In a salary cap world, managing your payroll can be a tricky game. In order to have success as a franchise, you almost need to have a few value contracts on your roster to stay ahead of the game. Conversely, a couple of bad contracts can handcuff a GM, greatly limiting his options when it comes to filling out his roster.
Today we take a look at the best and worst contracts in the NHL right now. A lot of factors come into play here, but the two main factors are value (is the player worth much more/less than he is making?) and term.
One thing that came to light while compiling the list is that it seems many good teams have both good and bad contracts on the books. This is likely because a) good teams always have a few value contracts, and b) when a team has success, they’re often forced to sign players who were part of that success to extensions for more than they’re worth. If a team has success with player X playing a key role, that’s great ammo for player X’s agent when it comes time for that next contract.
There are a lot of questionable contracts in the NHL these days, and conversely, there are a lot that bring great value to clubs. It was tough to bring it down to just 15 on each side, but what follows is my best attempt.
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30 Worst – Ryan Kesler ($6.9M through 2021-22)
Ryan Kesler definitely brings a lot of intangibles to the table, but he’s not really a player you can rely on for offense anymore. Surely the Ducks were hoping he could still provide both when they signed him to a rich contract that carried with it a $6.9M AAV cap hit. The term is also unfriendly, as the six-year deal won’t expire until the end of the 2021-22 season.
To be clear, it will be truly an abysmal contract three seasons from now, but not so much today. He’s already 32 years old, which is the age that power forwards like Kesler typically begin a sharp regression. This contract isn’t so bad if Kesler maintains his current level of play, but he’s already regressed offensively so there is little reason to believe he’ll keep it up for five more seasons beyond this one.
29 Best – Anton Stralman ($4.5M through 2018-19)
Any time a legitimate top-pairing defenseman is making less than $5M a season, that can be considered a huge steal. The Tampa Bay Lightning signed UFA Anton Stralman to a five-year deal in the 2014 offseason worth an AAV of $4.5M, and that’s turned into one hell of a signing for Steve Yzerman and co.
Stralman was only a solid second-pairing defender in New York prior to arriving in Tampa, but he took that next step almost immediately after donning the bolt. Regularly paired with Victor Hedman (who’s in the final year of a pretty darn good deal himself), the duo has become one of the more consistent top pairings in the league, and this season they’re costing the club less than $10M combined—not too shabby.
28 Worst – Sedin Twins ($7M each through 2017-18)
It may be a little early in the season to write off the Sedin twins, but there is definitely cause for concern in Vancouver. The pair had a great start to 2015-16 before falling off the map production-wise in the second half. They’ve carried on that trend in 2016-17, as they’ve stumbled out of the gate offensively, which is major trouble for a team that has virtually no other legitimate offensive weapons to deploy.
The Sedins have identical contracts that have one more year left on them beyond this season, and those contracts come with a hefty $7M cap hit. Not so bad if there were only one of them, but there are two of them and $14M tied up in those guys seems a little steep given their obvious regression over the past eight months or so. They’re already 36 years old, so the end of their careers may be nigh.
27 Best – Evgeny Kuznetsov ($3M through 2016-17)
Washington has a boatload of guys on the roster who are currently on very affordable deals that are expiring soon. Put plainly, the time for Washington to get that championship is now. Perhaps the best value deal the Caps have on the books right now is Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is in the final year of a deal that comes with a $3M cap hit.
Kuznetsov would be factoring in much higher on this countdown if not for the fact that this is the final year of the deal. It will be interesting to see how the Capitals handle this somewhat delicate situation, as Kuznetsov is in line for a pretty decent raise. Let’s put it this way; the Russian-led the Caps in scoring last season, marking the first time since 2005-06 Alex Ovechkin didn;t lead the team in that category.
26 Worst – Jason Spezza ($7.5M through 2018-19)
Jason Spezza is still a fine hockey player, but he’s definitely passed his prime and is not worth the $7.5M cap hit he brings with him for another two seasons beyond the current one. Skating with the offense-heavy Dallas Stars, Spezza makes the most money of all forwards on the team, and that’s sort of a problem when you have Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin coming off deals that pay them each substantially less this season (more on that later).
If Spezza’s deal expired at season’s end it wouldn’t be such a huge deal. However, Benn has signed an extension that will come with a $9.5M cap hit (starting in 2017-18), and the Stars will certainly need to find a way to shed some salary to remain cap compliant. Lucky for them, they still have a few value contracts on the books.
