It's never too early to look towards the future. And for some pending UFAs, there's a reason to be nervous.
We often hear about players having career years as they head towards free agency, but it's just as likely – if not more – that players in a similar situation fall off the face of the earth as they play towards a potential payday. Semyon Varlamov, for example, wasn't expected to lose the starting role to Philipp Grubauer last season in Colorado, but the now-former Avalanche keeper's inconsistent play cost him the starting gig and eventually signing a contract with the New York Islanders that would have been heftier had he not struggled last season.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Robin Lehner. Last summer, Lehner's career was in a state of flux before the Islanders took a chance on him with a one-year, $1.5-million deal. The result? He came just short of winning the Vezina Trophy and that led to a one-year, $5-million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. The deal is shorter than most expected, but a nice payday that could lead to an even better one next summer.
For these five players, the challenge will be to find a way back to form. Some struggled with their overall performance, while others dealt with injuries that limited their playing time. Here are five players who need to rebound if they want to land in the money next July:
Corey Crawford, G, 34 (Chicago – $6 million)
Even though Crawford spent much of the season on the sidelines and has had health issues in recent years, it was still surprising to see the Hawks sign Lehner on July 1. That said, Crawford struggled to start the last season, but after returning from an injury in March, he won five of six starts and helped the Blackhawks remain in playoff contention. He finally has competition in the crease and he's no longer no-doubt No. 1, and if he wants to regain the role, he'll need to have a big season.
Mikael Granlund, C/RW, 27 (Minnesota – $5.75 million)
Granlund had a couple of splendid campaigns in Minnesota, but he played some of the most ineffective hockey of his career after his trade to Nashville late last season. He had just one goal and five points in 16 games with the Predators – he scored another two points in the playoffs – and he couldn't find any momentum during his short time there. The upcoming season provides a fresh start for Granlund, who will hit the UFA market for the first time next summer. He has plenty of skill, but he has to prove his worth as a top-six scorer.
Wayne Simmonds, RW, 31 (New Jersey – $5 million)
Philadelphia got great value from Simmonds during his six years with the club. He recorded at least 50 points on four occasions while earning less than $4 million per season. His game quickly trailed off last season, though, as he recorded just 30 points in 79 games (including three points in 17 games with Nashville). His one-year, $5-million contract with the Devils is a bet on himself and a hope for a return to form. Simmonds will fill a top-six winger spot and will have every opportunity to prove he's still an effective player in the league who is worthy of a more lucrative long-term deal next summer. He needs to do a complete 180 to make up for his struggles in 2018-19.
Tyler Toffoli, RW, 27 (Los Angeles – $4.6 million)
Like the rest of the Kings, Toffoli had a down year, netting 34 points in 72 games. That's been the trend for the winger, however, as he hasn't cracked the 50-point plateau in either of the first two seasons of his current deal after posting 58 in 2016-17. (He was sidelined for 19 games the following year, but his 34 points matched his 82-game production this past season.) Toffoli spent considerable time with Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk at 5-on-5 – two aging forwards who scored 33 and 34 points, respectively – so a lineup change might be enough to spark more offensive success.
Mike Green, D, 33 (Detroit – $5.38 million)
Once the gold standard of offensive defensemen, Green has struggled to stay healthy and has played only one 82-game season, that back in 2007-08. He is still capable of putting up solid numbers, though. His 0.6 points-per-game average last season was his best since 2014-15 and would have seen him score 50 points had skated in all 82 games. Detroit desperately needs his help on defense, with the team looking weak on the right side without him. Green will have his modified no-trade clause kick in on Feb. 1 and he could be a prime trade deadline candidate, but he can't afford another long stint on the injured reserve if he wants to have significant bargaining power next summer.
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