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Nichushkin, Palat, Lehkonen among players whose stock rose this postseason

NHL Free Agency

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 02: Artturi Lehkonen #62 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Edmonton Oilers in Game Two of the Western Conference Final of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena on June 02, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

There are few things that seem to have a bigger impact on an NHL player’s contract negotiation than a strong playoff showing.

It shows that players can perform in the clutch on the brightest stage, and when things get to be their toughest. It may not be the only factor in a contract, but it’s not meaningless, either. It gets noticed, and it often gets rewarded. It is also not just something that is important to unrestricted free agents. Restricted free agents can benefit as well.

So let’s take a look around the NHL at eight pending free agents (unrestricted and restricted) that helped their contract cases with big postseason showings.

Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche (UFA)

There is probably no player that did more for their contract case this postseason than Nichushkin. Ever since joining the Avalanche a couple of years ago he has been a strong, under-the-radar forward that can play great defense, drive possession, and chip in some nice complementary offense.

This year his game (and value) reached an entirely new level during the regular season and then had a rocket ship attached to it in the playoffs.

He was one of the Avalanche’s best players in all phases of the game, causing havoc on the forecheck, playing Selke Trophy caliber defense, and also adding an even stronger offensive/production aspect to his game than we have ever seen from him. He should be one of the most sought after free agents on the open market and get a massive contract. And he might be worth it.

It is a drastic change from three years ago when the Dallas Stars actually bought him out.

[Related: Even with free agency questions Avalanche are built to last]

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning (UFA)

Palat has been a key piece of the Lightning’s rise to the top of the NHL over the past eight seasons. He has never been a star, never been the most productive player on the team, and never the most impactful. But he has still been a vital cog and the type of complementary player that every championship caliber team needs.

He is going to be 31 years old this offseason and when his new contract begins, and that can be a danger zone for free agent contracts, but he showed this season and postseason that he can still be a top player on a contending team.

He averaged nearly a point per game in the playoffs (11 goals, 10 assists, 21 total points in 23 games) and scored some of Tampa Bay’s biggest goals on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning have a bit of a salary cap crunch and may not be able to retain him given what he could get on the open market. And this will be his last chance to get a significant contract on the open market. He should take it.

Artturi Lehkonen, Colorado Avalanche (RFA)

Reminder: Do not trade with the Avalanche. Or at least do so at your own risk.

The addition of Lehkonen was one of the best trades of the season and played a big role in helping the Avalanche become an unstoppable monster in the playoffs.

He is still an RFA this offseason, so Colorado still controls his free agency rights, but he earned himself a pretty significant contract. If offer sheets were more widely used a smart team would try to snag him and take advantage of Colorado’s need to re-sign several other key players.

The most likely scenario: Colorado re-signs him and he becomes their new version Nichushkin after Nichushkin moves on to a new team in free agency.

Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars (RFA)

The Stars opened the season with four NHL caliber goalies on their roster, and it was Oettinger who ended up being the last one standing by the team the playoffs rolled around.

And what a show he put on once he got there.

Oettinger was one of the top players in the First Round and nearly dragged the Stars past the Calgary Flames by himself.

He is still only 23 years old, was a first-round pick by the team, and even though his NHL resume consists of just 84 games (regular season and playoffs) he is off to a great start in his career. He is not going to consistently play the way he did in the playoffs this year, but he has started to show the Stars he can be their franchise goalie moving forward.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Top performances from 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs]

Andrew Copp, New York Rangers (UFA)

Over the past two regular seasons Copp has scored at a 25-goal, 60-point pace over 82 games while playing really strong defense. He is a heckuva two-way player and was a huge addition for the Rangers at the trade deadline. He followed that up with an outstanding playoff run that saw him add six goals and eight assists in 20 games on their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Re-signing him might be a challenge for the Rangers given their salary cap situation and the fact they have a few other contracts to worry about, while also needing to improve.

[Related: Rangers took big step forward but more work needed]

Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers (UFA)

There are more reasons to avoid signing Evander Kane than there are to sign him. But as the Oilers showed this season it only takes one team with an interest to make it happen, and Kane’s play in the playoffs (13 goals in 16 games) is going to be more than enough to get somebody (maybe Edmonton again) to look past everything else.

Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (UFA)

Kadri proved to be a perfect fit in Colorado over the past three years and followed up a career-best regular season performance with a big-time showing in the playoffs to help the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup.

The big issue with Kadri in recent years was the fact he always seemed to take himself out of playoff series’ with a suspension. That obviously did not happen this postseason, and he was outstanding with seven goals, eight assists, and 15 total points in 16 games. That includes a hat trick in the Second Round series against St. Louis and two-game winning goals, including an overtime game-winning goal in the Cup Final.

His all-around two-way play and top-line offense, combined with his playoff performance, will make him a top free agent on the market.

Frank Vatrano, New York Rangers (UFA)

This trade is still baffling to think about months later.

The Florida Panthers traded Vatrano to New York to create enough salary cap space to add players like Ben Chiarot, Robert Hagg, and Claude Giroux to their roster for their playoff run. While the Giroux addition was fine, the other two never made any sense at the time or after the fact.

And it cost them a really good goal scorer in Vatrano, a player they really could have used in the playoffs when their goal-scoring dried up.

The Rangers, meanwhile, got a really strong depth piece that scored some big goals and provided them with their own much-needed depth boost.

He is not a perfect player, but he averages about a 25-goal pace over 82 games and just had a strong playoff run for an Eastern Conference finalist. There is a a lot of value there.