25 Best – Jamie Benn ($5.25M through 2016-17)
As mentioned in the previous Spezza post, Benn is currently on the final deal of one of the biggest bargain contracts of the modern era. For a guy who has finished first and second in league scoring over the past two years, it’s safe to say that $5.25 million is an extremely generous cap hit from the Dallas Stars’ point of view.
Benn and Seguin are often tethered together, but the former has proven that his scoring is hardly affected by Seguin’s absence. In fact, if you put Benn in almost any situation, he excels. Another crazy stat: Benn has scored more points than anyone in the NHL since 2013-14 besides Sidney Crosby. To put it plainly: he’s very good and has earned his fat extension that kicks in next season.
24 Worst – Henrik Zetterberg ($6.1M through 2020-21)
Henrik Zetterberg is a great captain for the Detroit Red Wings, but he’s also a rapidly aging asset whose production is dwindling fast. Last season the Swede led the Wings in points with a very low total (50). That represents a drastic decline for Zetterberg, who had hovered just under a point per game average since 2005-06.
Again, the term is the greatest area of concern here. If Zetterberg’s production dropped off so drastically in just one season, who’s to say how low it could go by the end of this contract (2020-21)? He just turned 36, so he will be over 40 by the completion of the deal. This contract is already hurting the Wings, and it’s likely only going to get worse from here.
23 Best – Tyler Seguin ($5.75M through 2018-19)
Four Stars appear on this list, and luckily for Dallas fans three of them are on the good side. Tyler Seguin comes in at number 12, as he’s currently on a deal that pays him an AAV of $5.75M through 2018-19. Seguin is a top-10 center in the NHL, and market value for a top-10 player in any position is substantially higher than $5.75M per year.
Benn’s current deal actually pays him less and the argument can be made that Benn is, in fact, more valuable than Seguin overall, but Seguin is higher on the list than Benn based solely on the term left on his deal. To have Seguin locked up at this price for another two seasons beyond this one is a boon for GM Jim Nill in Dallas, who will soon have his hands full in an effort to remain cap compliant.
22 Worst – Kane/Toews ($10.5M each through 2022-23)
Let’s be clear here: taken individually, these aren’t awful contracts. That’s why they’re paired together; a great hockey team can reasonably afford one of these contracts and still build a winning product around them. Two $10.5M cap hits though? That’s a little much, and it will be tough for Chicago to retain any other top-tier talent throughout the duration of these deals.
Their days of cap trouble are just getting started, too. Sophomore Artemi Panarin is entering the final year of his two-year ELC, and he will be due a pretty hefty raise, depending on how he does this season. Richard Panik, who’s off to a great start this season, might just be playing his way OFF the team, as the club won’t be able to give the pending RFA much of a raise on his current $0.875M cap hit.
21 Best – Jason Demers ($4.5M through 2020-21)
For my money, the best value UFA signing this offseason was Florida’s inking of defenseman Jason Demers. At 28 years old Demers is entering the prime of his career as a defenseman, and the five-year term on his deal with the Panthers should take him right up until his regression begins.
Demers isn’t going to score a lot of points, but that’s all fine and dandy because that’s not what he’s supposed to do. I’d bet anyone a steak dinner that Jim Nill wishes he still had Demers patrolling the blue line instead of one of his two goalies who are both making as much or more than Demers today. He’s a defenseman you can throw out against top competition with confidence, and those go underappreciated these days (hence the reasonable contract that Panthers signed him at).
20 Worst – Suter/Parise ($7.5M through 2024-25)
Much like the Kane/Toews contracts in Chicago, these ones are only bad contracts because there’s two of them. And yes, the dollar combined amount on the Parise/Suter contracts is $6M less than that of Kane/Toews, but it’s the term here that is the real issue. These contracts don’t expire until the end of the 2024-25 season.
The pair signed their deals before the most recent lockout, meaning that they were permitted to sign for longer than the maximum eight years the new CBA mandates (actually, seven years would be the max for this situation, as players can only re-up for eight years with the team that drafted them). The 2016-17 season marks the first year that a player can actually sign a contract extension that will expire at the same time as these deals.
