Finding fantasy hockey value: 10 contract-year players to target

Kyle Bukauskas reports from Ottawa where the Senators are looking at a clean slate after captain Erik Karlsson having been traded to the San Jose Sharks.

You’ll often hear about the contract year phenomenon in pro sports, but what exactly does it mean?

Most often, it’s related to when a player produces at a higher than average level in the season leading up to their free agency. The thinking goes that if you’re playing for a new, and better, contract, there’s a certain motivating factor behind the scenes that contributes to this boost.

What’s this have to do with fantasy hockey? Well, it’s among the factors you should be analyzing when putting together your team. Don’t believe it? Last year’s crop included the likes of John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk and Carter Hutton, who were all handed significant pay raises following impressive campaigns. If you take contract years into consideration, you could find some value at the draft table.

Here’s a top-10 list of players to watch in fantasy hockey who could be positively impacted by their pending free agency.

The SN rank refers to our Top 200 fantasy player rankings for the 2018-19 season.

1. Cam Talbot, EDM, G, UFA (SN RANK: 72)
Two seasons ago, the 31-year-old posted exceptional numbers: 42 wins, 2.39 GAA, .919 SP, 7 shutouts. Last year, the tune was much different, which is why it wasn’t a shock to see the Oilers miss the playoffs. Talbot’s career average save percentage is 10 points higher than what he posted last season, and his average GAA more than half a goal lower. With UFA on the horizon, he could help the Oilers bounce back.

2. Zach Werenski, CBJ, D, RFA (SN RANK: 58)
After a brilliant rookie campaign, the 21-year-old struggled with a lingering shoulder injury in his sophomore campaign. Despite that, he was still able to notch a career-high 16 goals. Assuming full health, expect another significant jump in production this season, the final one on his entry-level deal.

3. Matt Duchene, OTT, C, UFA (SN RANK: 114)
After a putrid offensive start to his Senators career, Duchene took off in the final 30 games of last season, potting 14 goals adding 15 assists for 29 points. He looked like the Matt Duchene of old. Given everything that’s transpired in the past year, the 27-year-old has a lot of motivation to pick up where he left off.

4. Jordan Eberle, NYI, RW, UFA (SN RANK: 134)
Amidst all the John Tavares hoopla last year in Brooklyn, Eberle actually performed pretty decently himself in a second line role. He’s already well established as a 25-goal, 60-point option, but a permanent move to New York’s top line with Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee could line up the Regina native for a huge pay day.

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5. Semyon Varlamov, COL, G, UFA (SN RANK: 146)
This is arguably the biggest year of Varlamov’s career. Now 30 years old, the Russian netminder has a variety of things to prove. Among them — can he stay healthy? The former Capitals first-rounder hasn’t appeared in more than 60 games since the 2013-14 season and Colorado’s off-season acquisition of Philipp Grubauer from Washington should provide enough motivation for a healthy Varlamov to return to form.

6. Jake Gardiner, TOR, D, UFA (SN RANK: 133)
While he leaves a lot to be desired defensively, Gardiner’s offensive production continues to increase. If you didn’t hear, the Maple Leafs added even more star power up front in the off-season, which should bode well for Gardiner in a contract year.

7. Jeff Skinner, BUF, LW, UFA (SN RANK: 70)
Two words: Jack Eichel. Coming off a 24-goal, 49-point season with Carolina, Skinner’s numbers will almost certainly improve flanking Eichel on Buffalo’s top line. A change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered for the swift skater to navigate back into the 30-goal, 60-point range, and set himself up for a healthy pay day on July 1.

8. Wayne Simmonds, PHI, RW, UFA (SN RANK: 64)
Last season, the gritty winger had his worst offensive output since 2011-12. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s top-nine got even more crowded with James van Riemsdyk’s return via free agency, so Simmonds is expected to start the year on the third line. This could be his final significant pay day, so expect him to get the job done. You’ll find value getting him as he slides down the fantasy draft order.

9. Jesse Puljujarvi, EDM, RW, RFA (SN RANK: N/R)
Through 93 career NHL games, the 20-year-old Finn and fourth overall draft pick has just 13 goals and 28 points. As he continues to gain experience and grow as a player, his confidence and numbers to will come with it. With all due respect to Ty Rattie, Edmonton’s top-line right winger spot beside Connor McDavid isn’t locked up. Puljujarvi should get some looks there this season, which would set him up for a relatively big year.

10. Pavel Buchnevich, NYR, RW, RFA (SN RANK: 138)
With Alain Vigneault out and David Quinn in behind the bench in New York, now’s the time for Buchnevich to blossom into the player he’s shown glimpses of being. With more playing time in his sophomore season, the 23-year-old improved on his rookie numbers by more than doubling his point total. The Russian dangler is expected to start the season on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

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