By Pierre LeBrun
Dec 20, 2019
Guess where Mitch Marner falls on this list
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LeBrun: The top 10 best value contracts in the NHL
The parity in the NHL standings has never been greater, the by-product of a salary cap system that’s fully flexed its muscle 15 years out.
What little separation can be gained between a shrinking talent gap among the NHL’s 31 teams — soon to be 32 — is based to some degree on a very traditional tool: drafting and developing. That much is obvious.
But no matter how well you draft and develop, you can’t keep everybody under the salary cap rules. But there are other weapons at a team’s disposal that can help them gain an edge in the system, and a massive one can be found at the negotiating table. If a team can sign a player to a long-term contract at a bargain price, it allows the organization to plug other holes with those savings.
As such, I’ve compiled my list of the contracts that offer the best value in the NHL.
Only contracts that have term past this season were considered meaning Roman Josi’s seven-year, $28-million contract, which expires after this season along with that ridiculously low $4-million AAV, doesn’t make the list. And of course, we’re not counting entry-level deals so don’t come at me with Elias Pettersson or Cale Makar of any player in his first three years in the league. They don’t count for the purposes of this compilation.
I’ve also taken out of consideration the game’s two greatest players since the cap era began in 2005, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Crosby’s long-term deal at an $8.7-million AAV and Ovechkin’s $9.5-million AAV contract are bargains under any definition given the impact both these veteran superstars have had on the game. They are royalty, they don’t belong on a list.
I also didn’t include Connor McDavid, the best player in the world. While there is no question his $12.5-million a year is a bargain — he should be making at least $15 million — since he’s also got the highest cap hit in the NHL, albeit for less than what I believe he’s worth, it’s kind of hard to include him.
As such, let’s dig in with my top 10 best bargain contracts in the NHL. As always, feel free to disagree!
1. Nathan MacKinnon
A top-three player in the world for half of what he should be earning. If not less than half.
MacKinnon is not one to ever complain about his contract. He signed it in a good faith after a 52-point season in 2015-16, which he followed up in 2016-17 with 53 points. His jump to superstardom hadn’t happened when he signed and $6.3-million a year is nothing to sneeze at for the humble kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Since 2017, well, 97 points, 99 points and this season he’s currently on pace for north of 120 points.
The good thing for him, since he was an 18-year-old NHLer, is that he will be turning just 28 on Sept. 1, 2023, as his next contract kicks in. And while I know he was recently quoted in a Forbes article saying he’d take less again if it meant keeping a Cup contending roster together, let’s all understand he didn’t mean taking $6.3-million a year again. I don’t want to put words into his mouth but that probably means instead of signing for the $15-million a year he should be making in 2023, based on his market value, he signs for a bargain $12-million (or something in that ballpark) a year. Who knows, but the Avs have the greatest bargain in the NHL until then.
2. David Pastrnak
This was actually a pretty contentious negotiation at the time, a then-21-year-old Pastrnak missing the start of camp while his agent J.P. Barry went back and forth with Boston GM Don Sweeney. It’s crazy to think of now but believe me when I say the Bruins negotiated to the bitter end, hoping to sign him for less money. In reality, it was a pretty good contract negotiated by Barry, if you consider that it surpassed MacKinnon’s deal from the previous year. The market for second NHL contracts hadn’t yet jumped as we’ve seen more recently. But the ink was barely dry on that contract and all Pastrnak has done since is fill the net left and right. One of the NHL’s premier scorers at an incredible bargain for another three and a half years.
3. Leon Draisaitl
I wrote about Draisaitl’s contract earlier this season, a deal that keeps looking better and better with each passing day. At the time, former Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli got roasted by many in the hockey world for giving Draisailt such a jump in his second contract, with some feeling that it raised the bar too high and unnecessarily for someone coming out of their entry-level deal. But coming off a 77-point regular season in 2016-17 and a 16-point, 13-game postseason, Chiarelli was convinced the best was still to come and he had another rising star on his hands in Edmonton. The key for Chiarelli was getting the max term out of this deal.
And Kudos to veteran agent Mike Liut for getting what was then an industry-changing, second contract for his client. However, about midway through last season’s 50-goal campaign, it was pretty evident that the Oilers were the real winners. They’ve got a superstar on the books at $8.5-million a season for another five and a half years when he should be in the $12-million salary range.
