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10 NHL Players to Watch in Their Contract Years During 2014-15 Season

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2014

10 NHL Players to Watch in Their Contract Years During 2014-15 Season

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    For NHL players, stakes get high when they enter the last year of their contracts. 

    Whether they're young players looking to establish themselves in the league, restricted free agents striving for security or highly coveted veteran free agents looking to hit the jackpot, a player's performance in a contract year can make the difference between maximizing a payday and settling for less—less money, a shorter term and fewer options.

    Keep an eye on these 10 players in particular this year. Each has a contract scheduled to expire at the end of 2014-15. Each faces a unique set of circumstances and has something different to prove.

     

David Krejci: Boston Bruins

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Current Age: 28—set to become unrestricted free agent

    Current Contract: three years, $15.75 million, $5.25 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: David Krejci has been a solid first-line center for the Boston Bruins since Marc Savard was sidelined long-term with concussion issues in 2010.

    Krejci led the Bruins in playoff scoring when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and when they reached the Cup Final two years later in 2013, but struggled in the 2014 playoffs with just four assists in 12 games. 

    Facing salary-cap pressure this summer, the Bruins have yet to re-sign key restricted free agents Torey Krug and Reilly Smith. Only 10 Bruins are currently signed beyond 2014-15. If Krejci plays to his usual standard, Boston should sign him to a contract extension sometime during the season.

Brandon Saad: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Bill Smith/Getty Images

    Current Age: 21—set to become restricted free agent

    Current Contract: three years, $2.775 million, $894,000 average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: In his rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Brandon Saad finished third in Calder Trophy voting and won a Stanley Cup. He followed up his impressive debut with 47 points in 2013-14 and a tremendous playoff performance.

    If Saad takes another step forward in 2014-15, he'll be on the cusp of superstardom and will want to be paid accordingly. That could spell trouble for the Blackhawks, who already have $65 million committed to 15 players in 2015-16. 

    Working in Chicago's favour: no arbitration rights for Saad, who's coming off his entry-level contract. A short-term bridge deal should do the trick to keep Saad in Chicago for a couple more years.

     

Sergei Bobrovsky: Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Current Age: 25—set to become restricted free agent

    Current Contract: two years, $11.25 million, $5.625 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: Sergei Bobrovsky's performance tailed off slightly in 2013-14 after his Vezina Trophy-winning first season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. As a whole, though, the team took a step forward. A high-energy trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs bodes well for the Jackets' future.

    The worrisome issue: Bobrovsky's performance in the playoffs was well below his usual standards. Expect the Jackets to wait until next summer before deciding on the structure and duration of a new contract. 

Jason Spezza: Dallas Stars

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Current Age: 31—set to become unrestricted free agent

    Current Contract: seven years, $49 million, $7 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: Jason Spezza is the biggest name among next year's crop of potential unrestricted free agents and is just two seasons removed from his 84-point performance in 2011-12, when he finished sixth in Hart Trophy voting.

    If Spezza can provide both offense and veteran leadership on the rapidly improving Dallas Stars in 2014-15, he'll set himself up to earn one more juicy long-term contract next summer with the team of his choice.

Nail Yakupov: Edmonton Oilers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current Age: 20—set to become restricted free agent

    Current Contract: three years, $11.325 million, $3.775 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: After a strong rookie season in which he posted 31 points in 48 games, Nail Yakupov struggled under new coach Dallas Eakins in his second NHL campaign. 

    As Mike Halford of Pro Hockey Talk describes, Yakupov is under a mountain of pressure:

    ...a contract year, coming off a horrible second season, under a head coach he didn’t see eye-to-eye with and in the growing shadow of [Columbus Blue Jackets' defenseman Ryan] Murray, the guy the Oilers could’ve had.

    Yakupov returned to Edmonton in late July, and Derek Van Diest of the Edmonton Sun reports that he'll sport a new jersey number, 10, when the season gets underway.

    For his part, Yakupov sounds determined to make his third season a good one:

    I’m pushing myself hard and I’ll work 100% every day. We’ll see what it’s going to be like this year. I promise I’ll work hard, play 100%. I hope it’s going to be good for me and good for the team. We have to play better than we did last year, so we’ll how it goes.

     

Alec Martinez: Los Angeles Kings

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current Age: 27—set to become unrestricted free agent

    Current Contract: two years, $2.2 million, $1.1 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: Alec Martinez has spent most of his hockey career as a fringe NHLer. He dressed for just 51 regular-season games in 2011-12 before becoming a key part of the Los Angeles Kings' blue line during their run to the 2012 Stanley Cup.

    Even in 2013-14, Martinez dressed for just 61 regular-season games before donning his superhero cape in the late stages of the playoffs. He scored the series-clinching goals in overtime against both the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final and the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, elevating his status abruptly from journeyman to big-game player.

    If Martinez can assemble a solid regular season as he heads into free agency, he could set himself up for a tidy payday next July.

Mats Zuccarello: New York Rangers

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    Rebecca Taylor/Getty Images

    Current Age: 26—set to become unrestricted free agent

    Current Contract: one year, $3.5 million, $3.5 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: After having a tough time cracking the New York Rangers' lineup under previous coach John Tortorella, undersized Norwegian winger Mats Zuccarello broke out as part of Alain Vigneault's group in 2013-14. He posted 59 points in the regular season and another 13 points in 25 playoff games, earning himself a raise from $1.15 million to $3.5 million a season.

    Zuccarello has made himself noticed. Another step forward could make Zuccarello one of the most highly coveted free agents of the class of 2015. 

Bobby Ryan: Ottawa Senators

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current Age: 27—set to become unrestricted free agent

    Current Contract: five years, $25.5 million, $5.1 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: After four straight seasons of 30 goals or more with the Anaheim Ducks, Bobby Ryan's production dipped over the last two years, including his first season with the Ottawa Senators. Ryan didn't jell as hoped on a line with Jason Spezza. This season, he and Kyle Turris are being asked to lead the Ottawa offense.

    Ryan will need a bounce-back season if he hopes to win the lottery with a big-money, long-term free-agent deal next summer.

Marc-Andre Fleury: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current Age: 29—set to become unrestricted free agent

    Current Contract: seven years, $35 million, $5 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: Will this be Flower's last year with the Pittsburgh Penguins? Drafted first overall by Pittsburgh back in 2003, Fleury won a Stanley Cup in 2009 but has been shaky in subsequent postseasons.

    Through highs and lows, the Penguins have stood by their starter, but the end of Fleury's contract could present a chance for the team to go in a new direction. Conversely, a great season and good playoff under new coach Mike Johnston might be enough to see Fleury and the Pens renew their vows at the end of the season.

Nazem Kadri: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current Age: 23—set to become restricted free agent

    Current Contract: two years, $5.8 million, $2.9 million average annual value

    Why We Should Watch Him: Here's the downside to bridge contracts. We watched Kadri and the Leafs go through a long, acrimonious contract negotiation last summer, which didn't get settled until just before training camp. With one year of his current two-year deal now complete, the rhetoric is set to ramp up all over again.

    Kadri's still a restricted free agent but will have arbitration rights on his side this time around. The Leafs would do well to try to sign Kadri to a long-term extension during the season rather than letting the distraction drag on throughout the year.

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