Everyone loves a good deal, and NHL teams are no different. In a salary cap world, teams simply must have a few bargain deals on their rosters if they’re going to contend for the Stanley Cup. In fact, the two teams who battled in the Stanley Cup Final last season (Chicago and Tampa Bay) make up 20% of this list.
A lot of things have to fall into place to land a bargain contract in the NHL. Some of the players you’ll find on this list are on bridge deals, meaning they signed short two or three year deals after their ELCs expired, and have since proven that they’re worth a lot more than they’re getting.
Several of the defensemen who appear on this list are on bargain deals because they signed long-term contracts before they took that next step at the NHL level. A little luck is involved when acquiring inexpensive top-end talent in the world's best hockey league, but it also helps to have a savvy GM on hand.
It's almost the same idea as handling the stock market; you have to buy in early and cheap to hope your investment pays off in the biggest way later on. A good example of how buying in early can help you is in P.K. Subban. While he was a RFA following the 2011-12 season, the Canadiens could have signed him to a multi-year deal worth about $5 million a year, but the Habs chose to bridge him for two years. Subban responded with a Norris Trophy in 2013 and another great season in 2014, establishing himself as an elite defenseman. The Habs would then sign him to a massive eight-year, $72 million deal. While that's about right for an elite defenseman these days, just imagine what an amazing deal it would be for them had they signed Subban earlier.
Nevertheless, Marc Bergevin and other GMs still find plenty of bargains along the way.
Here are the top 20 bargain deals in the NHL for the 2015-16 season:
(This list excludes all entry-level contracts, or else of course it would be half full of names like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad… you get it.)
20 Jake Muzzin - $4 Million
At the onset of last season, Slava Voynov had a firm grip on the no. 2 defenseman spot in L.A., behind Drew Doughty. Before Voynov’s, shall we say, “transgressions,” Muzzin signed a five year extension with an AAV of $4 million.
That is fair market value for a second-pairing defenseman, but when Voynov was arrested last year it was up to Muzzin to step in and fill his shoes. He proved more than capable of the assignment, playing 22:41 per game and putting up 41 points in the process. If he comes even close to this type of production in 2015-16, the 26-year-old is a steal at $4 million.
19 Alexander Semin - $1.1 million
I’ll be the first to admit that this could be a terrible signing, but Alexander Semin is a raw talent who has been known to perform extremely well in contract years. After the Hurricanes bought him out in the offseason, the Canadiens signed the Russian to a one-year contract worth $1.1 million.
Yes, Semin only scored six goals in 57 games last season, but he scored 22 goals in 2013-14, and he notched 44 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. If he gets close to what his numbers were a few seasons ago, he will be a steal at $1.1 million. It's a low risk, high reward deal for the Habs.
18 Roberto Luongo - $4.53 million
Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo is a steal for Florida, but only because the Vancouver Canucks are stuck paying almost $1 million of his salary per season until 2020.
There’s no doubt about it: Roberto Luongo is still an elite goaltender in the NHL, and an elite goalie for $4.53 million is a heck of a deal. He led the Panthers to meaningful games last March in a season where many had the Panthers pegged as a lottery team, posting a 2.35 GAA and a .921 SV%.
17 Roman Josi - $4 million
Top-pairing defensemen are hard to come by in today’s NHL. If you have a player capable of playing on a top unit, it’s not unusual that you’ll end up paying that player somewhere in the range of $6.5-$7 million. Well, Roman Josi had a phenomenal season last year, playing the fourth-most per game out of all skaters—six seconds more per game than defense partner Shea Weber, who ranked fifth in overall icetime.
Josi is signed on through 2020 at $4 million per season, which has fans in Nashville salivating at the beauty of this bargain defenseman. The Josi/Weber unit could be the league’s best defensive pairing in 2015-16.
16 Niklas Kronwall - $4.75 million
A few seasons back when the Red Wings lost Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement, there was a huge hole left on the Detroit blue line. Without exaggerating, Lidstrom is one of the top-five defensemen of all time, so there’s nobody who could realistically fill his shoes.
