The 10 Best Contracts in the NHL

Before the NHL lockout of 2004-05, the second contract acted as a bridge between a player’s rookie/entry level contract (ELC) and a large pay day. The second contract now serves a different purpose, thanks primarily to two factors – the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and Kevin Lowe’s 2007 summer of madness.

However, several general managers have succeeded in underpaying young talent. Let’s take a look at the 10 best non-entry level contracts in the league.

Best contracts may be misleading, as it depends on what perspective is taken. Players and agents want to maximize their earnings, while general managers usually have opposing interests. For this column, the perspective of the general manager is taken. The 10 players selected with the best contracts are all significantly outperforming what they earn.

In the summer of 2007, Kevin Lowe’s offer sheets to Thomas Vanek (seven years and $50 million) and Dustin Penner (five years and $21.25 million) changed the complexion of the restricted free agent (RFA) marketplace. Before the lockout, players didn’t typically receive a big pay day until their third or fourth contract, as they didn’t gain unrestricted free agency (UFA) status until the age of 31. Thanks to the 2005 CBA and Lowe’s free spending ways, teams are now forced to spend serious money on their young talent upon the conclusion of their ELC, paying handsomely for potential and upside instead of proven production.

Brian Burke agrees with blaming Lowe:

 “You go right now from entry-level to what used to be the third contract, thanks to two offer sheets from Kevin Lowe. Most [general] managers don’t like starting fights with any other managers. Thanks to the Edmonton Oilers, the second contract has disappeared.”

That being said, there are still many teams who are smart about negotiating with their young players. Paying for potential and upside is a risk, but a reward exists if a contract is structured so that a player out earns his cap hit at some point in the contract’s life.

Lowe isn’t the only reason that the second contract has changed so dramatically post-lockout. One of the big changes with the 2005 CBA was to lower the UFA age from 31 to 27, or seven years of accrued NHL experience (whichever came first).

What constitutes an accrued season? According to the 2005 CBA:

 “Any League Year during which a Player was on a Club’s Active Roster for 40 (30 if the Player is a goalie) or more Regular Season Games, provided that, for the purposes of calculating an Accrued Season under this Agreement, games missed due to a hockey-related injury incurred while on a Club’s Active Roster shall count as games played for purposes of calculating an Accrued Season but only during the League Year in which the injury was incurred and a maximum of one additional season.”

David Booth

(Tony Ding/Icon SMI)

Just as easily as a bad contract or two can wreak havoc on team’s salary cap structure (see Scott Gomez in Montreal), a few good contracts can give a team flexibility to overpay for a player via free agency or a trade. A good example of this is with David Booth in Vancouver. The Canucks were able to trade for the underperforming winger with a large cap hit ($4.25 million) because all of their top players were locked up to cap-friendly contracts (the Sedin twins at $6.1 million each, Ryan Kesler at $5 million, Alex Edler at $3.25 million, and Alex Burrows at $2 million).

It is a dangerous precedent to request hometown discounts from core players and then overpay for external acquisitions, but one or two of these moves can be the difference between winning and losing. The Kings were able to take on the contracts of the underperforming and overpaid Dustin Penner in 2011 and Jeff Carter in 2012 because of some impressive contract work with core players like Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick. Penner and Carter are both significant reasons why the Kings are now in the Stanley Cup Final.

There are several important expiring ELCs this summer, including Jamie Benn’s in Dallas, Evander Kane’s in Winnipeg, and Matt Duchene’s in Colorado. It will be interesting to see how those situations play out, especially Benn in Dallas, as the Stars have a new owner who believes Benn is a cornerstone of the franchise.

“Obviously Jamie Benn is a cornerstone of our franchise, let’s just put that out there,” said Gaglardi. “He is one of the key cogs for us going forward, and he could ultimately be a franchise-type player. He’s got that ability.”

