NHL: Antti Niemi and the Top 15 Players That Need to Impress in Contract Years
We are coming up on 2011, and as we bring in the new year, the NHL is doing its best to bring in some great hockey for fans to watch. The speed and skill of the game today is nearly unmatched in any other major sport.
Players are getting bigger, but they're also getting quicker and more skilled, a deadly combo for any opposing team.
With that said, players play for contracts, and contract years are when most hockey players play their best. It's a sad fact, but many hockey players tend to have career years in their contract years.
As a Leaf fan, I witnessed a career year out of Jason Blake prior to landing in Toronto, and then all of a sudden, he's back to his normal production—not producing.
A sad state of affairs to say the least for Leaf fans, but I digress.
I have compiled a list of 15 players who are in contract years that need to impress teams going forward. Some players have already done that so far, some players hope to do that by season's end, while the remainder will be lucky to ever see the money they were making previously.
15. Kevin Bieksa, Defenceman, Vancouver Canucks
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The Grimsby, Ontario, native Kevin Bieksa has really struggled to find himself since returning from a few bad injuries that have derailed his seasons in two of the past three years.
The production from Bieksa has decreased badly the last few years and this season, he has lost power-play time to the likes of Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler on the back end, and will lose even more time, when or if Sami Salo returns at some point this year.
With only five points in 25 games this season, Bieksa is a shadow of his former 40-point self. Another element somewhat missing from his game is his physical play. Each year in his career he's earned at least 75 minutes in penalties playing a tough, intense game, but lately, he's been getting lost in the shuffle in the packed Vancouver Canuck defence.
2011 Contract—Odds are he sees a small decrease in salary if production stays at a maximum 20-point level.
14. Tomas Fleischmann, Forward, Colorado Avalanche
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Recently acquired by the Avalanche in exchange for defenceman Scott Hannan, "Flash" as he's known affectionately by his teammates, is ready to take on a new challenge in Colorado.
Fleischmann has begun his next chapter of his NHL career, one in which he will not have one of Alex Ovechkin or Alex Semin on his wing. Playing on a line with veteran Milan Hejduk and sophomore sensation Matt Duchene will help his transition from Washington, but now it's time for Flash to prove he wasn't just a product of the insanely powerful offensive system they had in the Capital.
The winger struggled mightily to start out the year in Washington; however, he has since picked it up playing in Colorado. In his first four games he has a goal and three assists, averaging a point per game.
2011 Contract—Given his age, and if he continues being productive in Colorado, I expect a slight pay raise for the Czech winger.
13. Joni Pitkanen, Defenceman, Carolina Hurricanes
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Taken fourth overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002, Pitkanen enjoyed his best three years of his career in Philly, scoring at least 40 points twice, and also getting a career-high plus-22 rating in 2005-06 with the Flyers.
He was then dealt to the Edmonton Oilers, and the young defender really struggled to find himself from then on. He was somewhat consistent in those years, but never really making a name for himself, given how high he was taken.
Last season was a return to form for Pitkanen, scoring six times and adding 40 assists for 46 points.
The 6'3", 210 pound rearguard from Oulu, Finland, is beginning his climb as one of the top defenders in the NHL with the Hurricanes, and I'll be surprised if he's not re-signed before the year ends. Pitkanen has become a key cog in the Canes attack.
2011 Contract—Since players like Dan Hamhuis and Andrej Meszaros have seen larger-than-life paydays, I expect an increase in Pitkanen's contract, as the need for slick skating and great puck-moving defenders is at a premium in today's NHL. A contract similar to Segei Gonchar should be expected for Pitkanen.
12. Bryan McCabe, Defenceman, Florida Panthers
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Bryan McCabe, back in the day when he was a Toronto Maple Leaf, was probably one of the most dangerous power-play point men in the NHL. Since then, however, he's steadily declined and now at the age of 35, it's expected he will never again see a lucrative contract like he received in Toronto.
McCabe hasn't helped the power play in Florida much at all, as they still rank as one of the worst power plays in the NHL, and McCabe really hasn't added to their attack.
After a great year last year, scoring eight times and adding 35 assists, the St. Catherines, Ontario, native has struggled a little bit this year to find his offensive touch on the power play at least, only getting four power-play points so far this year.
Still on pace for 40 points this season, it's a far cry from his 15-plus goal seasons, as the 6'3", 220-pounder has only scored two goals this season.
2011 Contract—At the age of 36 heading into next offseason, McCabe will likely not see $5 million, but stranger things have happened. Still with one of the best point shots in the league—when it's on target—McCabe and his physical and veteran savvy may be a welcomed addition to any team in the NHL.
However, he is still prone to boneheaded mistakes—that seemed to follow him from Toronto.
11. Erik Cole, Forward, Carolina Hurricanes
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The 32-year-old Erik Cole has rarely had a season where he hasn't been injured, and this season that distinction has vanished, at least so far for Cole (knock on wood). Having played in all of the 27 games the Canes have played, Cole has struggled to put up the offensive numbers he's accustomed to, only scoring five times and adding six assists.
