10 NHL Players to Watch in Their Contract Years During 2015-16 Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 18, 2015

10 NHL Players to Watch in Their Contract Years During 2015-16 Season

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Several NHL stars will become eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2015-16 season. Much of the focus will be on superstars such as Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar. However, other notable stars face challenges in their contract years.

    Some, such as Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal (pictured above), must decide if they'll accept less than the value of their current contracts to remain with their teams. Some, such as Arizona Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker, could consider joining more successful teams. Others, such as St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, hope to lead their teams toward championship contention. 

    The following slideshow lists the 10 NHL players to watch in their contract years during 2015-16. Performance and current salary were among the critical factors in this compilation. Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below.

Alex Tanguay, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Profile: Left wing Alex Tanguay has spent eight of his 15 NHL seasons with the Colorado Avalanche. He was part of their 2001 Stanley Cup championship roster. The 35-year-old has amassed 828 points in 1,018 career games. He earns an annual salary of $3.5 million.

    Critical factors: Tanguay was among the Avalanche's leading scorers last season, but he's also at an age when performance can sharply decline. He'll turn 36 in November, and his days of earning lucrative long-term deals are over. The Avalanche must also re-sign rising stars Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie.

    Outlook: Much will depend upon Tanguay's performance and that of the Avalanche. Another season outside the playoff picture could lead to Tanguay being shopped by the trade deadline. If he plays well, the best he can expect from the Avs is a short-term extension close to his current salary. 

Mikkel Boedker, Arizona Coyotes

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Profile: In seven seasons with the Arizona Coyotes, Mikkel Boedker has collected 174 points in 383 career regular-season games. The 25-year-old winger enters the 2015-16 campaign on a one-year, $3.75 million contract.

    Critical factors: Boedker could become the youngest star in next summer's unrestricted free-agent market. He's entering his playing prime and will attract considerable interest as a free agent. The Coyotes are rebuilding and still face an uncertain future in Arizona.

    Outlook: The Coyotes can afford to re-sign Boedker, but does he want to stay with a rebuilding team that faces perpetual questions over its future? He could test next summer's market in hopes of fielding big offers from Stanley Cup contenders. If he's still unsigned before the trade deadline, the Coyotes could put him on the block.

Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Profile: In his 11 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, 32-year-old center Tomas Plekanec has compiled 499 points in 761 regular-season games. His annual salary is $5 million per season.

    Critical factors: Plekanec has long been a reliable two-way center for the Canadiens. While reaching 60 points last season for the third time in his career, he's at the stage when NHL players of his age tend to decline. It's unlikely the Canadiens will offer up a lengthy contract extension.

    Outlook: Unless Plekanec's play significantly declines, don't expect the Canadiens to move him this season. Another solid performance could earn the center a three-year offer from the Habs with an annual salary similar to his current contract. However, Plekanec could be tempted to test his value in the UFA market. 

Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Profile: Over his nine-season career, Boston Bruins right wing Loui Eriksson has collected 441 points in 643 career regular-season games. The Bruins acquired him in July 2013 via trade from the Dallas Stars. Eriksson, 30, carries a $4.25 million annual salary-cap hit. He will earn $4.5 million in actual salary in 2015-16. 

    Critical factors: Eriksson's recent numbers are well below his three consecutive 70-plus point performances with the Stars earlier in his career. Now in his 30s, his best seasons seem well behind him. The Bruins are under new management and could move out veterans like Eriksson in favor of younger talent.

    Outlook: Even if Eriksson has a strong performance in 2015-16, it's unlikely he has a long-term future in Boston. The presence of promising David Pastrnak and the offseason addition of big winger Jimmy Hayes suggests this season is Eriksson's last as a Bruin.

Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Profile: In eight NHL seasons with the New York Islanders, Kyle Okposo has tallied 305 points in 450 career regular-season games. The 27-year-old right wing carries an annual salary-cap hit of $2.8 million but will earn $4.5 million in actual salary in 2015-16.

    Critical factors: While Okposo is a talented offensive forward, he has an injury history. He was the subject of trade rumors at this year's NHL draft, though Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported Islanders general manager Garth Snow downplayed the speculation. The Isles are traditionally a budget club, which could make it difficult to re-sign Okposo to a big raise next summer.

    Outlook: The respective performances of Okposo and the Islanders this season will determine his future with the club. The fact his name popped up in trade rumors this summer casts doubt over his chances of re-signing with the Isles. If rising star Ryan Strome establishes himself as a top-line right wing, Okposo could be in play near the trade deadline. 

