With the 2011 NHL playoffs field set and all of the focus directed on the teams, the matchups and the series, a lot of postseason-bound players need to improve their play during their team's stay in the playoffs and really make a difference if they want to be re-signed.
If not, they'll be dumped off to a lesser role in a lesser team for a lesser salary, and they certainly don't want that.
From the Presidents' Trophy winners to the teams who got in only in the final weekend, each team's lineup is littered with these players who are fighting, not only for a Cup, but for a contract, too.
Last year, it was Buffalo's Henrik Tallinder who was unable to make much an impact in the Sabres' first-round loss, and he was quickly dumped to New Jersey.
On the other hand, Montreal's Jaroslav Halak had pressure from younger Carey Price, an expiring contract and an eighth-seeded team with a lot of expectations when the playoffs began; by leading them to the Conference Finals, he got a $2 million raise and the outright starting job in St. Louis.
Here are this postseason's crop of eight players who need to be productive if they want an extension.
With three creditable goaltenders on the roster, the Philadelphia Flyers have an odd and interesting situation in goal. With the only expiring contract out of the three, will Brian Boucher be able to win a starting job and play well enough to earn himself an extension even with the presence of the much-younger Leighton and Bobrovsky?
The 34-year-old veteran has been fairly good this year, with an 18-10-4 record, .916 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average (GAA), much improved numbers from his first season with the Flyers, when he went 9-18-3 with an .899 save percentage in '09-'10. His relatively inexpensive $0.925 million contract also adds to his value.
However, Boucher struggled down the stretch, losing four of his last five starts as Philly has limped into the playoffs, and youthfulness may win over this three-way battle. A very strong playoff performance and perhaps another Eastern Conference title may be needed to keep Boucher with the Flyers.
Twenty-six-year-old Ian White is currently playing for his third team in just one season and his fifth one in just over a single calendar year. But in just 23 games with the San Jose Sharks, White doubled his season goal total (up to four) and had a plus-nine rating, a huge improvement over his minus-nine in 16 games with Calgary and his plus-four in 39 games for Carolina.
Although the Sharks defensive corps need depth, White is on the final leg of a $3 million deal that may not be worth extending for a third-pairing "power-play specialist" D-man who had just one man-advantage tally this year.
A strong showing in the playoffs is crucial for the Manitoba native, as he'll need to prove his skills in a Sharks defense that is wide open in terms of opportunities to move up the depth chart. On the other hand, he will also need to make sure that San Jose doesn't crumble in the spotlight yet again if he wants a pay raise, or, perhaps, a new contract at all.
At 31, Michael Ryder is over the peak, as the NHL goes, and has now put up his second under-20-goal season in a row with the Bruins, in addition to a minus-one rating, a far cry from his plus-28 mark with Boston in '08-'09.
He's also in the final months of a three-year contract that paid him $4 million a season, a mark he's failed to live up to.
After he had just five points and a minus-four rating in 13 playoff games last year, Ryder needs to step it up this time around as the Bruins try to avenge a crushing conference semifinals defeat a year ago. With an extremely deep group of scorers all looking for playing time, Ryder may have trouble even getting an opportunity this April to prove himself in the pressure.
Also not helping his cause is the fact that he was the only player out of the top 11 point scorers on the season scorecard to finish with a negative plus-minus rating.
Just how much of a pay cut will the former eighth-round pick take, and will he get to stay in Boston? Ryder has a lot riding on him these days.
When Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa was signed to a three-season, $11.25 million contract before the '08-'09 season, they were expecting a lot more out of the blueliner. The now 29-year-old was unable to show top-level possibilities in an extremely talented crowd of defensemen this season in British Columbia, and he now faces a strong likelihood of at least a few days this summer without a job.
Bieksa finished just seventh on the team in hits, had only 22 points (six goals, 16 assists), and took 29 minor penalties, the highest total on the Canucks, in only 66 games. The Canadian had only 22 points last year, as well, and has fallen a long distance from his 43 points in the first year of the contract.
Vancouver will play Chicago in the playoffs for the third time in a row, this time in just the first round, and Bieksa will need to show he has the strength to give the 'Nucks the edge in shutting down the Hawks, as well as, hopefully, their future opponents, as he vies for a new deal.