The affordable second contract isn’t completely dead, though. Dallas locked up James Neal to a two-year deal worth $2.85 million per season in 2010 (a great example of a bridge contract) before the Penguins gave him a massive six-year $30 million extension a few months ago (the payday). These short-term bridge contracts favor both sides for different reasons. They give the player time to prove his worth as a star before requesting star money, and they give teams more time to get a look at a player’s development.

With a new CBA on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how the uncertainty around it affects contract negotiations. As mentioned before, under the current agreement a player can reach unrestricted free agency at the age of 27, or after seven accrued seasons of NHL experience. If the age is lowered to 25 or 26, players like Benn and Kane will be motivated to take shorter deals. If the age is increasedfrom 27, the balance of power shifts in the direction of the general managers. Whatever happens with the new agreement, it is very likely that the entire framework behind the second contract will be changed once again.

From Lyle Richardson at Kukla’s Korner:

 “Lowering the eligibility for UFA status from 31 to 27 (or following seven consecutive seasons) has been both a blessing and a curse for NHL general managers. On the one hand, it has put younger players into the free agent market, giving teams with the cap space and the willingness to spend an opportunity to acquire quality players in the prime of their careers. On the other hand, it’s resulted in teams paying for potential by signing restricted free agents to longer, more lucrative deals, with the result some teams end up overpaying for players who fail to pan out as hoped.”

With all of that being said, let’s take a look at the 10 best contracts in the NHL (excluding ELCs).

The Honorable Mentions:

Mike Smith (Phoenix) –- Two-year deal worth $2 million per season.

David Desharnais (Montreal) –- Two-year deal worth $850,000 per season.

Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg) –- Two-year deal worth $2.55 million per season.

Mike Weaver (Florida) –- Two-year deal worth $1.1 million per season.

Dave Bolland (Chicago) –- Five-year deal worth $3.375 million per season.

Ryane Clowe (San Jose) –- Four-year deal worth $3.625 million per season.

Andrew MacDonald (Long Island) –- Four-year deal worth $550,000 per season.

Brandon Sutter (Carolina) –- Three-year deal worth $2 million per season.

Max Pacioretty (Montreal) –- Two-year deal worth $1.625 million per season.

10. Logan Couture (San Jose)

Cap hit of $2.875 million

Two-year deal, expires after 2013-14 season

Logan Couture Sharks

(Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

The argument could be made that the versatile Couture is already San Jose’s best forward at the age of 23. His game has no weaknesses, and the Sharks are set to build their forward group around him for the next decade. Even after a 32-goal rookie season, the Sharks convinced Couture to put pen to paper on a very reasonable short-term deal, and he will now be in line for a big pay day in two years. From his perspective, he took less money in the short term to be able to get more money in the long term. Assuming Couture continues developing into a top line center, he will be in line for at least $5.5-6 million per season on his next contract, a figure he wouldn’t have received had he signed an extension for longer than two years after his ELC expired.

 

9. John Tavares (Long Island)

Cap hit of $5.5 million

Six-year deal, expires after 2017-18 season

The Tavares deal was one the Islanders had to make. Off the ice, Tavares is the face of the franchise. He represents more than just goals and assists, and the team hopes/d to use him as a bargaining chip for a new arena (time is running out, as the Nassau Coliseum lease expires in 2015). Right now, the Tavares deal takes him two years into his UFA years, although that could change with the new CBA.

Tavares wasn’t a $5.5 million player when he signed the extension, but he is on his way to becoming one. In his first three NHL seasons, he has increased his goal and point production each year, finishing 2011-12 with a career-best 31 goals and 81 points. He’ll be contending for numerous Art Ross Trophies in the foreseeable future, all the while earning significantly less than he could have had he negotiated a shorter second contract.

8. Corey Perry (Anaheim)

Cap hit of $5.325 million

Five-year deal, expires after 2012-13 season

The Perry deal is a great example of a team overpaying for the first few years of a contract to receive great value by the end of it. When Perry signed his deal back in 2008, he was coming off a 29-goal, 54-point season with the Ducks. In the four years with the new deal, Perry has averaged 37 goals and 77 points each season (including a 50-goal Hart Trophy campaign in 2010-11).

