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Nash under pressure as he enters contract year — and he’s not alone

After consecutive down years, Rick Nash is trying to find his game as he heads toward free agency, and he’s one of several big-name players heading into incredibly important contract years.

The past two seasons of Rick Nash’s career have been forgettable. Even he’d be likely to admit as much.

In successive campaigns, Nash has finished with fewer than 40 points, he’s seen his ice time slip from top-line minutes to that of a middle-six winger and even his goal scoring touch seems to have abandoned him at times. While he’s fairly recently removed from a 42-goal season in 2014-15, Nash has just 38 goals over the past two campaigns, and his respective 15- and 23-goal totals are the worst and fourth-worst numbers he’s posted since his debut.

More than it has been in recent seasons, though, the pressure is on for Nash to rediscover his form. After five seasons as a Blueshirt, Nash is entering the final campaign of the eight-year $62.4 million contract he inked back in July 2009 while still a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. And with his play nowhere near commensurate with his $7.8-million cap hit, it’s clear to everyone — including Nash — that if he wants to find a deal even nearing on comparable next summer, he’s going to have to pick up his play.

“Every year I want to have the best year possible. But this year, it’s an important year for me personally,” Nash said, according to the New York Daily News’ Justin Tasch. The veteran winger added that with the situation he’s in, he knows his play this season will dictate his next contract.

And that’s why Nash will be one of the more interesting players to watch for the duration of 2017-18.

Nash’s offensive inconsistency has been somewhat troubling since he landed with the Rangers, but that hasn’t changed the fact that when he’s on top of his game, he’s still capable of being a juggernaut with the puck on his stick. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Nash was a near point per game player, scoring 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. In the aforementioned 2014-15 season, he was also unstoppable at times, putting up 69 points in 79 games. But in the years Nash has been poor, it’s been tough to watch his struggles, with his three sub-40-point seasons cause for some handwringing on Broadway. A third-consecutive down season could prove fairly damaging to Nash’s earning power as a free agent next summer, too, and one need not look much further than Eric Staal to understand the ramifications of a few less-than-stellar seasons. 

From 2013-14 to 2015-16, Staal saw his production continually dip, leading to a 13-goal, 39-point season in 2015-16. At season’s end, Staal, who was earning $8.25 million per season at the culmination of his seven-year deal, found himself on the open market and would up taking a massive haircut on his next contract, signing for three years at $3.5 million per season with the Minnesota Wild. And if Nash can’t get his game together, he could see himself take a pay cut of similar size if he wants to find work in the NHL come the 2018-19 season.

Nash isn’t the only player entering the final season of his deal that will be worth paying close attention to, however. Here are nine other must-watch players heading into contract years:

Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres

When he’s been in the lineup, Kane has been nothing short of dynamite for the Sabres offensively. His 48 goals and .36 goals per game rate are team-best marks over the past two seasons, and the only more productive forwards have been Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. But despite his production, Kane has had trouble really truly getting settled with the Sabres due to a combination of injuries and off-ice incidents. That makes this a make-or-break year for both sides.

If Kane can come out of the gates flying, produces like the top-line sniper he can be and pleases the coaching staff and front office, there could be talk about a contract extension, which would be somewhat surprising given how often Kane’s name has come up in trade chatter over the past few seasons. A good showing can help him drive up his price, too. If Kane struggles, though, chances are he’ll be as good a piece of trade bait as there is in the league. His combination of speed, shot and forechecking ferocity will ensure he draws serious interest from teams looking to bulk up for the post-season.

Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames

It took a while, longer than most in Calgary would have hoped, but Backlund really, truly found his footing as a second-line center for the Flames last season. Offensively, he set career marks with 22 goals and 53 points, but the standout aspect of his game wasn’t his scoring. Rather, it was his two-way ability. Backlund took heavy shorthanded minutes, played the defensive center role to perfection and, come season’s end, earned serious consideration for the Selke Trophy, finishing fourth in voting. And with the Flames certain to compete for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division, Backlund’s defensive acumen could be pivotal in how high Calgary climbs the standings.

The question then, though, is what Backlund is worth once his contract comes up. It seems safe to assume he’s not going anywhere — Calgary has nearly $18 million in projected cap space next summer and Backlund offers them great depth down the middle — but does a repeat 50-point, Selke-conversation performance push Backlund up above $5 million per season or higher? And when do the two sides start talking about an extension? No matter what, Backlund stands to get a raise and a contract year paired with another set of career highs could make for a hefty payday.

Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Over the past four seasons, Atkinson has set four career-best goal marks. It started with a 21-goal campaign, he rose to 22 goals in 2014-15, continued up to 27 tallies in 2015-16 and exploded with 35 goals in 2016-17 as the primary offensive catalyst for the surprising Blue Jackets. And if Atkinson has an encore, or even if he starts off strong, he could be set for a big-money extension.

The biggest question when it comes to Atkinson, however, is whether or not he can sustain his shooting percentage. As one would expect, he’s seen it increase in each of the past four seasons, but the 14.6 percentage last season was the seventh-highest in the entire NHL. His company included Artemi Panarin, Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov, Sidney Crosby and Patrik Laine. So, while there’s nothing to say Atkinson can’t repeat his performance, but one has to wonder if his big year didn’t come one season too early. He still seems a lock for somewhere between 20-30 goals, but another year where he flirts with 40 goals doesn’t seem incredibly likely. If he proves he can do it again, though, Atkinson could become awfully expensive awfully quickly in Columbus.

