Hockey is the ultimate team sport, or so we are lead to believe.
And yet we also know that the further a team goes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the more it can benefit the individuals that make up the teams. Let’s be honest, there are a number of players on the eight teams still standing who are playing for contracts next season.
A player like center Matt Cullen of the Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, is in his 19th season in the NHL, on a one-year contract for $800,000 -- quite a comedown for a guy who used to earn $4 million a year with the Nashville Predators. Still the 39-year-old native of Virginia, MN, is playing for the love of the game. Playing pretty well, too. In six games, Cullen has two goals – both game-winners – and three points while averaging 15:22 of dependable two-way play.
If Cullen wants to get the 20th season in next year, he is going to have to convince a team that there is still gas in the tank. With each passing year the NHL becomes more and more a young man’s league so the deck is stacked against him no matter how well he plays.
Here are a few other ‘bubble’ players from the final eight playoff teams whose play may or may not afford them the opportunity to sign up for at least one more NHL season:
Patrick Eaves, RW, Dallas Stars: In his first six playoff games Eaves chipped in two goals and five points which is pretty good considering Eaves plays more of a defensive role with the Stars. Dallas GM Jim Nill had Eaves in Detroit when he was the assistant GM of the Red Wings and knows what the veteran right winger brings to the table. I suspect Eaves will get an offer to return.
Steve Bernier, RW, New York Islanders: Bernier has done a pretty good job staying in the NHL even though it has meant moving from team to team. The 30-year-old can skate and check, but is in and out of the Islanders lineup so it might be hard for him to convince his team (or another team) to sign him on for another year.
Nick Spaling, C, San Jose Sharks: Spaling is a quality checking centre who earns $2.2 million. There is every chance in the world a team or two will be interested in signing Spaling, but most likely at a drastically reduced salary. The 26-year-old Spaling had three goals and 13 points with the Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs and has no points in five playoff games.
Scottie Upshall, RW, St. Louis Blues. Upshall used to earn $3.5 million a season as a member of the Florida Panthers, but has fallen into that pay-as-you-play category and accepted a deal for $700,000 to remain in the NHL with the Blues. He has never been an offensive force, nor has he been considered a defensive specialist. Yet at 32, Upshall has shown enough new-found grit to possibly interest a team in taking a chance on him for another season.
Mike Richards, C, Washington Capitals. The Richards story is one of both success and failure. As a player he has won just about every championship one can and was rewarded handsomely for his efforts. Still, Richards found himself unemployed after having his contract with the Los Angeles Kings terminated following “a material breach of the requirement" of his Standard Player’s Contract. The Capitals signed him midway through the year hoping his experience and defensive ability would get them over the hump. He has been good, but not great.
Steve Ott, C, St. Louis Blues. The 33-year-old Ott used to be a decent scorer at the NHL level and now he’s basically just a super pest. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as Ott doesn’t step over the line, which he does on occasion, he can be a very effective agitator who keeps opposition players on their toes. The emphasis is on speed and skill in the NHL, but there is still room for a guy like Ott. Although he’ll likely take a cut in his $2.6 million a year salary.
James Reimer, G, San Jose Sharks. It’s not that Reimer is a bubble player in terms of getting another contract, it’s more about whether he’ll be signed as a starter or as a backup. After a pretty good season with the Maple Leafs, Reimer was dealt to the Sharks at the trade deadline and he managed an impressive 6-2-0 record with three shutouts. Thus far he has seen no playoff action. My guess is there will be teams that will be interested in him as a starter.