Let’s pretend that you’re the general manager of a National Hockey League franchise. Naturally, you want to have the best players on your club in order to maximize your chances of winning a Stanley Cup. But with the salary cap, you’re limited in how much you can spend on your roster. What do you do?
It’s certainly tempting to throw bags of money at talented forwards. These are the guys with sick skills and gaudy statistical numbers that generate fans and make headlines. So are these the skaters to whom you aim to pay the highest salaries?
It’s also appealing to make your goaltender the most well-compensated player in your locker room. After all, he’s the last line of defense and the man most responsible for keeping opponents off the scoreboard. And a hot goalie can propel a team deep into the playoffs.
Here’s another question: what about the defensemen?
How much dough do you offer the blueliners? These are the guys who probably aren’t the flashiest on the ice, but they do all of the dirty work and pay attention to the details that help your team win hockey games. Since their statistics don’t jump out at you, it’s the intangibles which have to be considered when deciding which defensemen to seek out.
There’s no one right answer to any of these questions, of course. But in recent years, it appears that most NHL clubs are embracing the same approach when it comes to their defensemen: nurture, groom, then pay. In other words, clubs try to find blueliners in their organization and train them in their system in the hopes that they’ll blossom into solid players – rather than scouring other rosters for trades and free agents.
The result? Ten of the top 15 most highly-paid defensemen in the NHL have only been on one team throughout their careers. In short, franchises are loathe to part with young talent on the back line – or search elsewhere to bolster their defense.
Here are the 15 defensemen with the highest salaries (based on salary cap amounts) for the 20-14-15 season:
T13. Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals: $5.75 million
Niskanen certainly knows how to play the game – of NHL contracts, not just ice hockey. This past season was the final year of his contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Virginia, Minnesota native exploded with career highs in goals (10) and assists (36), both of which exceed his totals from the previous three seasons combined. Niskanen parlayed that success into a seven-year, $40.25 million contract with the Caps that he signed in July. He also has built a reputation of coming up big in crunch time by notching six game-winning goals a year ago, which tied for the most among blueliners with the Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larson.
T13. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens: $5.75 million
It’s hard to argue that Markov wasn’t worth the three-year, $17.25 million contract extension he signed with Montreal in June. After all, the veteran Russian was solid all season long for the Habs, finishing in the top-ten for defenesmen in ice time per game and the top 20 in points. But the downside for Markov, whose base salary is actually $7 million this season, is that he is 35 years old. And the career Canadien has a history of nagging injuries, like those which sidelined him for all but 20 total games in 2010-11 and 2011-12. The extension could come back to bite the franchise in the pants.
T13. Tobias Enstrom, Winnipeg Jets: $5.75 million
Just how valuable is the strapping Swede to the Jets’ offense? Winnipeg scored over 73% of its even-strength goals last season when Enstrom and his linemate Blake Wheeler were on the ice together. So it’s no surprise that the franchise, the only one in the NHL for which Enstrom has played, would want to ink the defensman to a five-year, $28.75 million contract prior to last season. Together, Enstrom and Wheeler combine for $11.35 million in cap money for the Jets this year.
12. Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks: $5.8 million
Chicago fans adore Seabrook, who has been with the franchise for nine seasons. The Richmond, BC native scored the OT winner in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston in 2013, as well as the series-winning goal against Detroit in the Conference Semis that year. And he posted an impressive 41 points this past season to go with a career high-tying +23 rating. But Seabrook is in the second-to-last year on his contract; and given how the Hawks signed star forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to fat contract extension this summer, there may not be room under the cap to keep Seabrook after that season ends.
11. Mike Green, Washington Capitals: $6.083 million
One of three Mike Greens in the NHL (the two others are centers who play for the Stars and Rangers), the career Cap has three defenseman goal-scoring titles to his credit. But for hockey fans who like the word “defense” in his position, Green can be frustrating to watch. And given that the nine-year vet posted a career-worst -16 last season and was demoted to the Capitals’ second power-play unit, Washington fans are wondering whether it’ll be worth it to re-sign Green after his final contract year this season.
T9. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: $6.5 million
One of the up-and-coming blueliners in the NHL today, the 24-year old Pietrangelo will play a huge part in any success St. Louis has in the foreseeable future. This past year, the King City, Ontario native notched career highs in assists with 43 (16 of which came on the power play) and plus-minus with +20; and he was eighth in the league in average ice time per game. The Blues have him under contract until 2020, and it’s quite possible Pietrangelo might snag up a couple of Norris Trophies before then.
T9. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: $6.5 million
Here’s your reigning defensemen scoring champion, whose 74 points were 13 more than runner up Duncan Keith of Chicago. Karlsson also set career highs with 20 goals and 26 power-play assists, and was second in ice-time among blueliners. And Karlsson may be awarded the captaincy for the upcoming season, which will be the third in his seven-year, $45.5 million contract in Ottawa. The 2012 Norris Trophy winner was also the leading scorer in February’s Winter Olympics, notching eight points for silver medalist Sweden.
8. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: $6.916 million
Perhaps it’s fitting that the tallest player ever to don an NHL uniform at 6’9″ makes just over $6.9 million a year. The 16-year veteran is a consistent 40 to 50 point scorer each season and is a menacing sight for any forward skating toward the Boston goal. Chara won the Norris Trophy in 2009 and has been a finalist in five other seasons. As has been the pattern, 10 out of Chara’s 17 goals last season came with the man-advantage, which is a “huge” reason why the Bruins have their captain under contract until beyond his 41st birthday.
T6. Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs: $7 million
The Leafs’ captain has been a polarizing figure in Toronto for the past few years. While some fans admire Phaneuf’s grittiness and consistency, others bemoan his slowness and penchant for getting caught up ice. The Edmonton native signed a seven-year, $49 million contract last season which included a $12 million signing bonus. But now that Brendan Shanahan has taken over as president of the club, there have been whispers that Phaneuf’s days with the C on his sweater are numbered.
T6. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: $7 million
Would you believe that Doughty is currently The Hockey News’ top NHL player not named Sidney Crosby? You might not know that from looking at the 24-year old’s career numbers, which are impressive but not outstanding (221 points in 442 games in a Kings’ uniform). But there’s little doubt that Doughty is a big reason why Los Angeles has won two Stanley Cups in the past three seasons – which is why the organization has the London, Ontario native under contract until 2019.
5. Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers: $7.142 million
A year after helping the Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup, Campbell was dealt to the Panthers for winger Rostislav Olesz. The Strathroy, Ontario native proceeded to help lead the Panthers to a division title. But Florida’s fortunes haven’t been too fabulous lately, and fans may be wondering if the 35-year old Campbell is no longer feeling sunny in Sunrise. Campbell has two years remaining on his contract and the Panthers have a lot of young talent, but will it be enough to give the 2012 Lady Byng Trophy winner another berth in the postseason?
4. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: $7.25 million
The career Penguin followed up his Norris Trophy finalist season by signing an eight-year, $58 million contract in July of last year. But Letang then suffered a stroke in late January which kept him out of all but three games for the rest of the year. It’s a shame, because the Montreal native had already topped his career high in goals with 11. Pittsburgh fans are hoping that the 27-year old Letang will bounce back from a disappointing season which also saw him break his hand and his foot during the playoffs.
3. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild: $7.538 million
The two-time defending NHL average ice time leader among defensemen will begin his third season under an astonishing 13-year contract with the Wild. Since moving to Minnesota from Nashville, Suter has averaged a noteworthy 0.58 points per game from the blue line and has been on the ice a total of 240 minutes longer than any other skater in the league. The 29-year old Madison, Wisconsin native shows no signs of slowing up, even notching his first career hat trick back in January against Washington.
2. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: $7.857 million
Imagine for a moment how good the Preds might be if Suter had stayed with Weber on the blue line. Weber’s contract is even longer than Suter’s at 14 years and came with a $68 million signing bonus, and it’s looking more and more like a steal. Last year, Weber led the league in goals among defensemen with 23, and he set additional career highs in points (56), power play goals (12), and power play assists (14). The 29-year old has already made headlines prior to 2014 training camp by reportedly shooting a puck through the boards.
1. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens: $9 million
Sneaking in to top this list just before the buzzer, Subban signed an eight-year, $72 million contract with Montreal earlier this month (which came with a $25.5 million signing bonus). The 2013 Norris Trophy winner is certainly worth it after recording a career-high 53 points last season, which was good for a sixth-place tie among NHL defensmen. The Toronto native played in all 82 games for the Habs this past year; but given the contentious arbitration which took place this summer, let’s hope that Subban doesn’t move forward with a bitter taste in his mouth.
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