Pending NHL free agents who need a big playoff performance

Five players who need to pick up the pace early in the postseason.

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The 2020 unrestricted free agent market has no shortage of value this year: forward Taylor Hall, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, and goaltender Robin Lehner are the biggest names on the market in their respective positions. Torey Krug, Mike Hoffman, and Tyson Barrie aren’t far off. 

With the extended “off-season” due to the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the end date on contracts, pending free agents have a tougher situation than usual. They’re not just worried about the typical threat of an injury during the challenging grind of the playoffs – now they have to survive a global pandemic on top of that. No biggie.

For the big names, their next deals shouldn’t be too impacted with the flattened salary cap. Teams know what the stars are made of and even a poor playoff performance shouldn’t hurt them value-wise. That’s especially true in a time where nobody has played a game since March, with others coming off even bigger breaks due to injuries.

But for the players who had tough seasons as it was, a slow playoff tournament certainly won’t help their case. We’re not talking about fringe players either. We’re talking about the players who have been at the top of their game in recent years but fell significantly in their contract year. Here’s a look at five players who need to pick up the pace early in the post-season.

Braden Holtby, G – Washington Capitals

Talk about pressure. Among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played – around 25 games minimum – Holtby’s save percentage at even strength was .905, ranking him an abysmal 49th out of 54 qualified goaltenders. Using goals-saved-above-average, he falls down to 52nd at minus-14.70, while his high-danger save percentage places him at 50th with .786. In short, Holtby was one of the NHL’s worst goaltenders this year while his young rookie counterpart, Ilya Samsonov, was a top 20 goaltender. 

Unfortunately for Washington, Samsonov will miss the duration of the playoffs, meaning the Capitals will need Holtby to channel his 2018 Cup run performance if the team has any hope of hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug this fall. The Caps seemed comfortable enough to sit Holtby when he was struggling during the regular season, and the team doesn’t have that luxury at the moment, but at least they have a round-robin tournament before the games truly start to matter. Washington was one of the worst teams down the stretch and Holtby didn’t make things better, although his big-game postseason experience should count for something. Is he ready for the task at hand? The Capitals will have a tough time signing Holtby with just $10.3 million in cap space to fill six spots, while Holtby will need a strong playoff run to show any other teams he’s worth earning close to the $6.1 million he made this past season.

Evgenii Dadonov, LW/RW – Florida Panthers

The Panthers are expected to let go of either Dadonov or Mike Hoffman – maybe even both – during free agency this fall, and Dadonov definitely appears to be the easiest to phase out. At 31, there’s a good chance he has already hit his prime despite completing just three full NHL seasons, especially after dropping off from 70 points a year ago to just 47 – a 56-point pace in a full season. 

That’s not to say Dadonov won’t remain consistent 50-point guy in the NHL. He was still a worthy goal-scorer – on pace for a career-high 30 goals before the shutdown – but his drastic drop in production has to worry some potential teams. Whether it be in the KHL, on the Russian national team, or in Florida, he’s always been paired with top quality players, so a new home and expanded opportunities might be exactly what Dadonov needs to find his groove – maybe in Ottawa or New Jersey? The Panthers are underdogs in this playoff format but, if goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky can steal games like he did last year in Columbus, Florida has true upset potential. Whether or not Dadonov comes up big and cements his playoff value is a different story.

Mikael Granlund, C/LW – Nashville Predators

It’s been all downhill for Granlund since leaving Minnesota in 2019 to join the Nashville Predators. In 79 games over two partial seasons, he has just 35 points – a big step down from his 49-point output in 63 games with the Wild last year, or his multiple 65-plus point campaigns prior to that. It’s baffling: Granlund is exactly the player the Predators need given his background as a reliable two-way scoring forward, but he’s been anything but in spite of all the opportunities offered to him in Smashville.

Granlund is 28 and coming off of a $5.75 million cap hit, something he didn’t come close to achieving this season. But in the grand scheme of things, he did perform well for most of his three-year deal and he still has time to prove he’s worthy of another lucrative pact. Nashville needs all the scoring they can get and Granlund should be the one to provide it when given second-line duties, but that’s been the biggest crutch during Granlund’s tenure with the team. At his previous production near the 60-point mark, $5.75 million is a steal. But at his current production? Not so much. Granlund needs to be effective on the scoresheet immediately. 

Alex Galchenyuk, LW – Minnesota Wild

When looking back at the best drafts from the past decade, the 2012 draft won’t be highly regarded. Some stars have emerged in Morgan Rielly, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Jacob Trouba, but the top four – Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Galchenyuk and Griffin Reinhart – have struggled to live up to expectations. Galchenyuk is one of just two players to record 300 points – his 320 trail Nashville’s Filip Forsberg’s 353 – and he hasn’t been able to match his 56-point effort from 2015-16 in the years since. 

Galchenyuk has played on four teams in the past three seasons, including Pittsburgh and Minnesota this season, and his value has drastically dropped since leaving Montreal in 2018. At 26, it’s clear Galchenyuk’s future is as a depth forward who can provide scoring when needed, and he won’t make the $4.9 million he averaged on his most recent contract. What could happen, however, is that a team in need of extra scoring and strength in the middle could give him a short-term “prove it” contract to show he’s worthy of more in the long-term – especially when his defensive game and lack of consistency has proven to be a crutch. Playing for a weak Wild team heading into the post-season is a perfect opportunity for just that, especially when going up against the high-flying Vancouver Canucks in the play-in round. 

Justin Schultz, D – Pittsburgh Penguins

Few top-four defensemen in the NHL have had as many struggles over the past three years as Schultz. Once viewed as the top NCAA prospect, Schultz had a career-high 12 goals and 51 points in his first full season in Pittsburgh in 2016-17 before injuries quickly derailed the rest of his tenure with the club. Despite playing 17 more games than a year ago, Schultz had just 12 points in 46 games from Pittsburgh’s blueline, and his 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage of 49.77 was sixth among the eight Penguins defenders with at least 35 games played. 

Schultz is back at full strength and in the final year of his three-year contract worth $5.5 million a season. As a projected third-pairing defenseman heading into the postseason, the odds are not in Schultz’s favor to secure a similar contract, especially with guys like Pietrangelo, Barrie, Vatanen, and Torey Krug on the market. Schultz has hit the 70-game mark just three times in his eight-year career and limited action throughout his latest contract hasn’t helped his case. But when he’s healthy, such as in his mega 2016-17 season and subsequent strong playoff run en route to the Stanley Cup, he’s a reliable option. Schultz needs a strong overall playoff performance to ensure a lucrative new deal at the age of 30 – but teams will be wary of his injury history regardless.

Which pending UFA will have the best post-season?

Salary figures from Cap Friendly.

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