Three NHL free agents due for big raises: Nichushkin's Cup ring lifts the price

Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin celebrates his goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final. (John Locher/AP)

With free agency approaching, we’re breaking down players who will be available this summer as their contract expires. The focus isn’t guessing where they may go, but breaking down what each player’s strengths are and what they bring to a lineup.

While we talked about some cost-effective bargain options on Wednesday, today the focus is on players who are in for a raise. If a team wants to sign one of these players, they’ll probably have to open their chequebooks because quite a few teams will be interested.

Valeri Nichushkin

A Stanley Cup ring tends to raise the price — especially when a skater plays as important of a part in that victory as Nichushkin did.

The winger rebuilt his value with Colorado after the Stars bought him out. He went from a defensively sound forward to a strong two-way force who could be trusted in all situations, at any point in a game. This year, his value spiked because he finally had the scoring touch to match his all-situation efforts, and that landed him in a pivotal top-six role.

What makes him so successful? Smart positioning helps his defensive play, so does an active stick to check the puck away from opponents. He stops opponents' attempts to breakout and can keep plays alive in the offensive zone to extend scoring opportunities. His tenacity is a standout of his game, including when he’s hounding loose pucks and battling for possession along the boards.

Nichushkin’s been successful in the middle-six of Colorado’s lineup, without having the support of the team’s best, as a key forechecker. And he’s moved up as a scoring threat as of late. The former is still a worthwhile asset to have, but the latter is what just boosted the value of his contract.

Evolving-Hockey projects a seven-year contract worth about $6.3 million, on average. At that price, teams will likely expect the Nichushkin of 2021-22 and will be paying for that championship experience he just earned. If the Avalanche find a way to keep him, maybe he comes in under market value. Either way, its going to be a raise from his current $2.5 million cap hit.

Nick Paul

Nichushkin wasn’t the only player to put his skill on display this post-season. Across the way, there were two pending free agents generating a lot of attention: Nick Paul and Ondrej Palat.

Right now, we’re focusing in on the former.

Think of him as Barclay Goodrow 2.0 for Tampa Bay, minus the fact he was a pending free agent when he went to the Lightning instead of having that extra year on his deal. What happened with Goodrow after winning back-to-back Cups? Teams lined up to throw money his way, same for Blake Coleman.

For Paul, he had only one post-season run — and he didn’t earn a ring. But he showed what an effective utility player he was with his new squad, and just how well he fits on a stacked team after playing such an important role on a weaker Senators team.

The forward is really strong back in his own zone, where he can block shots and passes, recover loose pucks and help play out of the defensive end. That all translates to the penalty kill as well, which was an area the Lightning needed the support. Plus, Paul can chip into the offence as well, whether it's with defensive plays to keep the cycle going, or driving to the slot for some of his own chances.

Evolving-Hockey projects a very reasonable four-year contract with a $3.4 million cap hit. That’s more than the Senators were offering, and likely is cost-effective enough to fit on a playoff team.

But it won’t be surprising if Paul’s offered more term and cap space; players of this mold are often overpaid based on their playoff performances and utility play. Either way, he’ll be making more than his last deal that only paid out $1.35 million per year, on average.

Ilya Mikheyev

While there’s a chance Nichushkin and Paul stay put with their current teams, looks like Mikheyev has priced himself out of Toronto.

After a one-year entry-level contract, the winger extended for two years with a cap hit of $1.645 million. Now the 27-year-old will hit unrestricted free agency in a couple of weeks. The timing works out well for the forward who scored a career-high 21 goals this past season and 32 points in 53 games, which were tallied at a rate of 2.37 points per 60 (also a career best).

Mikheyev, like the two aforementioned wingers, has strengths on both ends. His ability to defend, disrupt opponents in offensive formation, and push the pace of play up the ice facilitates both his even-strength play and usage on the penalty kill.

The speedy skater earns a high rate of controlled entries as a result, which tend to be followed by a successful play. This year in particular, that successful play can be a scoring chance after he drives to the slot.

What teams offer him depends on where they see him fitting in the lineup. His scoring could inspire a signing team to view him as more of a middle-sixer to a key bottom-six piece, which ups his value. The former comes up with a projected value of six years, at about $5 million on average, according to Evolving-Hockey. A shorter team deal could be closer to the $3 million range, and likely is more fitting for a player a signing team wants on the third line.

Data via Sportlogiq, CapFriendly, and contract projections from Evolving-Hockey.

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