4. Brad Marchand
5. Brendan Gallagher
)The deal at the time was pretty commensurate with what a 20-goal, two-way winger should get at the time. Where the value kicked in is when he became a 30-goal scorer in 2017-18, and he’s on pace for his third straight such campaign. Combined with his overall 200-foot game, his impact on Montreal’s top line, his unrelenting work ethic, this contract has delivered and then some for Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. The unfortunate thing for Gallagher, to be honest, is that once his deal is up in a year and a half, the same attributes that make him such a beloved player are what will also hurt him during his next contract negotiation. There will be fear of wear and tear and mileage and age regression. Just witness what happened with Wayne Simmonds last summer on the open market, another player who has always been beloved for the way he plays and everything he brings to the table, but for whom the hard miles worked against him contract-wise last offseason. Gallagher will 29 the summer of 2021 when his deal is up. I’m sure the Habs will want him around for all kinds of reasons as one of the team’s top leaders and perhaps future captain, but the contract will have to make sense.
6. John Carlson
One could argue that this contract should be higher on the list given the ridiculous season Carlson is having while coming off a career-best 70 points a year ago. But having said that, he will be 37 years old when this deal expires in June 2026 and so let’s see how he ages and where his production stays. Given his skating ability and hockey IQ, I’m thinking he’ll be just fine.
If Carlson was UFA last summer, he’d be looking at $11-million a year. So yes, this deal is already a bargain. And it’s exactly what you want to see after a player signs a big extension like he did two years ago, raise their game. And that’s what Carlson has done over the past two years.
“Last year he hit a new level with his play, I don’t know that he totally got the recognition for it,” Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told me earlier this season. “But again this year, I think he’s at a higher level, too. Each year he seems to get a little bit better. It’s more in increments than it is jumps. He becomes more confident and more comfortable where he fits in, in the league. And it’s fun to see. There was probably a little concern when he got the contract that maybe that’s what he is, but he took it to a new level after he signed the eight-year deal which is impressive. And they gave him the assistant captain this year which shows a lot of confidence in him. I think that’s part of the reason he’s having a good year. He’s taken that added responsibility on and he’s running with it and it’s impressive to watch.’’
7. Mark Scheifele
A little context: he signed this deal after a 29-goal, 61-point campaign, which had followed a 15-goal, 49 point-season, his second in the NHL. That jump gave the Jets a sense of where this first-round pick was headed. But that he’d be the point-a-game player since signing that max term deal was not a certainty. A bridge deal in hindsight would have set Scheifele up for a better payday but $49 million is $49 million. He will be 31 in the summer of 2024 when he’s up again, so it will be too late to cash in big time, although if he’s still putting up 35 goals and 80 points a year, there will certainly still be a market for him, although on a shorter-term deal.
8. Aleksander Barkov
Barkov was coming off a 36-point season and was midway through a 59-point year when he signed this value deal. Of course, offensive production is only part of the way one measures Barkov’s complete game, among the top five candidates for the Selke Trophy every year. The real value came when he jumped up offensively to 78 points in 2017-18 and a whopping 96 points last year. He’s a $10-million player on today’s market. Let’s see what Barkov’s worth in the summer of 2022 when he’ll be looking for a new deal and not turning 27 until that September. He’s probably still young enough then to get another really good paying contract.
9. Sean Couturier
For context, Couturier signed this deal with the Philadelphia Flyers one year before the expiration of his bridge deal (smart move by former GM Ron Hextall). He was coming off a 37-point season in 2014-15 when he signed, which was followed by 39 points in 2015-16 and 34 points in 2016-17. Of course, in the early years of his career, he was mostly used as a defensive, shutdown guy, getting very little opportunity offensively. Then came back-to-back, 76-point seasons as his 200-foot game grew along with the opportunities and usage. The perennial Selke Trophy candidate is impactful at both ends of the ice, as smart as they come and he’s a monster bargain for another two and a half years.
10. Frederik Andersen
He signed the extension on the same day he was acquired from Anaheim and the reception to the contract was lukewarm among many Leafs fans and media. But he’s more than lived up to it. A 60-plus game, 35-win guy with a save percentage hovering around .918 since the day he got to Toronto. Consider that consistency and the fact he’s arguably been the Leafs’ MVP the last two years or so. Furthermore, he’s been making less money than other goalies such as Cory Schneider ($6 million), Jonathan Quick ($5.8 million) and Martin Jones ($5.75 million) during that stretch. The Leafs have more than received their bang for their buck in Andersen. Of interest is how the Leafs handle Andersen’s contract expiration in a year and a half. He turns 32 in October 2021. It’ll have to be a short-term deal for him to stay in Toronto.