Niklas Kronwall is no Nick Lidstrom, but he’s done an admiral job as Detroit’s no. 1 rearguard for the past three seasons. With a cap hit of just $4.75 million, Kronwall’s contract is the best one in Michigan.
15 Duncan Keith - $5.54 million
If you asked any general manager in the league to list the NHL’s top three defensemen, it’s safe to say Duncan Keith’s name would appear on most of the lists. A top three defenseman in the league, these days, is worth between $8 and $9 million; Keith is signed through 2023 at a bargain price of $5.54 million.
The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner is 32 years old, which is considered to be the end of the prime of an NHL defenseman’s career. His contract might seem a little steep in 2021, but for the upcoming season it’s one of the best in the business.
14 Jiri Hudler - $4 million
When the Flames signed ex-Red Wing Jiri Hudler to a four-year contract with a $4 million AAV in 2012, I actually thought it was a bad signing. Fast forward three years into the deal and Hudler’s $4 million cap hit is one of the league’s best bargains up front.
In 2014-15, Hudler finished ninth in league scoring, putting up 76 points in 78 games. Nobody who finished above him had a lower cap hit last season, meaning Hudler had the highest points-per-dollar than pretty much everyone who wasn’t on an entry level contract last season.
13 John Carlson - $3.97 million
Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson had somewhat of a breakout season last year, putting up 55 points—fifth most among all defensemen. This season he’s slotted in on the Caps’ top pairing, and is projected top quarterback Washington’s top power play unit.
Carlson signed an extension with the Capitals during the 2012 offseason. The contract comes with a cap hit of $3.97 million and keeps the rearguard in the nation’s capital through the 2017-18 season. As Carlson emerges as one of the league’s elite offensive defensemen, this will likely be one of the league’s best contracts for the next three seasons.
12 Victor Hedman - $4 million
You may be noticing a trend: if a top-pairing defenseman has a contract of $4 million or less, then you can expect to find his name on this list. Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning will collect just $4 million for his services this season in the Sunshine State, and that’s a steal of a deal.
Defensemen often develop by sundial, and it takes them a little more time to become dominant in the NHL when compared with forwards. The 2009 2nd-overall pick has been solid for several seasons, but he truly busted out last season. Held out of 24 games due to injury, Hedman put up an impressive 38 points and played more than any other Lightning rearguard when he was in the lineup.
11 Tyson Barrie - $2.6 million
Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie is heading into the final year of a bridge contract that will pay him $2.6 million in 2015-16. Last season, Barrie emerged as Colorado’s best offensive defenseman, scoring 53 points in 80 games.
Barrie is a safe bet to have another solid season in Colorado, as right now he’s penciled in to play on the Avs’ top power play unit. He’ll also be motivated financially, as another season of similar production will be worth a huge raise in 2016-17.
10 Jamie Benn - $5.25 million
Now, it’s tough to say someone who is making $5.25 million per season is underpaid, but hear me out. Jamie Benn is coming off a season that saw him take home the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. His $5.25 million is well below market value.
Let’s put it this way: Benn will be only the fourth highest paid forward on his team in 2015-16. Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, and Patrick Sharp will all earn more that the NHL’s reigning scoring champion. Benn has two years remaining on his contract, so he can expect a big raise in the summer of 2017, barring any major regression or setback.
9 Jakub Voracek - $4.25 million
Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux make up one of the deadliest offensive duos in the NHL. Voracek really came out of his shell last season, as he led the entire NHL in points for a good portion of the year, and he finished tied for fourth overall. That earned the 26-year-old Czech a contract extension worth $8.25 million per season.
That contract, however, doesn’t kick in until next season, meaning that the Flyers have one more year remaining of what they deem to be about 50 per cent of market value for the winger ($4.25 million). They should enjoy it while it lasts, because they’ll be paying him the big bucks until 2024, beginning next season.
8 Jaden Schwartz - $2.35 million
Of course we’re not including entry-level deals, but there were bound to be a few bargain bridge contracts to appear on the list. Jaden Schwartz is ranked as the eighth best bargain contract in the NHL at $2.35 million.