John Tavares, New York Islanders

One of the biggest off-ice stories entering the season is Tavares and his contract status with the Islanders. As it stands, the two sides — New York and their superstar, two-time Hart Trophy finalist captain — have yet to come to an agreement on a deal that will keep Tavares with the Islanders beyond this season, and it appears as though the two sides will, at the very least, enter training camp without putting pen to paper on a contract extension. And no matter what the Islanders say, that has to be concerning.

There’s not a single player who will draw as much intrigue on the open market as Tavares. The 26-year-old has game-changing ability and has been one of the league’s top scorers across the past five seasons. He’s ready to and wants to win. He’ll do everything within his power to ensure he can do that this season in New York and he’s made it clear that he’s interested in staying in town. That said, if the Islanders don’t succeed and fall short of the post-season once again, what becomes of Tavares?

Paul Stastny, St. Louis Blues

Once one of the hottest free agents on the open market, Stastny is entering his fourth season in St. Louis and it’d be safe to say his stock hasn’t exactly gone up while playing with the Blues. Signed to a four-year, $28-million deal following a 60-point season in 2013-14, Stastny’s numbers have continuously dropped off since he signed in St. Louis. Some of that can be attributed to injury — he has missed eight or more games in each of the past three seasons — but his overall points per game rate has dropped to .66. It was .85 during his eight seasons in Colorado.

With that in mind, Stastny has to again prove himself as a steady-scoring, second-line center if he’s going to earn anything that even closely resembles the $7 million annual salary he’s pulling in right now. He has the tools, of course. He’s an exceptional playmaker, plays a solid two-way game and has proven he can be a playoff contributor. But even if he has a big year, there’s a good chance he has to take a decent-sized pay cut on his next contract, be it in St. Louis or elsewhere.

James van Riemsdyk, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs have money and a lot of it coming off the books at the end of 2017-18. In fact, per CapFriendly, when July 2018 rolls around, Toronto could have nearly $28 million in cap space to play around with should they not make any signings during the season. But the Maple Leafs have to be cautious with how they spend given William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will all be due new deals in short order, which brings us to van Riemsdyk.

Since his arrival in Toronto, van Riemsdyk has been Toronto’s top scorer, putting up 118 goals and 240 points in 332 games, but he’s coming to the end of his six-year, $25.5-million contract with potential to draw some serious interest on the open market. The time could be right, particularly on the heels of a career-best 62-point season, for van Riemsdyk to land his big money deal, too. But does Toronto have room for him with the contracts that in the offing? It could be a tight fit, and if van Riemsdyk has another big year, he may price himself off the Maple Leafs.

James Neal, Vegas Golden Knights

There are a lot of unknowns in Vegas this coming campaign. The defense is a ragtag mix of veterans and youngsters and the offense has more than a few spare parts pieced together. But the one thing that is near certain is that Neal is going to be one of the primary — and among the only — weapons in the Golden Knights’ arsenal. One has to wonder, though, if he won’t be trying to get himself back in a position to land with a winning club.

One surefire way to do that is to perform at such a level that he becomes a hot commodity at the trade deadline. Vegas will be looking to build with prospects and through the draft and that means they’re in prime position to be sellers at the deadline, and if Neal performs up to his ability, he could be chief among the Golden Knights’ trade chips. He has experience from this past season’s run to the Stanley Cup final and he’s a proven goal scorer. Teams looking to add will be interested, and if he plays well all season, his list of potential suitors could double by February.

Bryan Little, Winnipeg Jets

It’s getting awfully close to decision time for the Jets. Many of the young talents, including Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, are entering contract years and with new deals due to more than a dozen players ahead of next season, Winnipeg will have to decide who stays and who goes. And Little could count himself among the players the Jets no longer have room for come next season.

Little has been a fixture of the lineup since the team arrived in Winnipeg, but the cost of retaining him beyond this season could be too rich for the Jets’ blood. The likelihood of that is greater should Little produce at a clip similar to his 21-goal, 47-point performance in 59 games last season. What could decide Little’s fate — whether he hits the open market or stays in Winnipeg all season — will be where the Jets stand come the deadline. If Winnipeg is in the playoff picture, Little could stick around for a potential playoff run. If the Jets are out of it, though, it might make the most sense to move him along.

John Carlson, Washington Capitals

Carlson isn’t going anywhere. That much should be clear. But his season will be worth watching because his performance will almost certainly dictate his asking price on his next contract. Right now, it’d be safe to assume that Carlson is going to earn somewhere in the $6 million range without playing a single second of ice time this campaign. Reason being is that only 18 blueliners have accumulated more points than Carlson and only 29 have boasted a higher average ice time. He’s trotted out on both special teams units, too.

But if Carlson has a season that even closely mirrors his 2014-15 campaign — he scored 12 goals, 55 points and finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting — he could have an argument for one of the 10 highest salaries for rearguards, which would put him at or above the $7-million mark. Given Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler signed for $6.5 million-plus, you can see Carlson’s case. The big question, though, will be how the Capitals then structure their salary cap. Washington could have roughly $20 million to work with next summer, and things could get tricky if Carlson eats up one-third of that cap space.

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