Those two words are music to any fantasy manager’s ears because of the longstanding theory that players on the final year of their contracts tend to perform better than in previous years. There have been no explicit studies done on NHL players to confirm this notion, but it’s noteworthy enough to have its own Wikipedia page, though it’s primarily focused on the NBA and MLB.
As a simple litmus test for this theory, I’ve listed the top 15 upcoming UFA’s under the age of 30 ranked by points, and compared their P/GP during the 2021-22 season against their P/GP prior to the season. All numbers and cap hits are courtesy of capfriendly.com, and note the list of players may change if RFA’s do not get a qualifying offer from their teams on July 11.
Of the 15 players listed, only four players scored at a lower pace during the 2021-22 season than their career average heading into the season, and of those four players, their slip in production wasn’t even that noticeable. Max Domi saw the biggest decline, but he managed to play well enough to entice a playoff team to trade for him. At the other end of the scale, Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg and Valeri Nichushkin all averaged around half a point or better than their career average, and that’s not including 31-year-old Nazem Kadri, who is expected to land a lucrative contract.
Looking at the 2021 UFA class, the top 15 in scoring (excluding Pius Suter, who had no NHL experience prior to the 2020-21 season), only five players saw their scoring averages dip, and two of them – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall – took discounts to stay with their clubs.
It’s not necessarily proof that players put up better numbers in contract years, but there’s certainly a trend. It also seems logical; these under-30 players are established in the league and entering their primes, and the results are certainly skewed because only the cream of the crop were tallied.
Nevertheless, here are some forwards with an average Yahoo draft position of 50 or lower during the 2021-22 season to consider for the upcoming fantasy season. All players listed will be under the age of 30 when they become UFA’s in 2023.
Obvious notables: Nathan MacKinnon (ADP: 3.2), David Pastrnak (7.9), Jonathan Huberdeau (16.4)
J.T. Miller, C/LW, Vancouver Canucks (52.3)
Not difficult to see Miller push into the top 50 in ADP, either with the Canucks or another team, but take note that his 99-point season seems like an outlier so he’s not a sure-fire top-20 pick. However, as a point-per-game player he’s still a great option in the third or fourth rounds in 10-team leagues.
Bo Horvat, C, Vancouver Canucks (149.9)
Hard to see Horvat push into the 70-point territory without some really good luck, but Horvat’s contract-year production should increase because the team surrounding him will be better.
Tyler Bertuzzi, LW/RW, Detroit Red Wings (159.6)
Bertuzzi’s vaccination status will likely be far less of a factor going forward after being banned from playing in Canada and he scored at a 75-point pace last season.
Connor Brown, LW/RW, Ottawa Senators (165.8)
There are already rumblings Brown wants to test free agency, which means he’s betting big on himself.
Nick Ritchie, LW, Arizona Coyotes (167.7)
Someone has to do the scoring on the Coyotes, right? Ritchie scores the dirty goals, and without a lot of skill in the lineup, it’s really the only way they can generate any offense.
Dylan Larkin, C, Detroit Red Wings (176.7)
Larkin was one of the best value picks last season and the Wings are on a major upswing with a projected $65 million (!) in available cap space for Larkin to take advantage of. Larkin’s easily a top-100 option this coming season.
Andrei Kuzmenko, LW, Vancouver Canucks (n/a)
Of all the players on the list, the former KHL all-star probably has the most to prove in his first NHL season.
Alex Kerfoot, C/LW/RW, Toronto Maple Leafs (n/a)
Kerfoot’s 51-point breakout season and sticking with John Tavares on the same line with three-position eligibility should push Kerfoot way up the draft lists after going undrafted last season.
Michael Bunting, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs (n/a)
Fluke or not? Bunting has plenty to prove after critics suggested Auston Matthews did most of the heavy lifting. He remains a high-risk, high-reward proposition but deserves to be drafted nonetheless.
Jonathan Drouin, C/LW, Montreal Canadiens (n/a)
Despite all the injuries and ailments, Drouin has scored at a 50-point pace with the Habs. Renewed optimism under Martin St. Louis and a clean bill of health means Drouin still has a chance to be a good second-line option.
J.T. Compher, C/RW, Colorado Avalanche (n/a)
Compher showed he can produce if he’s given a top-six role, and two might open up if Kadri and Nichushkin both leave.
Frederick Gaudreau, C, Minnesota Wild (n/a)
Gaudreau showed well as their No. 2 center with a breakout 44-point campaign. Career-high ice time and a continuing partnership with Matt Boldy should keep Gaudreau on the fantasy radar, but losing Kevin Fiala will hurt. Gaudreau’s worth a late-round flyer in leagues that count faceoffs.
Trevor Moore, LW/RW, Los Angeles Kings (n/a)
Competition for playing time will be tough, and the local kid put up better numbers despite a low shooting percentage. Adding Fiala will give Moore a boost if he can stay in the top six.
Ivan Barbashev, C/LW/RW, St. Louis Blues (n/a)
Barbashev may have posted career highs one season too early, as he dropped back into a bottom-six role in the playoffs. He’s the only player on the list who demands caution from fantasy managers looking for value picks.