A one-time 30-goal scorer, Cole has struggled to remain healthy for big stretches of seasons in the past seven seasons, having played at least 80 games only once in that stretch.
At 6'2", 205 pounds, Cole is a prototypical power forward for today's NHL and, if he remains healthy, should garner a lot of attention on the free-agent wire, especially from teams in need of a top-six winger.
2011 Contract—The number should climb to around $4 million if Cole does remain healthy. Teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins could use a player of Cole's ability. What happens until then is anyone's guess, though.
10. Jean Sebastien Giguere, Goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs
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"Giggy" began the season as the Maple Leafs' No. 1 goalie and has played a rather pedestrian goaltender for the Leafs. Nothing too special, but he has kept the lowly Leafs in many games. Unlike second-in-line Jonas Gustavsson, Giguere struggles to make big saves, however, he's a much more mentally strong and positionally sound goaltender than the Monster.
Giguere is one of the larger expiring contracts this year, and even to his own admission, he is not the goaltender he used to be when he guided the Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006-07.
A little slower, a little more injury-prone, Giguere is still one of the best positional goalies in the league, rarely missing a shot that's right on him.
2011 Contract—Based on age and a decline in all facets of his game, it's difficult to see Giguere as a No. 1 goaltender playing 60-plus games. I think he's in his element right now in Toronto playing around 50 games a year, while still being the defacto No. 1. It's likely he leaves the Leafs next year as they will be moving Gustavsson in as the No. 1, but don't be surprised if he signs with another team in need for an experienced goaltender.
9. Alexei Kovalev, Forward, Ottawa Senators
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Speaking of a waste of space, we come to probably one of the most dynamic, dangerous, talented and yet, most lazy players the NHL has ever produced.
Kovalev, who is a shadow of his former self, can stick handle in a phone booth if he wanted to and has the smarts to be a really good influence on a young Ottawa team, but that hasn't been the case this year, as he's bounced around from line to line and has even been benched for games.
Whether it's old age, him slowing down or him just being lazy, he's certainly not showing the urgency it takes to warrant a well-paying contract for the next few years.
2011 Contract—Judging by his overall play this year, I'd be surprised if he's even back in the NHL next season. He just looks disinterested most nights and may opt for retirement after this season, or the KHL.
8. Tim Connolly, Forward, Buffalo Sabres
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There is no denying the talent level of Tim Connolly; however, when durability comes into the equation, that's where Connolly's major question marks come into the forefront.
Having not played at least 80 games in one season since 2002-03, Connolly has struggled with a handful of injuries that have derailed a promising career.
Since that season, in the games he could play in, Connolly has nearly averaged a point per game.
At 6'1", 200 pounds, Connolly is a decent-sized center who can fit in on any team's top two lines. Expect the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers to make strong bids for him this offseason.
2011 Contract—Connolly has had a little bit of injury trouble once again this season, and with only 13 points in 22 games to go along with a minus-9 rating, Connolly isn't doing himself any favors to cash in for another big payday. He probably will go for between $3.5 and $4.5 million a season.
7. Alex Tanguay, Forward, Calgary Flames
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Alex Tanguay has always been able to put up points in the NHL, but in recent years, it has been a struggle. In the last four years—two with Calgary, and one each with Tampa Bay and Montreal—Tanguay has only eclipsed the 50-point mark once in four seasons.
This season for Tanguay has been a revelation in point totals— he has scored 23 points in 30 games.
The Ste. Justine, Quebec, native, despite playing on one of the lower-scoring teams in the NHL, ranks second on the team in scoring behind the franchise, Jarome Iginla.
2011 Contract—If Tanguay continues his play, the 32-year-old should cash in with a nice two- or three-year deal with a team in need of top-six scoring. I wouldn't be surprised if the Flames re-sign Tanguay this offseason.
6. Simon Gagne, Forward, Tampa Bay Lightning
Simon Gagne, who was recently acquired by Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman in exchange for Matt Walker and a fourth-round pick in 2011, has struggled early this season with injuries.
Having only played 12 games, Gagne has only hit the score sheet five times this season.
This 30-year-old sniper, who is a two-time 40-goal scorer, has yet to find his touch in Tampa as he did in Philadelphia playing alongside some greats in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Jeremy Roenick and Peter Forsberg.
2011 Contract—With the questionable injury past and what looks to be some declining offensive firepower, I highly doubt Gagne will see a similar deal to what he signed with Philadelphia back in 2006-07.
5. Marty Turco, Goaltender, Chicago Blackhawks
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Turco, who was once one of the better, more consistent No. 1 goalies in the NHL, has started to show his age lately, and hasn't played up to his potential.
The 35-year-old has gone 8-8-2 with a 2.90 GAA and a .901 SV% this season with the Blackhawks, but has seen his playing time cut short thanks to some outstanding goaltending from incumbent and rookie goaltender Corey Crawford, who is 8-4-1 with a 2.30 GAA and a .915 SV%.
This was supposed to be the year that Turco bounced back on a very good Blackhawks team, but it appears that the Hawks may opt for the younger Crawford getting more playing time as they hope to groom him into their starting goaltender for the next few years.
2011 Contract—Turco should see a similar contract next season, but as with JS Giguere, Turco will more than likely be a backup goalie on a good team, or the starting goalie on a really bad team. Unless Crawford slows down, or Turco somehow heats up, Turco's days as a starter appear to be over.
4. Teemu Selanne, Forward, Anaheim Ducks
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Owner of one of the ugliest helmets in all of hockey—not to mention, a pretty dirty mustache—Selanne has let his hands do the talking, rather than that old school helmet he wears, or that Movember mustache he was sporting.
Selanne, who turned 40 this past July, has been on fire this season, having scored 28 points in only 26 games. Can this hot streak continue on through the season? Will his age start to show soon? Really, those questions are already answered, as Selanne is still is one of the NHL's most feared snipers of all time.
In his rookie year, he scored 76 goals with the then Winnipeg Jets, and along with scoring over 40 goals in six years of his career, Selanne should be heading to the Hall of Fame without a doubt in my mind.
2011 Contract—He will get his paycheck, but it's all up to Teemu and whether he would want to play for another season. Could a return of Kariya and Selanne be up Anaheim's sleeves for next season, with maybe the two retiring together?
3. Nikolay Zherdev, Forward, Philadelphia Flyers
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Zherdev, who has finally returned to the NHL after a one-year absence spent playing for HK Atlant of the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, has struggled with consistency and has found himself in the Laviolette doghouse on many occasions.
Blessed with Alex Ovechkin-like skills, but Alex Daigle-like laziness, Zherdev will always be viewed as a gamble for any team that wants his services. He can look brilliant one minute, then look average the next. He's like a younger version of Alex Kovalev, with all the talent in the world; when will we see that talent, though, is the bigger question.
The 26-year-old sniper has scored nine times in 28 games for the Flyers this season. However, while nine goals is good and all, he's only added one assist in 28 games, making him relatively invisible unless he scores.
2011 Contract—With all the character issues and the possible flight risk, Zherdev will undoubtedly find a home next year, whether that's in the NHL or KHL, but many NHL teams are beginning to grow skeptical of Zherdev. Despite all the talent in the world, Zherdev just too lazy to use it on most nights. He will not see more than $2 million a season unless he shows some consistency to his game.
2. Alexander Frolov, Forward, New York Rangers
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The 6'2", 215-pound winger has struggled the last two seasons in finding his scoring touch. It was thought that when he was signed by the Rangers this offseason, playing alongside Marian Gaborik could open up some ice for Frolov to show his immense offensive talent.
So far this season that hasn't been the case, as Frolov has been a shadow of his former 30-goal scoring self, only scoring five times in 32 games, along with only adding 12 points in those games. Not something you want to see from this former Los Angeles King.
With such a poor season so far, there will be questions of whether he will stick around or opt for the KHL. In any case, don't expect any long-term deals in the future for Frolov, as that ship has clearly sailed.
2011 Contract—Don't expect anything over the 2010 amount he received, also don't expect any long-term deals for this Russian player. See Zherdev for additional comments; they're just about the same type of player.
1. Goaltender Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks
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It was a dream season last year for Niemi, a Finland native, in his first year as an NHL goaltender. In 35 games started, Niemi went 26-7-4 with 2.25 GAA and a .912 SV%, and along with a stellar rookie campaign, he also won a Stanley Cup.
Last season, he started out as the backup to Cristobal Huet in Chicago, but his consistent play earned him the starter's nod by season's end and he would eventually carry the Blackhawks on his back to a Stanley Cup victory in the playoffs.
Having said that, he failed to sign a long-term deal with a team for the sole reason that teams were unsure of his talent level. The Blackhawks were a powerhouse team last year, but also allowed the fewest shots on goal per game, something that can be taken into account when signing a goalie.
This season has been a struggle for Niemi to find some consistency with a battered Sharks squad, which is seriously missing the veteran presence of Rob Blake on their blue line.
Battling with pseudo No. 1 Antero Niittymaki for playing time all year, Niemi has begun to show that talent he had last year, going 3-2 in his last five games, with a 2.20 GAA and a .920 SV% to go along with a shutout.
2011 Contract—He signed a one-year deal with the Sharks in hopes that he could prove his critics wrong, and show he is a true starting goalie in the NHL. It's been a slow start, but he is beginning to show he is more than qualified to lead a team. With that said, many teams will be in need for goaltending next offseason, so expect a pay raise if he keeps this up, and an eventual long-term deal in Niemi's future.
Thanks for reading.