Imagine the raise Perry would be in line for had he signed a three-year deal instead of a five-year deal? Coming off his 50-goal season, the Ducks would have had to offer him a deal north of $7 million per season.

7. Karl Alzner (Washington)

Cap hit of $1.285 million

Two-year deal, expires after 2012-13 season

Washington’s top shutdown duo (Alzner and John Carlson) are a combined 45 years old. Alzner is already one of the best defensive defensemen in the entire NHL. He has scored only three goals in his 185-game NHL career, but he has prevented many, many more than that. Alzner opted for a shorter second contract, and if he keeps up his level of defensive play, it will prove to be a smart move. Defensive defensemen have a tough time proving their cases at arbitration since it is such a statistically-dominated process, but with the advances in advanced statistics (pun intended), Alzner’s camp isn’t short any bargaining chips.

According to Behind the Net, Alzner faced the toughest quality of competition of any Washington Capital (in fact, his quality of competition was ninth highest in the league, behind the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Brent Seabrook, and Nicklas Lidstrom).

With a nice new contract on the horizon, perhaps Alzner can spring for a dog sitter, too.

6. Loui Eriksson (Dallas)

Cap hit of $4.25 million

Six-year deal, expires after 2015-16 season

Loui Eriksson has gone from solid second line player, to the most underrated forward in the league, to top line star, in a little over three seasons. He is Mr. Everything for the Stars, playing on the penalty kill and power play. He took almost 200 more shifts last season (1951) than any other Dallas forward, and is one of the best two-way forwards in the league. He reads the game at an elite level, and his positioning in all three zones is impeccable.

Consistency is an underrated quality in a professional athlete, and Eriksson’s last three seasons are about as consistent as it gets – 29, 27, and 26 goals, and 71, 73, and 71 points, respectively. When Brad Richards bolted for New York last summer, Eriksson’s numbers were expected to decline – he quickly quieted any doubters. In 2011-12, he didn’t have regular linemates, a big change from 2010-11, where he spent almost half of his shifts with James Neal and Brad Richards. Eriksson played at his best in 2011-12 when on a line with Jamie Benn, and the dynamic duo will supply the bulk of Dallas’s offense for the next decade.

Eriksson’s linemates in 2011-12:

21.91% EV 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 63 RIBEIRO,MIKE – 73 RYDER,MICHAEL
18.89% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 73 RYDER,MICHAEL
9.26% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 29 OTT,STEVE
6.91% EV 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 10 MORROW,BRENDEN – 63 RIBEIRO,MIKE

5. Alex Burrows (Vancouver)

Cap hit of $2 million

Four-year deal, expires after 2012-13 season

Alex Burrows has been on of Vancouver’s most valuable players. (Photo by Mark S. Mauno).

An argument could be made that Alex Burrows is the NHL’s most underpaid player. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Burrows inked a three-year deal with a paltry $500,000 cap hit (the incentive for him was that the deal was a one-way contract, guaranteeing him an NHL salary). In the final year of that contract, Burrows scored 28 goals, or $18,000 per goal. Alex Ovechkin, with a cap hit just north of $9.5 million, led the league in scoring that season with 56 goals. He was paid $170,000 per goal, or almost 10 times what Burrows was paid per goal.

The Canucks reportedly came close to trading Burrows at the 2009 trade deadline, but it may have been a negotiating ploy to get Burrows to sign a new deal. It worked – days before the deadline, Burrows signed a four-year deal worth $8 million. Many agents around the league were livid, as teams could now use a 28-goal scorer making $2 million as an example during arbitration hearings.

Burrows didn’t rest on his laurels either. In the three seasons since signing the contract, he has averaged 30 goals, and has been a big part of the NHL’s best line. Henrik Sedin on Burrows’ contributions:

“He brings a lot to the line. I think people in the past thought we need a big body that goes to the net and stands there. But he’s good in the forecheck. He turns a lot of pucks over for us. He knows where to go. He’s involved in our game and he finds those spots where he can get shots away. He’s done a great job for us and we’re excited to play with him.”

