A lot of the times that NHL players have career years, they are due to sign a new cheque the following offseason. Money is extremely motivating not just for NHL athletes, but for everyone worldwide. Just last season we saw players like Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Nazem Kadri, and Kevin Fiala all having career years when they were due for a new contract.
Drafting motivated players to fuel your fantasy team
When determining who to draft in fantasy hockey, it is an excellent idea to focus on some players who are in contract years. This means players whose contracts are entering their last year where they have yet to sign an extension. This also includes both restricted free agents, and unrestricted free agents. So with that being said, who are the top 10 players to keep an eye on?
1. Nathan MacKinnon – C – Colorado Avalanche
Fresh off a Stanley Cup win, Nathan MacKinnon is going to be looking for some big money. MacKinnon isn’t a bounce-back candidate by any means, he is a top 5 player in the NHL and is a franchise-level talent. However, with arguably one of the most valuable contracts in the league, you can bet that MacKinnon will be looking to set career-highs across the board to secure a better contract.
MacKinnon was on track to produce 111 points in 82 games during 2021–22. What more could MacKinnon do in a contract year? It would not be out of the possibilities to see MacKinnon challenge McDavid for the Art Ross Trophy next year. MacKinnon is a lock to go in the top 5, however, if you have a top 3 pick, it might be worth picking him up early.
2. David Pastrnak – RW – Boston Bruins
Boston is a team who seems to have value contracts left, right, and centre. However, as David Pastrnak is one of the biggest young stars in the league, and with Boston seeming to make one last push to contend for the Stanley Cup, Pastrnak will be looking to fill the score sheet to lead the Bruins to a championship. Pastrnak is 26 years old, and once his contract expires, it will be his one big chance to secure a long-term deal with big money.
Pastrnak has been a point-per-game player since 2017–18, and being ranked as the 25th best player to draft seems to have a lot of value. Pastrnak has the skill to be a 50+ goal scorer, and if all goes well in Boston, he could definitely crack 100 points, and be one of the most valuable players in the league to own.
3. Alex DeBrincat – LW – Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators have made some big moves this offseason. Trading for Alex DeBrincat, and later signing Claude Giroux, Ottawa is trying to turn the page and compete this upcoming season. When it comes to DeBrincat, during his best seasons, he has looked like one of the best goal scorers in the league—all while playing for a horrible Chicago hockey team. DeBrincat has shown the league the excellent play that he is capable of.
At 24 years old, DeBrincat will become an RFA at the end of the year, and if he wants to sign a big money long-term extension, I am sure Ottawa—and many other teams—will be extremely interested. With the wingers of Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, and Claude Giroux, DeBrincat will be playing with lots of talent around him. At number 32 on NHL’s rankings, DeBrincat should be a player that fantasy owners consider reaching for in the draft.
4. Timo Meier – LW/RW – San Jose Sharks
If there is one thing that San Jose loves, it is signing players to lengthy, big-money contracts. Timo Meier showed during the 2021–22 season that he is worth one of these big raises. Meier is currently under a contract with a $6M cap hit. In the same season that Meier registered 76 points in 77 games, Tomas Hertl was re-signed by the Sharks to an eight-year, $8M deal.
Look for Meier to try to get a contract even larger than that from the Sharks front office. It is no secret that the Sharks are in a little bit of a tough spot when it comes to the salary cap. However, whether the Sharks can afford Meier or not, he will be getting a payday. Meier is ranked as the 45th most valuable fantasy player.
5. Jordan Kyrou – RW – St. Louis Blues
Last season, Jordan Kyrou really made a name for himself. He broke out and produced at a point-per-game pace in just 16 min of ice time. He is an up and coming star, there is no other way around it. His teammate Robert Thomas just got a payday from the Blues, signing an $8.13M dollar extension for eight years after he also had a breakout season.
Kyrou should be looking for around the same amount next year, and the best way to do that is for Kyrou to keep the Blues in contention and show that last season was not a fluke. Kyrou is ranked as the 110th best player for fantasy hockey.
6. Dylan Larkin – C – Detroit Red Wings
Dylan Larkin has been looked at as a very promising player who has not been able to produce to his potential. A lot of the reason for that is that the Red Wings have been in a rebuild ever since he has been on the team. However, based on the offseason Steve Yzerman had, that looks like it is going to change this year.
Larkin is going to be playing on a much better team, and will finally have the ability to show the world his true potential with a strong supporting cast around him. Larkin is 26 years old, and if he wants to sign a long-term contract, now is the time for him to breakout. Dylan Larkin is ranked at #90.
7. Mathew Barzal – C – New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal is in a very similar situation is Dylan Larkin. A very promising player, who seems to make fans and fantasy owners just wanting a little bit more. Barzal is also 26 years old, and while he is in his prime, there is no better time than now to capitalize on a big year to secure a large contract. He is one of the fastest skaters in the league, and has played a key role with the Islanders. The team has playoff hopes, and Barzal will need to lead that team if they are going to have success in the playoffs.
8. Roope Hintz – C,LW – Dallas Stars
In my opinion, Roope Hintz has been one of the most underrated fantasy players for a couple of years now. Though he has had some injury troubles, Hintz has managed to be roughly a point-per-game for two years in a row. Add in the fact that he is playing with the young star Jason Robertson, and Hintz is bound to take off. Look for Hintz to have another strong year, and while ranked at #95, he could easily be one of the steals of the year.
9. Michael Bunting – LW – Toronto Maple Leafs
Is he a rookie or is he not? While some fans may be debating this still, nobody should be debating how effective Michael Bunting was with the Leafs. Scoring 63 points in 79 games while on a $950K deal is spectacular. Bunting is on a line with Matthews and Marner, who are some of the biggest stars in the game.
After putting up such a high-scoring total, Bunting is really in the perfect position to really increase his pay cheque. Despite the consistent first round exits, the Leafs show every season that they are capable of being one of the most elite teams in the league. And when you have Matthews and Marner on your side, you are bound to be set up for success. Look for Bunting to be near a point-per-game again next year, and as he is ranked at 158, there is tremendous value if you are able to draft him that low.
10. Tyler Bertuzzi – LW,RW – Detroit Red Wings
This truly depends on whether Tyler Bertuzzi is able to stay healthy, and whether he will be able to play games in Canada. Bertuzzi showed incredible chemistry with Larkin and Raymond on Detroit’s top line. It is almost a guarantee that the top line will stay together again this upcoming season.
While he is currently being paid $4.8M per season, Bertuzzi managed to score 30 goals and 62 points while only playing 68 games. Now, with a much improved roster, the same talented top line, and the chance for a raise, it’s hard not to see Bertuzzi capitalizing on this.
The tricky part however, is if he can’t play any games in Canada, is he still worth drafting where he is ranked? It is something to consider. However, as Bertuzzi is ranked at #168, there is clear value attached to his name—even if he might not be able to play all the games in Canada.
Show me the money
This is the mindset for all NHL players when they are in a contract year. Players will bet on themselves, and fantasy owners should take note of who those players are. Players in contract years will find a way to set career-highs and to take the words out of Troy Bolton’s mouth: “you know you can bet on it (bet on it, bet on it, bet on it).”