19 Best – Hampus Lindholm ($4.8M through 2021-22)
Hampus Lindholm was a holdout at the beginning of the season, as the Anaheim Ducks are on a cap crunch. They simply couldn’t afford to pay Lindholm what he’s worth, so Hampus cut his losses and signed a six-year extension worth an AAV of $4.8M. The guy just wanted to get back on the ice, and you have to respect that.
This is an absolute steal for Lindholm, who is the Ducks' best defenseman and currently the best rearguard to come out of the 2012 draft - a year that saw eight defensemen selected in the top 10. At 22 years old he’s only getting better, too. It’s quite possible that Lindholm makes his way into Norris discussions at some point during this contract.
18 Worst – Evander Kane ($5.25M through 2017-18)
I’m finally 100 percent comfortable with saying Evander Kane brings negative value to whichever club he plays for. He has a crappy attitude, is arrogant as hell, is probably a sexual deviant (that’s putting it kindly), and he’s always injured to boot. The former 30-goal scorer has only reached the 20 goal plateau once since registering 30 in 2011-12, so it’s not like his production makes up for any or all of those negatives.
This season looks to be a continuation of the Kane saga, as he suffered a rib injury in the first game of the season and is currently on the sidelines. Kane is costing the Sabres $5.25M for one more season after this one, and that can’t come fast enough for a team that will need to ink Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to extensions very soon.
17 Best – John Tavares ($5.5M through 2017-18)
A few years ago I would have called this the best contract in the league, but it ends up at number nine because there is only one more season beyond the current one left on the deal. Still, though, John Tavares for a cap hit of $5.5M is, frankly, a steal. For all the flack he’s taken over his time in the GM seat, Garth Snow made a pretty savvy signing here.
Tavares has scored the sixth-most points in the league since 2010-11, keeping up with some pretty elite company. He’s led the Islanders back to relevancy in the league, as the club has made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons after falling short for five straight seasons. Last season, in fact, the Tavares-led Islanders won their first playoff series since 1993.
16 Worst – Jordan Staal ($6 through 2022-23)
Jordan Staal is definitely a decent hockey player, but that being said I think it’s safe to say he’s basically a great third-line center or an adequate number two. He’s slotted in as the first line center in Carolina these days, and he’s also being paid like one, and those are two fairly substantial problems.
Staal burst onto the scene in 2006-07 as a Pittsburgh Penguin, scoring a whopping 29 goals in his rookie campaign. That figure, however, represents a career-high for Staal, who is now 28 years old. His age means it’s unlikely he progresses from here, at least from an offensive standpoint. He’s making $6M a season for six more years after this one, and he currently has just three points on the year despite averaging nearly 20 minutes a game.
15 Best – Martin Jones ($3M through 2017-18)
With a $3M cap hit, San Jose goaltender Martin Jones is one of the best deals for a player in his position league-wide. Before making his way to San Jose from L.A. (via Boston), Jones had never been a starter in the NHL, aside from having to fill in for an injured Jonathan Quick at one point. While he’d shown some promise, no one knew if he had what it took to be a full-time starter in the league.
Well, Jones led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year on the job, so needless to say he exceeded any reasonable expectations in year one. His contract has one more year left on it beyond this one, meaning the Sharks are in the enviable position of having to only commit about $3.7M in cap space to Jones plus backup Aaron Dell for two years. Check out the Dallas Stars’ current situation and tell me this isn’t huge for San Jose.
14 Worst – Jimmy Howard ($5.3M through 2018-19)
Jimmy Howard has two more years left on his contract beyond 2016-17. That’s terrible news for the Red Wings, mostly because it’s pretty much a fact now that Howard is a backup to the younger Petr Mrazek, and paying a backup goalie $5.3M a season for this year plus next is an undesirable position to be caught in.
It’s possible the Wings hang onto Howard for the rest of the year and hope that he gets plucked by Las Vegas in the expansion draft, but there will be a lot of quality goalies available out there so there’s no guarantee George McPhee and co. select Howard. Surely GM Ken Holland is trying to find a trading partner, but he’s dealing from a position of weakness here. It's not a great financial situation in the Detroit crease these days.
13 Best – John Carlson ($4M through 2017-18)
As I’ve stated previously, any time you pay less than $5M a season for a legit top-pairing defenseman, you’re getting away with something. Washington’s John Carlson has developed into a bona fide top-pairing guy since signing a six-year extension with the club in 2013. There is another year left on that deal beyond the current one, and that’s a boon for the Capitals.
