As we near puck drop of what is sure to be one of the most unpredictable seasons in NHL history, fantasy owners should be looking for any edge they can get.
And thus, the contract year phenomenon enters the chat.
Ever wonder why athletes seem to put up their best numbers in the season directly leading up to free agency? One way or another, money motivation is a thing – players seem to be driven and inspired by the fact that their output can positively affect their future earnings. While this is far from an exact science, it’s certainly a strategy worth employing as the rewards can be fruitful.
With 2021 free agency set for July 28, the finish line is now in sight for a brand-new batch of players looking to get paid.
Here’s a top-10 list of pending free agents to target in your drafts. The SN rank refers to Sportsnet’s 2021 fantasy hockey top-250 pre-season rankings.
Frederik Andersen, G, Toronto Maple Leafs (SN Rank: 52) - UFA
Coming off an inconsistent season, Andersen is in-line for a bounce-back year. For the first time in a while, the Leafs have some depth in between the pipes – Jack Campbell and Aaron Dell – which means Andersen should be well rested. On top of that, Toronto’s off-season acquisitions on the back end should make them better defensively, which, in turn, should lead to improved numbers across the board for Andersen. Toronto is expected to contend for the North Division crown.
Translation: lots of wins and lots of money for Frederik Andersen.
Dougie Hamilton, D, Carolina Hurricanes (SN Rank: 56) - UFA
Given how well he performed in limited action last season, the sky is the limit for Hamilton in 2021. Due to two serious injuries, the 27-year-old was only able to suit up in 52 of Carolina’s 77 total games last season. That said, Hamilton was an absolute monster when he did play, tallying 14 goals and 40 points in 47 regular season games. He added a goal and an assist in five post-season contests as well.
If Hamilton can stay healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t be in the running for the Norris Trophy this season.
Jordan Binnington, G, St. Louis Blues (SN Rank: 57) - UFA
The 27-year-old’s less-than-appetizing post-season performance left fantasy owners with a bad taste in their mouths. All things considered, however, Binnington actually had a pretty decent regular season compiling a 30-13-7 record in 50 appearances. He notched a 2.56 goals-against average and .912 save percentage as well.
With the Blues slated to skate in the West Division this season, Binnington should have no problem racking up the numbers.
Rasmus Dahlin, D, Buffalo Sabres (SN Rank: 71) – RFA
Given Buffalo’s productive off-season, Dahlin’s fantasy stock could be at an all-time high entering his third season in the NHL. Because it’s been so long since the Sabres have played, it’s easy to forget that the 20-year-old took massive strides in his sophomore season. In fact, if you were to prorate his 40-point output in 59 games over an 82-game slate, Dahlin was quietly working at a 55-point pace.
The breakout season is coming – be ahead of the it.
Kevin Fiala, LW/RW, Minnesota Wild (SN Rank: 72) - RFA
While the breakout took longer than expected, it’s safe to say that Fiala has finally arrived on the fantasy scene. Now 24, the dual-eligible winger erupted for 23 goals and 54 points in 64 regular season games last season. With dark horse Calder candidate Kirill Kaprizov expected to skate on Fiala’s line, don’t expect a drop off in production.
I’m buying what Fiala is selling.
Kyle Palmieri, RW, New Jersey Devils (SN Rank: 90) - UFA
Coming off a season where he tallied 25 goals in 65 games, the 29-year-old could be poised for a career year. In recent years, Palmieri has been the model of consistency - he’s notched five straight 20-goal seasons. While he’s intimated in the past that he’d love to stay with the Devils long-term, the winger could emerge as a trade deadline candidate.
There’s some sneaky long-term value to drafting Palmieri.
Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington Capitals (SN Rank: 93) - RFA
Despite the fact he’s suited up for just 26 NHL games, the Russian netminder was handed Washington’s No. 1 job in the off-season after Braden Holtby left for Vancouver via free agency. The 23-year-old was very solid in his rookie year, posting a 16-6-2 record with a 2.55 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Considering the overall strength of the East Division, Samsonov could play a lot for the Capitals.
Trust the kid.
Philipp Grubauer, G, Colorado Avalanche (SN Rank: 114) – UFA
Considering his rich injury history, Grubauer should be viewed as a high-risk, high-reward type venture. When healthy, the German has proven to be a solid fantasy contributor – in 39 appearances last season he tallied a 2.63 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. After Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis, there’s a significant drop in calibre of teams in the West Division. The Avalanche will be a powerhouse.
In this instance, the reward may outweigh the risk.
Neal Pionk, D, Winnipeg Jets (SN Rank: 151) - RFA
If you’re looking for a stealth point producing defenceman, Pionk is your guy. The 25-year-old is coming off a career year where he tallied 44 points, 25 of which came on the power play. With all that firepower around him in Winnipeg, Pionk should have no problem replicating that production this season in the hotly contested North Division.
Take a flier.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, LW/RW, Columbus Blue Jackets (SN Rank: 165) - RFA
It’s unfortunate that injuries limited the 25-year-old to just 49 regular season games last season because when he did play, he was extremely productive. Bjorkstrand potted 21 goals, nine of which came in his last 13 games dating back to Jan. 1. Assuming he can stay healthy, look for the dual-eligible winger to get plenty of ice this season – both five-on-five and on the power play.
Considering how late he’ll be taken in most drafts, Bjorkstrand will prove to be an absolute steal of a pick.