The Lightning may have found a temporary playoff solution in 40-year-old veteran Dwayne Roloson, but their goalie of the future is still up for grabs. Now, they have a decision: Should they go with Roloson, who's been just short of fantastic since his arrival from the Islanders, or the much-younger Smith, who's a risky play but ought to have a chance to prove he deserves an extension?
Smith, already 29, is in the latter season of a two-year contract with a $2.2 million cap hit. He's an excellent puck-playing, offense-creating netminder, but has abused his skills in the past. After going 13-18-7 with a 3.09 GAA last season, Tampa Bay brought in Dan Ellis last summer, but he was unable to improve much. They then replaced Ellis with Roloson, who's been a brilliant acquisition.
Still, Smith is just 13-6-1 this season, not too bad of a mark, despite a .899 save percentage. He's never played a single NHL postseason game, though, so there are opportunities for both good and bad things to come from the risk of starting him at least a couple times. This could be an interesting story to watch as he attempts to get a new contract and also finally have a starting job to himself.
Another Lightning player in the midst of a battle for a new contract is Simon Gagne, 31, who was acquired by Tampa Bay last summer after he scored nine goals in the Flyers 2010 playoff run. He's now finishing up a $5.25 million per season contract, though, and yet another strong playoff performance is a must.
Gagne started very slowly this season but picked it up eventually, eventually scoring 17 goals and 23 assists in 63 regular season games. The attention will now focus to the issue of money, where a team will be hard pressed to set aside another $5 million-plus for the former first-round pick but could be enticed by his four 30-plus goal seasons (including two 40-plus goal years) and his playoff experience (90 postseason games played and 32 goals in them, to boot).
On the other hand, his minus-12 rating this season was tied for the worst on the team, and Gagne may have a very inflated asking price. As it was with Mike Smith, Gagne needs to help the Bolts go deep into the playoffs to help improve his resume for July.
After Tim Connolly set a career high in points in the '08-'09 season, albeit with just 47 points (he did have a 14.3 shooting percentage), the Buffalo Sabres rewarded him with a big token of trust: a two-year, $9 million deal. He seemed to appreciate the offer by putting up another career high last season, this time with 65 points, in addition to a plus-10 rating.
However, Connolly fell off the map a lot this past year, watching his goal total drop back down to 13, his point total plummet to a mere 42, his plus-minus rating flip over to minus-10, and his shooting percentage average out at a miserable 8.6 percent mark.
With an expiring contract and an age that's slowly ticking upwards (right now it's at 29), Connolly will need to improve drastically on last season's one point in six playoff games this try if he wants an extension on his contract and a mortgage renewal in Buffalo.
As depth winger Ruslan Fedotenko reached the Rangers this past summer, after he saw his point total drop to 30 and his plus/minus fall to the worst of his career, a minus-17, the previous season with Pittsburgh, he was given a $1 million extension for this upcoming year.
However, Fedotenko was unable to ever get in his groove, missing 16 games due to injury and playing through a career low in points (25) and goals (10). Although he's only topped 40 points and 20 goals once in his career ('05-'06 with the Lightning), the 32-year-old has lately seen his value drop sharply.
There are also a number of other players like Fedotenko in the playoff picture this year. Michal Handzus (34) of Los Angeles could be aging out of the Kings lineup, and he's certainly not worth the $4 million cap hit he carried with his last contract, and Chicago's Tomas Kopecky (29) is also right on the edge of staying or leaving, despite only holding an expiring deal worth just $1.2 million per season.
In other areas, the much cheaper, much younger Patrick Eaves may or may not get an extension in Detroit. Despite being only 26 and currently carrying a $0.7 million contract, Eaves has already played for three teams in his short career (he's gone to the playoffs at least once with all three). For him to continue playing for the Red Wings, he'll need to improve upon last season's playoff efforts, where he was scoreless with a minus-three rating in eight appearances.
With all of the competition of playoff hockey in the NHL, it's crucial for each and every player to make a great showing. However, for all of the players we've mentioned here and on previous slides, there's an additional reason for turning up their play a notch.