Carlson exploded offensively in 2014-15, registering 55 points in a full 82 game season. Despite being held to just 56 games last season thanks to injury Carlson still managed 39 points from the blue line, which puts him 11th in points per game among defensemen. Carlson will command a big raise on his next deal, but the Caps will enjoy his services for the next 20 months or so at a heck of a bargain.
12 Worst – Rick Nash ($7.8M through 2017-18)
Although Rick Nash and the New York Rangers are off to a sizzling start, it’s still very difficult to look at that $7.8M cap hit that Nash has and not shudder a bit. Luckily for the Rangers, there is only one more year left on Nash’s deal beyond 2016-17, and the contract doesn’t have an NMC so he can be exposed in the expansion draft next June.
After establishing a career high in goals in 2014-15 (42), Nash regressed heavily in 2015-16, managing just 15 goals and 36 points. When a forward is costing you $7.8M in cap space, you have to expect that he’ll be one of the top 15 scorers in the league, but it’s been quite a while since we could call Nash an elite producer in the NHL.
11 Best – John Klingberg ($4.25M through 2021-22)
The Dallas Stars extended defenseman John Klingberg after a stellar rookie campaign, and that is looking like a great decision. If GM Jim Nill had waited until the end of Klingberg’s sophomore campaign, he surely would have had to pay him quite a bit more than $4.25M per season. The deal runs through the 2021-22 season as well, so this could be one of the league’s best contracts for several years.
Klingberg exploded in 2015-16, notching 58 points anchoring the Stars' top unit. That was fifth among defenders last season and three of the four defensemen who finished ahead of him make anywhere from 25% to 90% more than the Swedish rearguard. He takes care of business in his own zone as well, as he finished last season with a plus-22 rating, good for 6th among all defensemen.
10 Worst – Marian Gaborik ($4.9M through 2020-21)
If there was even a slight chance that I thought Marian Gaborik could remain healthy for a full season between now and 2020-21, he probably wouldn’t even be on this list. But Gaborik makes $4.9M a season to sit on the sidelines for 75% of his team’s games, and that has to be frustrating for the Kings. Especially so when you look at how much trouble they’re having scoring so far in 2016-17.
Gaborik was a pending free agent when he signed with the Kings after helping them win the Stanley Cup in 2014 when he came over from Columbus as a rental. Gaborik didn’t crack the 70-game barrier in either of his first two seasons as a King and considering how he’s on the sidelines indefinitely right now thanks to an injury he sustained at the World Cup, it’s a guarantee he doesn’t approach 70 GP this year, either.
9 Best – Duncan Keith ($5.5M through 2022-23)
Duncan Keith signed a 13-year contract extension with the Blackhawks back in 2011, and while these long contracts can often handcuff a team, it really couldn’t have worked out any better for the Chicago Blackhawks here. Since signing the contract that brought with it a $5.5M AAV, Keith has won two more Cups with the Hawks, another Norris Trophy (he won his first the year of his extension), and a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2015.
Keith is a surefire Hall-of-Famer when he does retire, but with six more seasons left on his deal beyond this year, that won’t be happening anytime soon. There is a chance that the 33-year-old suffers a regression before this contract is up, but for now, there’s no doubt it’s one of the best values in the league.
8 Worst – Ryan Callahan ($5.8M through 2019-20)
The Tampa Bay Lightning are under a cap crunch like no other team, and they’ll have a lot of juggling to do in the next few years. There are a few contracts that Steve Yzerman and the Lightning would love to shed themselves of, but the worst one by a distance has got to be the $5.8M cap hit that Ryan Callahan represents through 2019-20.
Callahan was what Yzerman got in return for all-star Martin St. Louis after the relationship between player and team became a little rocky in 2014. Yzerman likely didn’t want to feel like he lost St. Louis for nothing, so he inked Callahan to a six-year deal. This is one of the very few mistakes that Yzerman has made since taking the reins in Tampa.
7 Best – Jake Muzzin ($4M through 2019-20)
Drew Doughty gets all the attention from L.A.’s blue line, but the Kings have a few other rearguards who maybe fly under the radar a bit. Alec Martinez is one of them, but Doughty’s regular partner Jake Muzzin is another. Muzzin’s possession numbers sometimes eclipse even those of Doughty, and that’s saying something. Together, they’re one of the best possession pairings in the league, year in and year out.
