You can usually tell which NHL teams have the brightest futures by looking at their salary cap books. Yes, the makeup of the roster is important, but the franchises most likely to go on to prolonged success have not only acquired good players, but managed to lock up them at affordable rates under the league’s hard cap system.
There’s no model for building a great team in the NHL that doesn’t involve executing on long-term contracts. Even if you nail the draft and develop great players, you’ll run into problems if you can’t afford to re-sign them because you thought it was a good idea to give a bottom-six winger $4 million per year. One mistake can often snowball when there’s a firm limit on resources.
This is something NHL general managers have come to terms with over the years, yet it hasn’t stopped them from regularly inking players to long-term deals. On Friday, we broke down how that can come back to bite them by listing the worst contracts on each of the 31 NHL franchises entering the 2017-18 season.
Now that we’ve gotten the bad news out of the way, though, it’s time to shower teams with praise for the moves they got right. Sometimes, a long-term signing proves to be a massive win for the club when a player lives up to or surpasses expectations. Those are the kinds of contracts we’re going to focus on in this post.
Excluding entry-level contracts, which are always good for teams, here’s a look at the best deal on each NHL team right now. Terms listed in this post, via Cap Friendly, are the remaining terms on each deal, not the overall terms.
Defenseman Hampus Lindholm: Five years, $5.206 million cap hit
The Ducks have a few nice deals on the books, including Rickard Rakell and John Gibson, but Lindholm stands out as the kind of contract great teams build around. He’s got the potential to be one of the best defensemen in the league, even though his contract pays him more like a No. 2 or No. 3 defenseman. In fact, Lindholm won’t even be the highest-paid blue liner on his own team starting in 2018, when Cam Fowler’s extension goes into effect.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Two years, $5.5 million cap hit
The Coyotes don’t have many long-term contracts, which is a good thing, but it pretty much left Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson as the choices for this exercise. OEL is going to get a sizable raise in two years when his contract expires and he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency, but in the meantime, he’s a great value for Arizona as a No. 1 defenseman.
Forward Patrice Bergeron: Five years, $6.875 million cap hit
A challenging choice for the Bruins between their two affordably signed superstars, Bergeron and Brad Marchand. There’s also a decent chance restricted free agent David Pastrnak’s new deal jumps into the mix, depending on how generous Boston is with the young star. Bergeron might be three years older than Marchand, but he’s shown no signs of decline and his deal expires three years earlier. Bergeron it is.
Forward Ryan O’Reilly: Six years, $7.5 million cap hit
The Sabres are a tricky team to peg down here. The answer ideally would be Rasmus Ristolainen, but he’s struggled to live up to expectations as the team’s No. 1 defenseman. So we’ll go with O’Reilly, who is expensive but worth the price, and only signed until he’s 32.
Forward Michael Frolik: Three years, $4.3 million cap hit
The Flames are loaded with good contracts, including Frolik, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund, and Dougie Hamilton. Having a young superstar like Gaudreau locked up for less than $7 million annually is a big win, but the real bargain is Frolik, who is quietly one of the league’s best two-way wingers.
Defenseman Justin Faulk: Three years, $4.83 million cap hit
It’s a tough choice between Faulk and Jaccob Slavin, who signed a seven-year deal worth $5.3 million this summer that goes into effect starting in 2018-19. Both deals look great for the Hurricanes, but Faulk’s shorter term and longer track record lower the risk. It’s basically a lock that Faulk is severely underpaid as a No. 1 defenseman for the next three seasons.
Defenseman Duncan Keith: Six years, $5.538 million cap hit
Yes, Keith is already 34 years old, and this contract doesn’t expire until he’s 40. It’s also a cap recapture contract that will penalize the Blackhawks if he retires before it expires. But Keith remains one of the best defensemen in the NHL in his mid-30s, and given how underpaid he is, he should remain valuable even if he starts declining a bit. This deal is one of the biggest reasons for the Blackhawks’ success over the past decade.
Forward Nathan MacKinnon: Six years, $6.3 million cap hit
Putting aside a disappointing 2016-17 season, MacKinnon still has the potential to be one of the game’s best forwards. It can be easy to forget that he hasn’t even turned 22 yet. If the No. 1 overall pick from the 2013 NHL draft can get back on track, he’ll be more than worth the $6.3 million cap hit.
