Contract-year urgency: Eleven who need to make their moves

by | Staff Writer

That sage baseball philosopher Sparky Anderson once noted that if he could manage 25 players in the last year of their contract, he'd win a pennant every time. Something about that particular situation created a unique form of motivation for them, he explained.

Anderson won several pennants and three World Series during his time although he never had exactly the kind of desperation-driven lineup he was dreaming about. Still his point is well-taken. And it applies to a lot of NHL players in a tightening economy.

Simon Gagne, 30, looks forward to a big year -- but with the Lightning, not the Flyers. (Getty Images)  
Simon Gagne, 30, looks forward to a big year -- but with the Lightning, not the Flyers. (Getty Images)  
Jobs are getting harder to find, as many serviceable NHL players are discovering this summer. And pay cuts taken so far indicates the level of money that in the recent past may have been taken for granted is far less available.

So players are starting to come to terms with the new reality. Like Simon Gagne, who waived his no-trade clause in July and was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Gagne left an organization that drafted him in the first round 12 years ago and had just advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for one that has played only two playoff rounds in five post-lockout seasons. But Gagne was entering the final season of a five-year deal that pays him $5.25 million annually and knew he had to be traded to help alleviate the Flyers' salary cap problems.

"When I was wondering where I might go, I was looking around to see what kind of players I could play with," Gagne said. "With Vinny [Lecavalier], with Marty [St. Louis], with Steven Stamkos, and the way [GM] Steve Yzerman is thinking, I see a team will to make moves to make the playoffs.

"And I'm not stupid, I need a big year."

Especially since Gagne has gained reputation for being injury prone. But the speedy left wing is only 30, and when he returned to the Flyers in the second round of the playoffs, he proved again that he is a high-end impact player.

But at what price? Gagne will find out this season. So will several other notables around the league as they enter the final years of their contract. Here are a few:

Joe Thornton: Thornton will make a little more money this season than Patrick Marleau, who really has been the face of the Sharks for a decade and could have departed as a free agent this summer. But Thornton is in the final year of his deal. More important, he has yet to deliver the Sharks to the promised land as many expected when he had a Hart Trophy season after being acquired from the Bruins in 2005. If San Jose comes up short again, the Sharks might decide the $7 million or so Thornton might be better spent going in another direction.

Brad Richards: Richards was the playoff MVP when Tampa Bay won the 2004 Stanley Cup and became the league's highest-paid player after the lockout with a deal too expensive for the Lightning to handle. So they traded him. Richards no longer is at the top of the salary scale, but he'll earn $7.8 million this season -- a very tough pill to swallow for the financially-troubled Dallas Stars. Richards had a great season for the Stars, though, and he's only 30, so he could be trade bait at the deadline. But he'll need another big effort on a weak Dallas team to retain his value.

Alexander Frolov: He's a talented forward who many believe can get better, even if Frolov has had a couple of 30-goal seasons and five more with at least 20 in seven years with the Kings. But Los Angeles is building something special and really didn't want the 28-year-old around. So Frolov was left to walk and drew more interest from KHL teams than NHL clubs. The Rangers took a $3 million chance for one year. Frolov could turn out to be a steal for New York, or he could be in for a long year under coach John Tortorella. Either way, he's playing for his NHL future.

Nikolai Zherdev: Much the same as above although is a couple of years younger. And he's been an even bigger enigma through his NHL days with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Rangers. Zherdev can create highlight-reel excitement with his moves on the ice, at least if you could find him on the ice. That's the biggest reason the Rangers walked away from Zherdev's arbitration decision last summer and left him to play in Russia. The Flyers brought him back for $2 million on a one-year deal.

Dustin Byfuglien: Even as he was the toast of Chicago for his Stanley Cup scoring heroics, Byfuglien's true value was questioned. His regular season was non-descript and his conditioning always has been suspect. But like the White House crasher who got a reality show, making a splash on a big stage has some dividends. But in Byfuglien's case they may not last long. The Blackhawks had to move him and his $3 million salary because they are cap-strapped. While the Atlanta Thrashers are improving they are no sure bet for the playoffs, where Byfuglien has done his best work.

Chris Higgins: Higgins never lived up the expectations of being the 14th overall pick in 2002 by Montreal, although he did show some nice goal-scoring potential for a few seasons after the lockout. But injuries started coming with regularity, so he has become a throw-in to deals when teams have to make salary exchanges work. The Canadiens sent him to the Rangers last summer in the Scott Gomez deal and then he went to Calgary around the deadline before signing with Florida as a free agent for $1.6 million. On the Panthers, the 27-year-old will get a chance to be a top six forward, but if he can't take advantage his future options will be limited.

Matt Moulson: He was a 26-year-old journeyman when the Islanders signed him last summer for minimum money, mainly because he grew up with first overall pick John Tavares. Moulson turned out to be one of the great stories of the season, leading the Islanders with 30 goals. That earned him a new contract -- and a big raise to $2.4 million -- but only for one year.

Mike Smith: At various points in his rookie season with Dallas, Smith outplayed Marty Turco in goal. But the veteran had an expensive contract and couldn't be supplanted, so the Stars shipped him to Tampa Bay in the Brad Richards deal. Smith got a chance to become a true No. 1 goalie but hasn't taken advantage. There's still time for him with the Lighting, although less of it since the Lightning signed free agent Dan Ellis to a two-year deal. Tampa Bay still has plenty of cap room for someone like Smith, who will make $2.2 million this season, but the goalie will have to show he's worth having around.

Marty Turco: Turco's game dropped off over the past few years in Dallas. But to be fair, his teams weren't that good. The Blackhawks are, even with all the personnel purging they've done this summer. So Turco has landed in a pretty good situation, and the one-year, $1.3 million he signed to get it could lead to bigger things. He just turned 35, and if there was an ideal place for a veteran to get his game back in gear, Chicago is probably it.

Ville Leino: Leino would have gotten Conn Smythe votes had the Flyers won the Stanley Cup. Ironically, he was that good after being a healthy scratch early in the playoffs and being waived earlier in the season by Detroit. The Red Wings needed every bit of salary space, even with the paltry $800,000 Leino was making, which says a lot about what an organization with a sharp eye for talent thought of him. That's what the 27-year-old Leino will make this season in Philadelphia, where he'll have to show his postseason wasn't just a flash in the pan.


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