Muzzin will cost the Kings just $4M in cap space each season through 2019-20, which is a great deal for a defender of that caliber. It’s crucial that they have these value contracts on the books because they definitely have a few other contracts that are terrible, so it all comes out in the wash.
6 Worst – Nick Foligno ($5.5M through 2020-21)
The Columbus Blue Jackets are a curious team. They refused to sign franchise center Ryan Johansen to a long term contract that was likely going to cost them around $6M in cap space. The result was a bridge deal, and then a subsequent trade after the arrival of John Tortorella, who obviously butted heads with Johansen (name a talented player who hasn’t butted heads with Torts).
The contract dispute came at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, and later that very season they signed winger Nick Foligno to a six-year extension worth an AAV of $5.5M. To this very day I have no idea why the Jackets didn’t think that this money would have been better spent on Johansen—a younger player who is better and plays a more important position—but they didn’t and the rest is history.
5 Best – Devan Dubnyk ($4.3M through 2020-21)
Ever since getting chased out of Edmonton, Devan Dubnyk has been an incredibly solid goaltender. He was nominated for the Vezina in 2014-15, as is now the undisputed starter in Minnesota. His 2016-17 season is off to a great start, and the Wild only have to pay Doobie a cap hit of $4.3M through 2020-21, which is a phenomenal price for a goalie of his ilk.
Dubnyk is locked up at that price for four more years, so the Wild won’t have to think about their crease for a while. That’s great news for them, as you saw earlier in the list they have a few other contracts on the books that are bound to handcuff GM Chuck Fletcher in the not-so-distant future.
4 Worst – Dion Phaneuf ($7M through 2020-21)
When the Ottawa Senators acquired Dion Phaneuf in a mid-season blockbuster last year, it represented perhaps the worst trade of the year. Phaneuf isn’t a terrible player by any stretch of the imagination, but at this stage in his career, I wouldn’t be comfortable paying him any more than, say, $4M a season. The Sens are paying him 175% of that ($7M) through the 2020-21 season.
This was a curious move on the Sens behalf for a few reasons. One is that they already have a stud defenseman in Erik Karlsson, so it’s not like adding a top-tier defenseman should have been high on their priority list. Another is that Phaneuf is nowhere near a top-tier defenseman at this stage of his career; he’s only being paid like one. Just a bizarre move for the Sens to make.
3 Best – Nikita Kucherov ($4.8M through 2018-19)
Steve Yzerman is some sort of wizard. That and the Florida State tax laws have really worked in Tampa’s favor over the past few years. Yzerman and Nikita Kucherov came to terms on a three-year bridge contract that will pay the all-star forward an AAV of $4.8M. That’s an incredible price tag for a player like Kucherov, who’s developed into one of the game’s most dynamic wingers.
You can bet that this signing came with some sort of verbal caveat from Yzerman that promised Kucherov a Steven Stamkos-like extension once it’s through. In any case, the time to win in Tampa might be during this contract, because they won’t be able to keep all of their young talents beyond the expiration of the Kucherov deal, that’s for sure.
2 Worst – Dustin Brown ($5.9M through 2021-22)
That’s right. A former captain who led his team to two Stanley Cup championships in the last five seasons is currently on the worst contract in the NHL. Dustin Brown will cost the Kings a cap hit of $5.9M thru 2021-22, and that’s is a sickening thought for Kings fans who have witnessed the rapid deterioration of Brown over the past few seasons.
Brown was rewarded with an eight-year extension after helping the Kings to their second Cup in 2014, and that was a terrible idea for Dean Lombardi and the Kings. Brown used to put up decent offensive numbers, but it’s now been four seasons since the winger cracked the 30-point barrier. He doesn’t need to be an 80-point player, but for $5.9M you expect more than 27 points a season.
1 Best – Roman Josi ($4M through 2019-20)
Roman Josi has gotten better every season he plays, and he was so good last year that his play overshadowed that of teammate Shea Weber. Josi is now the leader of a defensive group that I would say is the best (on paper) in the NHL. The Predators are finally starting to piece things together after a rough start, and Josi has been a big part of that.
Josi actually finished fifth in Norris voting for 2015-16, which is five slots higher than his teammate from last season. To have Josi at the affordable price of $4M a season for three more years beyond the present one is a boon for Nashville, and they should probably look at winning a Stanley Cup before this deal expires.
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