Defenseman Seth Jones: Five years, $5.4 million cap hit
Jones keeps elevating his game in Columbus, making it clear that he’s going to be a great value for the team at a $5.4 million cap hit. There’s No. 1 defenseman potential here, and at the very least, Jones should be a stellar partner for fellow phenom Zach Werenski over the next half-decade.
Defenseman John Klingberg: Five years, $4.25 million cap hit
The Stars have a couple of ridiculously good contracts in Klingberg and forward Tyler Seguin. The only reason we’re going with Klingberg is that he’s signed for another five seasons, whereas Seguin will be a free agent in 2019. Having a top-pairing option like Klingberg signed so cheaply may make it a lot easier for Dallas to afford Seguin’s big raise.
Forward Tomas Tatar: Four years, $5.3 million cap hit
The worst cap situation in the league doesn’t offer up a ton of great contracts, but the Red Wings did a nice job locking up Tatar on a four-year deal this summer. He’s proven to be a very good winger who can drive possession and give you 20-25 goals per year. That’ll be worth the $5.3 million annually.
Forward Connor McDavid: Eight years, $12.5 million cap hit
Yes, it’s the biggest contract in the league, it doesn’t start until the 2018-19 season, and the Oilers have a couple other nice deals in Oscar Klefbom and Zack Kassian. But we’re talking Connor McDavid, one of the best young players in hockey history. You lock him up for eight years, even at a premium price, and that’s a great move.
Forward Aleksander Barkov: Five years, $5.9 million cap hit
The Panthers have done such a good job locking up their core trio of Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, and Jonathan Huberdeau that it’s hard to pick among them. Barkov is the best player in the bunch despite being years younger, so even though he’s more expensive than Trocheck and his deal expires a year before Huberdeau’s, he’s the pick.
Defenseman Jake Muzzin: Three years, $4 million cap hit
Muzzin didn’t have a great 2016-17 season — the Kings got outscored 64-47 with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play, per Natural Stat Trick — but he’s still a nice value at $4 million annually. His possession numbers are great in L.A.’s system, and part of why his scoring numbers dipped is that he was moved off the pairing with Drew Doughty. Muzzin is just a season removed from finishing No. 20 in Norris Trophy voting.
Forward Eric Staal: Two years, $3.5 million cap hit
The Wild took a shot on Staal coming off an underwhelming season with the Hurricanes, and he rewarded them by returning to form with a 28-goal, 65-point performance. At a $3.5 million cap hit for two more seasons, he’s the rare big name unrestricted free agent signing who is proving to be a bargain.
Forward Max Pacioretty: Two years, $4.5 million cap hit
The Canadiens have been reaping the benefits of Pacioretty’s team friendly deal for a while now. Over the past four seasons, he’s averaged 35 goals per season while getting paid like a second-liner. It’s an absolute steal of a contract, and while it’s only got two years left, those will be two more years of huge surplus value for Montreal.
Forward Viktor Arvidsson: Seven years, $4.25 million cap hit
So many choices! The Predators have done an amazing job locking up players on bargain deals. From Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, and Calle Jarnkrok to Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis, GM David Poile has proven to be the NHL’s best contract negotiator. We’ll go with Arvidsson, but you could make arguments for several deals to be Nashville’s best. The brilliant part is it allows the Predators to pay $24 million for P.K. Subban, Ryan Johansen, and Pekka Rinne without issue.
Forward Taylor Hall: Three years, $6 million cap hit
The Devils don’t even have a full roster under contract right now, so options are limited. Hall is ultimately the easy choice as a premier top-line winger being paid at a reasonable $6 million cap hit. There are solid values on secondary forwards Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Marcus Johansson, but Hall is far better than any of them.
Defenseman Nick Leddy: Five years, $5.5 million cap hit
You could make an argument that the Islanders’ best deal is still John Tavares at a $5.5 million cap hit, even though there’s only one year until he’s a free agent. It’s that much of a bargain on a team that doesn’t have a ton of other great options. Leddy has become one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, but he leaves a lot to be desired as a possession-driving 5-on-5 player. At least there’s no chance he walks in a year.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh: Two years, $4.7 million cap hit
McDonagh has become a mainstay on the Norris Trophy ballots over the past six seasons, finishing between eighth and 17th in voting for the NHL’s best defenseman on five occassions. So we know he’s good, and we also know he won’t have to carry around Dan Girardi anymore, which means he could perform even better. For $4.7 million, it’s a sweet deal.
