housley. New general manager Jason Botterill will need to quickly get a read on how Kane might fit into the Sabres' future—whether he should be offered a lucrative new deal or traded before he can walk away next summer.

3. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Player Profile

    Drafted 27th overall by the Washington Capitals in 2008, John Carlson has been a mainstay of the Caps blue line for the last seven-plus seasons. At 6'3", Carlson can play a shutdown role or use his big shot to contribute offensively.

    Carlson's best-known goal came on the international stage—the overtime winner that clinched gold for Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship.

    The 27-year-old is in the last year of a six-year contract that carries a cap hit of just under $4 million per season.

         

    Key Factors

    For his first five full NHL seasons, Carlson was an ironman who didn't miss a game. His career-best year came in 2014-15, when he scored 12 goals and 55 points.

    Details are scarce on the lower-body injuries that have have caused him to miss a total of 36 games over the last two seasons, per Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post.

            

    Outlook for 2017-18

    Among the defensemen who will be reaching unrestricted free agency next summer, Carlson is in a class of his own. If he stays reasonably healthy and plays well, he should be able to command big bucks.

    After losing both Karl Alzner and their short-term rental Kevin Shattenkirk during the 2017 offseason, the Capitals can ill-afford to part with another important blueliner. If there's no room in the budget to retain Carlson, general manager Brian MacLellan would be wise to consider a trade-deadline deal to recoup an asset rather than lose the valuable rearguard for nothing.

2. Kyle Turris, Ottawa Senators

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    Player Profile

    Drafted third overall in 2007 by the then-Phoenix Coyotes, Kyle Turris found his game after forcing a trade during the 2011-12 season.

    After his entry-level deal expired, Turris staged a contract holdout. On November 22, 2011, he signed a two-year deal with a cap hit of $1.4 million per season, per NHL.com. Turris hit the ice for just six more games with the Coyotes before he was traded to the Senators on December 17.

          

    Key Factors

    In Ottawa, Turris has risen through the ranks to become the team's No. 1 center. He led the Sens with a career-high 27 goals last season and was a linchpin during the team's surprising run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

           

    Outlook for 2017-18

    Now 28, Turris is entering the final season of a five-year contract that carries a cap hit of $3.5 million per annum. His struggles with consistency are reflected in his offensive stats—he has 311 points in 533 NHL games to date—but he's still a player on the rise, a skilled center who can make plays and score goals and who will be coveted by any number of other teams as free agency looms.

    The Sens will try to keep Turris in the fold, but the player and his agent won't overlook the fact he could make some serious coin as arguably the second-best center in this free-agent class.

1. John Tavares, New York Islanders

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    Player Profile

    Chosen first overall in 2009, center John Tavares is about to start his ninth season with the New York Islanders. In 587 career games, Tavares has 235 goals and 537 points—tying him with Bob Nystrom for eighth on the Islanders' all-time goalscoring list and ninth overall in points.

    Tavares turns 27 in late September. His best single season to date came in 2014-15, when his 38 goals and 86 points in 82 games landed him one point behind Jamie Benn in the NHL scoring race and earned him third place in Hart Trophy voting.

          

    Key Factors

    Tavares has superstar pedigree but hasn't had much opportunity to show his stuff under hockey's brightest spotlights. The Islanders have made the playoffs just three times since he joined the team, and he was deprived of a chance to be a key player on Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics after suffering a season-ending knee injury during the round-robin portion of the tournament.

          

    Outlook for 2017-18

    If the Islanders hope to re-sign Tavares, they will need to reverse their slide down the standings in 2016-17 and take steps toward setting a foundation that will provide stability for the franchise in the years to come.

    Beat writer Arthur Staple of Newsday tweeted on August 29 that Tavares' decision on whether he'll re-sign with the Islanders is "about wanting to see how things progress with arena/team before committing."

    Jordan Eberle was acquired in the offseason to provide a scoring winger to play beside Tavares. The team will need to make more moves on and off the ice if it hopes to retain the services of the most desirable unrestricted free agent from the Class of 2018.

           

     Stats from NHL.com. Contract information from CapFriendly.