Schwartz signed the two-year bridge deal during the 2014 offseason, so it expires at the end of this upcoming season. If Schwartz can build on his stellar numbers from last season (28-35-63 in 75 GP), he’ll be due for a pretty hefty raise when/if he hits RFA status.
7 Ondrej Palat - $3.3 million
Ondrej Palat is the second of three Lightning players to show up on this list. He makes up one-third of the now famous “Triplets” line in Tampa, along with Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. The Triplets line was the most productive in the league for most of the 2014-15 season, and they’re staying together to start the year in Tampa (not to mention lining up on the first PP unit with Stevens Stamkos manning the point).
At just a $3.3 million cap hit per season for two more years, the Lightning are probably in a win now mentality more than ever. Unless Palat (and a few other Lightning players) experience a huge drop off in production over the next few years, it will be impossible to keep these forwards together in the salary cap era.
6 Ryan Johansen - $4 million
A number one center who is capable of putting up 30 goals and 75 points is a hot commodity in today’s NHL; only about half the teams can lay claim to having such a talent. That’s why these players are usually obscenely compensated, sometimes even creeping up to $10 million per season and beyond.
Ryan Johansen signed a deal in Columbus just prior to the start of last season after a bit of a contract dispute. The result was a three-year bridge deal that came with a cap hit of $4 million per year. Johansen will be due for a massive raise when the deal expires at the end of next season, but until then the Jackets will enjoy one of the most friendly-priced number one centers in the league.
5 Kyle Okposo - $2.8 million
Kyle Okposo took a little while to break out of his shell, but he finally did in 2014-15, putting up the solid numbers that pundits had been expecting for several seasons. If you combine his production over the last two years, Okposo has put up 120 points in 131 games, which is elite scoring for any NHL forward.
Okposo signed his current contract back in 2011. He’s heading into the final year of the five-year deal that comes with a cap hit of $2.8 million. He’ll be due for a big raise, because a winger who puts up close to a point per game is worth at least double that in today’s NHL.
4 Keith Yandle - $2.63 million
This is another one that comes with a bit of an asterisk, because one of the reasons Keith Yandle is such a bargain for the Rangers is because the Arizona Coyotes are paying half of his salary in 2015-16. The Rangers will get Yandle’s services at a cap hit of just $2.63 million this season, a great deal for one of the league’s best offensive D-men.
Yandle has proven to be one of the most consistent producers from the blue line over the past five seasons. He’s scored at least 40 points each year (lockout year aside, where he managed 30 in 48 games), and has cracked the 50 point barrier three times, including his 52 points last season.
3 Tyler Johnson - $3.3 million
The final member of the Tampa Bay Lightning to appear on the list is Tyler Johnson, who ranks third. Johnson in the centerpiece of the aforementioned Triplets line that was so productive last season and is staying together to start 2015-16.
Johnson signed his three-year deal with the club prior to the start of last season, so the Lightning have two more years left at the friendly $3.3 million price point. With Nikita Kucherov—the third and final member of the “Triplets”—entering the final year of his ELC, the Lightning could have the league’s most productive line this season at a cost of just over $7 million total.
2 Mark Giordano - $4.02 million
Mark Giordano has played his way into the top-10 of all current NHL defensemen. He’s the captain of the Calgary Flames and he led the team to relevance last season in a year when nobody expected the Flames to be even competent.
His current contract was signed before the start of the 2011-12 season, and it pays him $4.02 million per season. This is the last year of the deal, but his extension is already in the books. He’ll be much more fairly compensated starting next season, as he’ll make $6.75 million per year through 2021-22.
1 John Tavares - $5.5 million
If you did a hockey draft with your buddies this year, I’d be willing to bet that John Tavares went in the top three. Barring an injury, Tavares’ name will surely be in the top five, at least, when you look at the scoring leaders at the end of the season. While $5.5 million isn’t a small amount of money by any stretch, it’s well below the current market value of John Tavares.
The $5.5 million cap hit is tied for 89th highest in the NHL, which is ludicrous for a player of Tavares’ ilk. The favorable contract has three years remaining on it, meaning GM Garth Snow has a few years to build a contender around Tavares before the cap becomes a major issue for him and his Isles.
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