Defenseman Erik Karlsson: Two years, $6.5 million cap hit
Karlsson has been arguably the league’s best defenseman for years, and eventually he’ll get paid like it. But for two more seasons, the Senators will benefit from having an MVP-caliber player signed at a very reasonable price. Mike Hoffman for $5.18 million per year is nice, too.
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere: Six years, $4.5 million cap hit
Gostisbehere is the kind of defenseman who usually gets paid in the NHL given all the points he’s racked up. The Flyers managed to get him inked at a $4.5 million cap hit that will look like a bargain if he keeps putting up 40-50 points and good possession numbers.
Forward Sidney Crosby: Eight years, $8.7 million cap hit
What else is there to say about the Crosby deal at this point? He signed for that figure partially because it matched the No. 87 he wears on the ice. The Penguins should be thanking their lucky stars he signed so cheap.
Forward Joe Pavelski: Two years, $6 million cap hit
The Sharks are going to be paying a ton of money to star defensemen Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic through their 30s, which is risky even though they’re two of the game’s best right now. So we’ll go with Pavelski, who is similarly valuable but doesn’t carry near the same risk given his deal expires in two years.
Forward Vladimir Tarasenko: Six years, $7.5 million cap hit
Tarasenko’s huge eight-year, $60 million deal with St. Louis was a bit unexpected when it first happened, but now it looks like the Blues were ahead of the curve. Second contracts for superstar players have skyrocketed in price, and now Tarasenko making $7.5 million per year through his 20s looks like a great deal for the team.
Forward Nikita Kucherov: Two years, $4.67 million cap hit
Another team full of friendly contracts given the hard work of GM Steve Yzerman’s staff and the inherent benefits of operating in Florida, where there’s no state income tax. There are favorable deals for superstars (Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman) and good role players (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Anton Stralman, Andrei Vasilevskiy) alike. But most of those are more “fair price for good talent” than outright bargain, which Kucherov’s deal is right now.
Forward Nazem Kadri: Five years, $4.5 million cap hit
If Morgan Rielly can reach his potential, he’ll be the answer here, but for now it’s impossible to ignore Kadri. The Leafs center hit a new level last season with 32 goals and 61 points despite taking on a more defensive-minded role that allowed the team’s big-name rookies to thrive in easier assignments.
Defenseman Christopher Tanev: Three years, $4.45 million cap hit
Tanev runs under the radar as a defensive defenseman on one of the worst teams in the league, but he’s a great value to the Canucks at $4.45 million per year. There were rumors that the team might trade him this summer given he’d be one of its most valuable chips. Until then, he’ll keep suppressing shots like it’s nobody’s business in Vancouver.
Vegas Golden Knights
Defenseman Nate Schmidt: Two years, $2.25 million cap hit
The Golden Knights took on a lot of bad contracts during the expansion draft to load up on picks and prospects, so there aren’t a ton of options. These were players who other teams were willing to let go, after all. So we’ll go with Schmidt, who just signed a two-year deal that could look like a bargain if he’s given a bigger role than the one he got in D.C.
Forward Nicklas Backstrom: Three years, $6.7 million cap hit
One of the NHL’s go-to examples for a team-friendly contract since it was signed in 2010, Backstrom remains one of the game’s premier playmakers at age 29. He’s coming off one of his best seasons yet with 86 points in 82 games — good for ninth place in Hart Trophy voting — and should continue playing at a high level for the life of the contract.
Forward Mark Scheifele: Seven years, $6.125 million cap hit
The Jets knew they had a keeper when they signed Scheifele to his eight-year, $49 million contract in July 2016. It turns out that move may look even better in hindsight after the 24-year-old blew up with an 82-point season that proved he’s the engine behind Winnipeg’s improving offense. Teamed up with Patrik Laine, Scheifele should continue to be one of the top point producers in the league for years to come.