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Evander Kane leads 2018 NHL free agents entering make-or-break contract years

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The market for Kane next summer will depend heavily on his performance this season.

Buffalo Sabres v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There’s a lot riding on the upcoming season for Evander Kane. The Buffalo Sabres winger has just one year remaining on the six-year contract he signed as a 20-year-old coming off a 30-goal season. Next summer, he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, capable of choosing his own team for the first time.

The kind of market that forms around the enigmatic scorer will depend largely on what happens over the next eight months. Since emerging early in his career as an offensive talent with immense potential, Kane has proved to be both inconsistent and, at times, difficult to manage.

The Jets traded him to the Sabres in Feb. 2015 even though the team needed scoring at the top of its roster. He had created one too many headaches in the locker room, and with just 96 points in 148 games during his last three seasons in Winnipeg, he wasn’t producing enough to justify the problems.

But talent will always be most important in the NHL, and it’s undeniable that Kane has it. Over the course of his career, despite all the ups and downs, he’s recorded 26 goals per 82 games. For all the uncertainty that he might bring to a team, you know that he’ll put pucks in the back of the net.

And now entering his contract year with the Sabres, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is the time that he finally puts it together.

Last season, Kane put up 28 goals and 43 points in 70 games. His 25 even-strength goals placed him tied for 12th in the entire league with Mark Scheifele, T.J. Oshie, Anders Lee, and Filip Forsberg. This despite playing only 266 of his 1,055 even-strength minutes next to star center Jack Eichel, per Natural Stat Trick.

So Kane was a high-level scorer at 5-on-5 even while playing primarily with Sam Reinhart and Brian Gionta. It’s not hard to wonder what happens if you take all those minutes and put him next to Eichel, who is one of the few players in the NHL capable of exceeding Kane’s shot-generating ability.

Kane and Eichel weren’t amazing together last season, so maybe there won’t actually be a grand benefit to putting them together. But you can see how this year bodes well for the winger. If he puts up 30-plus goals on an improved Sabres team under new coach Phil Housley, there will be teams lining up next summer to sign him.

The implications for Kane are massive. Other than John Tavares, there’s not a superstar in his prime who could become a free agent next year. Instead, it’s mostly aging veterans like the Sedin brothers, Rick Nash, Joe Thornton, and Paul Stastny who top the list.

Kane would be fairly unique on the open market. The only player younger than him who is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer is Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Generally speaking, if you’re talented and in your mid-20s, chances are your team won’t let you anywhere near unrestricted free agency. Because of Kane’s inconsistency on the ice and issues off it, he could be a rare case.

But the reality is that Kane has tens of millions of dollars on the line depending on his performance next season. A big year could set him up for another lucrative long-term deal through the rest of his 20s. A disappointing effort or major injury could force him to settle for a lot less.

Kane is not the only one, either. With all this in mind, here are a few other potential 2018 free agents entering make-or-break contract years.

Erik Gudbranson, Canucks

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Gudbranson settled for a one-year, $3.5 million contract from Vancouver this summer after playing in just 30 games last season. He’ll be just 26 years old when he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, but like Kane, a strong performance would go a long way toward establishing a robust market for him.

There’s no doubt that Gudbranson will have suitors, given he’s a big, righty-shooting defenseman with draft pedigree. But he was straight up terrible last season — the Canucks got outscored, 27-15, when he was on the ice during 5-on-5 play — and has an extended track record of poor performance when it comes to driving possession.

The Canucks don’t have a ton of depth, so Gudbranson should get the chance to fill a top-four role next season. But the kind of attention he’ll get from teams next year depends on what he does with this opportunity.

James van Riemsdyk, Maple Leafs

Van Riemsdyk will be 29 years old when he hits free agency, so he’s not quite as young as Kane, but he’s another good scorer in his prime. The Leafs forward recorded 29 goals and a career-high 62 points in 82 games last season, despite getting his lowest average ice time in five years.

Toronto has a ton of depth at forward, so van Riemsdyk has been bumped from his top-line role, but another good season would place him firmly among the top free agents on the market. The big question is whether Toronto tries to trade him before he can walk as a free agent.

Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights

The biggest bargain signing of 2016, Marchessault scored 30 goals on a $750,000 cap hit for the Panthers last season. For some reason, that didn’t convince Florida to protect him in the expansion draft, so the Golden Knights acquired him (along with Reilly Smith) to give them an immediate scoring option up front.

The opportunity here for Marchessault is massive given that Vegas will need goals next season. If he can deliver another performance as good as his 51-point effort from 2016-17, the 26-year-old should command lucrative offers from a bunch of teams next offseason.

Calvin de Haan, Islanders
Brayden McNabb, Golden Knights
John Moore, Devils
Michal Kempny, Blackhawks

None of these players has the pedigree of Gudbranson, but they’re all 26-year-old defensemen entering contract years with opportunities to play top-four roles next season. McNabb might even be on the Golden Knights’ top pairing, depending on how they sort out their glut of blueliners before the season. These guys could all play their way into multiyear pacts with strong performances in 2017-18.