Troy Brouwer has earned himself a big pay hike this post-season. What other free agents have helped pad their future wallets this spring?
Busting out with big performances in the playoffs can significantly impact players’ paycheques in seasons to come if they hit free agency directly after their spring heroics, small sample sizes be damned. Look at what Bryan Bickell got after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013. The big fella scored nine goals in 23 playoff games. He was 27, and his career regular-season high at the time was 17 goals, but he was a big part of the 2013 championship run and thus earned himself a pretty penny. It cost Chicago four years at a $4-million cap hit to keep Bickell. He’s since become an albatross for GM Stan Bowman.
We’re seeing a similar bust-out effort from another hulking winger this season who happened to win a Stanley Cup of his own with Chicago in the past: Troy Brouwer of the St. Louis Blues. We know he’ll get a big payday as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Which other pending UFAs have earned extra dollars thanks to their playoff performances? Here are five names to consider. I’ve ruled out the restricted free agents, as there are too many soon-to-get-richer youngsters to count, from Nikita Kucherov to Jonathan Drouin to Jaden Schwartz. This also isn’t just a list of the best UFAs, period. Kyle Okposo, for example, played well in the post-season, but he was due a massive July payday anyway, and his strong effort in two rounds for the Isles didn’t change that.
Let’s focus on the UFAs who have increased their projected dollar figures specifically because of their work in these playoffs.
5. Matt Cullen, Pittsburgh Penguins
Cullen seemed like an afterthought, a stopgap at best, when the Penguins signed him for one year at $800,000 last August. He was 38, played about 13 minutes a game as a Nashville Predator and was fresh off his lowest goal and point totals since 2003-04. He seemed all but finished. His old GM from his Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes days, Jim Rutherford, gave him a chance, and the Pens ended up needing Cullen badly.
He delivered massively for the Pens down the stretch in 2015-16 when No. 2 center Evgeni Malkin got hurt. Playing a top-nine role, Cullen had 10 goals and 16 points in his final 27 games. He was great on face-offs and logged major shorthanded minutes. He’s relegated to fourth-line duty in the post-season but has still delivered four goals for the Pens, including two game winners. Cullen has shown he can still play. It’s entirely possible he’ll retire should the Pens win a Cup, as he’ll turn 40 in November. If he wants to return on another one-year deal, however, it would be a slap in the face if the Penguins don’t make him at least a millionaire again.
4. Roman Polak, San Jose Sharks
Squinting closely at the numbers doesn’t necessarily show us a player who deserves a raise on his $2.75-million cap hit. Polak, 30, has little to no offense in his game, he hasn’t shouldered massive responsibility on the San Jose Sharks’ third defensive pair, and his possession numbers relative to his teammates are poor. Polak, however, is big, strong, mean and one win away from being a Stanley Cup finalist. He plays a premium position as a right-shot defenseman, and he’s hitting the open market for the first time in his career. It’s easy to picture him cracking $3 million as a UFA this July. Even if the overrated “playoff warrior” narrative is the driving force behind it, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
3. Matt Martin, New York Islanders
The Isles have arguably the best fourth line in hockey, with Casey Cizikas centering Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, and they earned extra attention this postseason. Coach Jack Capuano isn’t the type to shelf his grinders in high-stakes affairs, so he continued rolling a true four lines against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in Rounds 1 and 2. Martin averaged more than 12 minutes a game and was a disruptive physical presence. He has led the NHL in hits five straight seasons, which is remarkable considering the toll it takes on one’s body to hit that much, and he also scored a career-high 10 goals this year. He’s a grinder who can play, and taking a regular playoff shift only solidifies that reputation. Look for Martin to double his $1-million cap hit as a UFA.
2. David Backes, St. Louis Blues
No Okposo, but include Backes? Yes. Backes had a lot to lose value-wise in these playoffs. If he was the captain whose team bombed out in the first round a fourth straight year, it would’ve made him a less attractive free agent commodity, especially since he’s 32 now and exiting his prime. Instead, he’s helped get the Blues further in the playoffs than they’ve been since 2001. Backes hasn’t been a consistent all-out world beater this spring, but he’s produced in bursts, racking up seven goals and three game winners, and he continues to play hard minutes against elite competition. He’s done enough to all but ensure he earns the second-richest contract after Steven Stamkos this summer.
1. Troy Brouwer, St. Louis Blues
Say hello to your Bryan Bickell of 2016. Well, that may be selling Brouwer short a little bit. He’s a three-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL and a Stanley Cup winner. His outstanding 2016 post-season showing isn’t out of nowhere. Fernando Pisani he ain’t. But Brouwer wasn’t in line for a raise as a 30-year-old coming off an 18-goal season in which he earned a $3.67-million AAV. If anything, Brouwer was looking at a mild paycut. Not anymore. He’s delivered eight goals over St. Louis’ first 19 playoff games. Half his goals have been game winners, including the series clincher in Round 1 against Chicago. He’s played a heavy game, battling for space on the blue ice, and he’s also shown underrated hand-eye co-ordination, highlighted by a Game 5 goal against San Jose in which he batted the puck out of mid-air. Brouwer has vaulted himself into the $4-million stratosphere, easily. He picked a great time to play the best hockey of his career.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin