It's true that the NHL has the highest percentage of teams to make the playoffs out of the four major American sports. Out of only 30 teams, 16 get to play for Lord Stanley's Cup every summer from April-June. But that leaves 14 very unhappy teams every year. Most of those teams have a glimmer of hope to get to the postseason. They have big stars and free agents alike that they paid a lot of money to help them reach that promised land.
This list is going to showcase the biggest stars and highest-paid players that enjoyed a longer offseason than the rest of the NHL. For many, they should be back with the same team next season, but others could see mounting frustration with a bad team in a multi-year drought. Many of the names on this list have also already moved on to other, better teams in trade or free agency.
To look at this issue from a different light, missing the playoffs could extend a player's career by giving him a longer break from the wear and tear of the more grueling postseason style. However, other than that plus, it's a big hit to a player's career. There are playoff bonuses to consider, as well as the increase in exposure during nationally televised playoff games. Many free agents have gotten much sweeter deals based on a good run for the Stanley Cup.
The salaries listed are all based on the 2014-2015 season and based on their base salary, not cap hit.
20 Cam Ward - $6,700,000
Cam Ward has been a loyal Carolina Hurricane his entire professional career. His first full season with the club in 2005-06 resulted in the first rookie Cup-winning goalie since Patrick Roy. Since then, however, the Hurricanes have only made the playoffs one out of the last nine seasons, including a six-year drought. Ward is still in his prime and it should only be a matter of time before he leads the only team he's ever known back to their winning ways.
19 Roberto Luongo - $6,714,000
It's been two years without one of the most colorful characters in the NHL in the playoffs. The weird and wild saga between Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks ended in the goalie and his massive contract, that was supposedly impossible to trade, getting, of course, traded to the Panthers for them to rebuild around him.
Luongo toiled through the Panthers' expansion years before going to the Canucks and enjoying four deep playoff runs. The 36-year old doesn't have time on his side, but he's still playing at a high enough level that the Panthers should be hopeful of making the playoffs in the near future
18 T17. Joe Thornton - $6,750,000
Jumbo Joe has been a cornerstone of the San Jose Sharks franchise for the past 10 seasons and last year saw their corresponding 10 year playoff streak come to an end. A mainstay in the playoffs, Thornton missed only his third postseason in 17 years. At the age of 36, Thornton doesn't have many years to wait around for the Sharks to blow up the team. It remains to be seen if last year was a blip or the start of a longer rebuilding process for San Jose.
17 T17. Jeff Carter - $6,750,000
The Kings' shocking and disappointing year landed Jeff Carter home early for only the second time in his ten year career. He hasn't played up to the potential of his monster contract, but Carter has still been a solid contributor in the postseason while helping the Kings to their last two Stanley Cups.
Despite the turmoil of the offseason for the Kings, including the Mike Richards drama, there are enough young, talented pieces that Carter will continue to get chances to light up the postseason for several more seasons to come.
16 T11. Jonathan Quick - $7,000,000
The next piece of the talented and well-paid young core of the Kings is Jonathan Quick. He's able to back up his great name with great ability - already winning two Stanley Cups in his first five seasons. After the Kings' awful 2015 season, Quick sat out the playoffs for the first time in his career. The team's woes couldn't be blamed solely on his play, as Quick still posted his second highest win total. He'll likely return to the playoffs soon enough with the Kings after his monster 10-year contract extension.
15 T11. Drew Doughty - $7,000,000
The standout young defenceman in the Kings' young core, Drew Doughty also had his postseason streak come to an end this spring. He's been a Norris Trophy finalist twice already in his young career and also was able to evolve his game from being a high-scoring defenseman to more of a shutdown force. This came in the midst of the Kings' two grueling and successful Stanley Cup runs, making the transition even more effective. After the well-earned time off this summer, Doughty will stay with the Kings for another several years at his $7 million cap hit.
14 T11. Mike Richards - $7,000,000
Mike Richards made his career as the young captain of the Philadelphia Flyers until his unexpected trade to the Kings four years ago. After two Stanley Cup wins, things should have been pretty smooth, right?
Well, part of the Kings' trainwreck season involved putting Richards gigantic contract on waivers and sending him to the minors after his production declined and never bounced back. The saga got even more bizarre when he was released due to material breach of contract. As a current unrestricted free agent while the players' union and lawyers undoubtedly get involved, who knows when his next trip to the postseason will be and with which NHL team?
13 T11. Alexander Semin - $7,000,000
Semin has been a very productive point per game player for the years he's actually been in the NHL. After a long stretch making the playoffs with the Capitals, Semin went to the Hurricanes with a lucrative 5-year contract. His production wouldn't match the contract, however, and the Hurricanes bought him out after last season. No other teams have signed him up yet, so it's yet to be seen if he'll even have a chance to return to form or the postseason during the next NHL season.
12 T11. Zdeno Chara - $7,000,000
The owner of the hardest shot in the NHL and one of the largest and most intimidating defencemen around, Zdeno Chara has been a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs for the last 15 years. The frequent Norris Trophy nominee and one-time winner has previously led his Bruins to the Stanley Cup, along with other deep playoff runs. His immense talent, along with the other players surrounding him, should send him back to the postseason soon. Despite his age (38), Chara has made it clear he'll be back for the 2015-16 NHL season.
11 T11. Patrick Marleau - $7,000,000
No one exemplifies the San Jose Sharks more right now than Patrick Marleau. A 17-year veteran of the NHL, their former captain only missed the postseason once in his career before last year. The speedy left wing saw his production slip down in the last season or two, but Marleau still has a few good years left in the tank at the age of 35. He's not likely thrilled by the prospect of the Sharks' rebuilding process, but the nature of the NHL won't keep them in the cellar for long.
10 Brian Campbell - $7,142,875
Brian Campbell got a jolt in his career with a huge free-agent contract with the Blackhawks. His second season with the team saw him make an emotional return from injury to help lead the team to the Stanley Cup. However, just as soon as he rose to the top of the NHL in Chicago, his huge contract led him to be traded to the Florida Panthers. Despite a promising first season, Campbell and the Panthers have hit a steep decline, missing the playoffs for the last three seasons.
9 Dustin Brown - $7,250,000
Dustin Brown, at the ripe age of 30, is the eldest star of the Kings. It's also not a surprise that he's also the captain of the two-time champs, as Brown was with the team for the five year playoff drought that preceded their run of the last few years.
Even though he's not the highest-paid player on the team, Dustin Brown is the undisputed leader of the Kings. His production on the scoreboard has dropped off hard in the past two seasons, but his grit and physical style still earned him an 8-year extension that should take him through the end of his career.
8 Tyler Ennis - $7,300,000
Tyler Ennis has been a solid player on the hapless Buffalo Sabres for the last six seasons. He doesn't have the awards, Stanley Cups, or point totals of most everyone else on this list. What he does have, however, is a very front-loaded contract. The next few years see his salary dip way down to average out at a reasonable $4.6M per year. However, for now, he still ranks among these highly-paid stars that are stuck on teams that missed the big dance.
7 T6. Anze Kopitar - $7,500,000
This is the last Los Angeles King on the list, I swear. Kopitar was the first NHL star from the country of Slovenia and has been the Kings' best offensive threat from his first year in the league. Kopitar has led the Kings in scoring for each of the first seven seasons of his career. He also serves as an alternate captain alongside Dustin Brown.
Kopitar is in the last year of his contract, but still producing at a high level and in his prime. If the Kings' struggles continue, he'd be a valuable trade piece to any contender. If not, Anze will be able to choose from contending teams as a free agent next summer.
6 T6. Tuukka Rask - $7,500,000
After taking the reins as the Bruins starting goalie from Tim Thomas, Rask had huge shoes to fill and he managed to do everything short of winning the Cup. He led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season as starter. Then, after getting the big contract that lands him in this list, he went on to win the Vezina trophy. However, the Bruins still couldn't make the playoffs last year despite another solid year from Rask.
5 Dion Phaneuf - $8,000,000
Phaneuf came on to the scene as a young, high-scoring defenceman for the Calgary Flames and made as big a splash in the tabloids with Elisha Cuthbert, as he did on the ice. However, after an injury-plagued season, the Flames traded him across Canada to the Maple Leafs. After signing a huge contract and becoming the captain of the storied franchise, Phaneuf has missed the playoffs five of the past six seasons. As he enters his 30s, it remains to be seen if he'll be able to turn around the Maple Leafs' fortunes or his career.
4 Patrice Bergeron - $8,750,000
Patrice Bergeron is the third and highest paid Bruin on the list after their disappointing 2014-15 season. He serves as an alternate captain and throughout his career has proven that he can do it all. He has been named the NHL's best defensive forward three out of the last four seasons while still putting up respectable points totals. He also scored the Cup-clinching goal for the Bruins in Game 7 of the Finals. The Bruins have wisely signed Bergeron through the 2022 season, making him appear to be a favorite to take over the Captaincy when Chara finally retires.
3 Eric Staal - $9,250,000
The captain of the Hurricanes, Eric Staal joins Cam Ward as a very talented victim of their long rebuilding process and postseason drought. He was another young piece and integral part of their Stanley Cup win 10 years ago, leading the team in points in both the regular season and playoffs. Now, as he enters the last year of his contract at age 30, it's less certain than ever if the captain will stick around or sign with a better team. It's also possible that Carolina trades his expiring contract if it becomes obvious they'll miss the postseason again.
2 T1. Claude Giroux - $10,000,000
Giroux has ascended quickly to become the young captain and star of the Flyers franchise. He's played his entire career there and is signed for 6 years to come. His captaincy hasn't brought any stability to the Flyers franchise, however, as they've missed the playoffs two of the last three seasons.
The amount of talent on the Flyers is way better than that, however. Giroux will have a hot new coach from the University ranks next season and the new GM's rebuilding project should give Giroux enough talented young playmakers to drag into the playoffs for several years to come.
1 T1. Phil Kessel - $10,000,000
Kessel became one of the biggest individual winners of this offseason when he was traded from the woeful Maple Leafs to the Penguins. It's highly unlikely his playoff drought will continue too long while he's playing alongside Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and whoever else joins the Penguins bandwagon.
After only one playoff trip in six seasons with Toronto, Kessel and his $10M pricetag should easily make the playoffs with Pittsburgh. Kessel is also likely to raise his point per game pace now that he's playing with one of the most offensively talented teams in hockey.