David Backes, St. Louis Blues

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Profile: In nine NHL seasons with the St. Louis Blues, center David Backes has collected 415 points in 648 career regular-season games. The 31-year-old Blues captain carries an annual salary-cap hit of $4.5 million and will earn $4.75 million in actual salary in 2015-16.

    Critical factors: The Blues are a dominant regular-season team that has consistently come up short in the playoffs. As team captain, Backes will be under considerable pressure this season to get them over the hump. With nearly $52 million invested in 12 players under one-way contracts for 2016-17, the Blues could find it difficult to re-sign Backes to a lucrative new deal. 

    Outlook: Given the Blues' recent playoff history, management could wait until season's end to reach a decision on Backes' future. If they fail to at least reach the 2016 Western Conference Final, significant roster changes could be in store. Backes could be among those changes.

Keith Yandle, New York Rangers

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Profile: The Arizona Coyotes dealt defenseman Keith Yandle to the New York Rangers last season. In his nine NHL seasons, he's compiled 322 points in 579 career regular-season games. The 28-year blueliner carries a $5.25 million annual salary-cap hit divided between the Rangers and Coyotes. Yandle will earn $5.75 million in actual salary in 2015-16.

    Critical factors: Yandle is entering his first full season with the Rangers. His performance will obviously play a big part in his future with the Blueshirts. Salary-cap space is another factor, as the Rangers have several key players (Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller) to re-sign next summer. They also have three defensemen (Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi) who are each earning over $4.7 million annually. 

    Outlook: If Yandle tests the open market, he could get long-term offers worth $7 million annually. It's unlikely he'll accept less than market value to stay in New York. This coming season is likely his last with the Rangers. 

Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Profile: Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien spent the last four of his 10 NHL seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. He was part of the Chicago Blackhawks 2010 Stanley Cup championship roster. In 597 career regular-season games, he's tallied 344 points. The 30-year-old carries a $5.2 million annual salary-cap hit but will earn $6 million in actual salary in 2015-16.

    Critical factors: As one of the NHL's best offensive defensemen, Byfuglien could command over $7 million annually. That could prove too expensive for the Jets, who usually don't spend up to the cap ceiling. They also face re-signing captain Andrew Ladd. Byfuglien's hard-hitting style leaves him susceptible to injury. He's also entering the stage in his career when his best seasons could be behind him.

    Outlook: General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will likely see how this coming season plays out before reaching a decision about Byfuglien's future. He will likely keep the big blueliner for a postseason run, even at the risk of losing him to free agency next summer. If the Jets are out of playoff contention by late February, the Jets could move Byfuglien at the trade deadline. 

Milan Lucic, Los Angeles Kings

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    Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    Profile: After eight seasons with the Boston Bruins, left wing Milan Lucic was traded in June 2015 to the Los Angeles Kings. He's collected 342 points in 566 career regular-season games and was part of the Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup championship team. Lucic, 27, carries an annual salary-cap hit of $6 million this season split between the Kings and Bruins. He'll earn $6.5 million in actual salary. 

    Critical factors: Since Lucic's career-best 30-goal, 62-point performance in 2010-11, his numbers have declined. How well the power forward adjusts to the Kings will play a significant role in his future with the club. Cap space is also an issue for L.A. It must re-sign star center Anze Kopitar, who could receive a substantial raise. 

    Outlook: This could be Lucic's only season in a Kings uniform. Re-signing Kopitar is a priority for general manager Dean Lombardi. That will complicate efforts to retain Lucic, who could seek more than $7 million annually on a long-term deal. With a number of high-salaried players on the Kings roster, there might not be enough cap room to retain him. 

Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Profile: In his 11 NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, center Eric Staal has tallied 742 points in 846 career regular-season games. He helped them win a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. Staal, 30, carries an annual salary-cap hit of $8.25 million, but he'll earn $9.5 million in actual salary in 2015-16. 

    Critical factors: Staal's production declined in recent years. His brother Jordan is under contract with the Hurricanes until 2023, which could make Eric reluctant to leave. The Hurricanes last made the playoffs in 2009. Under second-year general manager Ron Francis, they appear to be transitioning toward a younger roster. Francis could offer Staal a significant pay cut on a short-term deal. 

    Outlook: Staal's contract negotiations could drag on through 2015-16. Francis won't want to risk losing Staal for nothing to next summer's UFA market, where the Hurricanes captain could still receive lucrative long-term offers. If the two sides are no closer to a new deal by next February, Carolina could shop Staal leading up to the trade deadline.

    Player stats via NHL.com and salary info via General Fanager.

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