He kills penalties, he scores big goals, and he has become one of the best wingers in the league. His next contract will be an interesting one – the 31-year-old got a late start to his NHL career, and may feel entitled to a little back pay. And who could blame him?

4. Dustin Brown (Los Angeles)

Cap hit of $3.175 million

Six-year deal, expires after 2013-14 season

With how well Brown has played down the stretch and in the postseason, one has to wonder if more teams will start leaking trade rumors in order to spark a player? The Kings were very likely never serious about moving Brown, but his name was bandied about in multiple trade rumors leading up to the 2012 deadline. The Kings wanted to get their struggling Captain motivated, and did it ever work.

Bob McKenzie was the first to break the Brown trade availability.

“Brown’s potential availability is ‘bigger’ deal than Rick Nash in sense of how many more top teams involved.”

Brown finished the regular season with 27 points in 32 post-All Star break games, after recording the same total in 50 games before the All-Star break. He is currently the Conn Smythe favorite if the Kings win the Stanley Cup, and for good reason. He has been the difference in each round. Against the Canucks, he set the tone physically and with several key shorthanded goals. Against the Blues, he did the same. In the Phoenix series, he got under the skin of every Coyote player, and again dominated with his work ethic, skill, and thundering body checks.

From a Kings blogger only a few months ago:

“Dustin Brown is average, at best, defensively. He can hit. He is not mean. He is not edgy. He is smash mouth in his hitting only. He cannot fight. He is good for 15-25 goals per season and is wildly inconsistent from week to week. His hockey IQ is questionable. Is he the L.A. Kings’ intended identity? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe Dustin Brown represents what Dean Lombardi wants this team to become.”

Dustin Penner on Brown’s leadership:

“Every leader on every team says the right thing. On our team the leaders do it.”

How a few months of hockey can change things.

Kris Letang - Pittsburgh Penguins

(Wikimedia)

3. Kris Letang (Pittsburgh)

Cap hit of $3.5 million

Four-year deal, expires after 2013-14 season

How many NHL teams can say they have their number one defenseman signed to a sub-$4 million contract (not including rookies like Erik Karlsson or Alex Pietrangelo)? Letang who has averaged 46 points in his past two regular seasons. He missed over 30 games due to injury in 2011-12, and his 10 goals and 42 points in 51 games projects as 16 goals and 68 points over a full 82-game schedule.

Unlike most offensively-inclined defensemen, Letang is strong in his own zone. He plays much bigger than his 5-11 frame, and the Penguins trust him to play a regular shift on the penalty kill. Simply put, he is a dynamic and exciting player.

“His game is a flurry of takeaways, reverse spin moves, blocked shots, and desperate, successful efforts to keep puck in the offensive zone during the Pens’ power-play. It is at once visceral and graceful, poised and impulsive. Fun to watch. He sets up Malkin beautifully for a pair one-timers that go unconverted, and the Leafs hand Pittsburgh a rare loss.”

Coach Dan Bylsma on Letang’s importance to the team:

 “He’s an elite defenceman. He has the ability to skate, defend and play with the puck,” says Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. He can play against other teams’ best players; he can skate with them, he can play physical with them. And his play with the puck is exceptional, and that’s what he brings every night. That’s something you continue to see from him. Disappointingly for us, he was out for many games.”

Letang, Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, is the fourth highest paid on the roster. Paul Martin ($5 million) and Zbynek Michalek ($4 million) were both signed as free agents during the summer of 2010, and the Penguins gave Brooks Orpik ($3.75 million) a large extension to keep him off the open market. Letang still has two years left on his deal, and it will be interesting to see how his next contract is structured. Sidney Crosby is an unrestricted free agent the year before Letang’s deal expires, and Malkin becomes one at the same time as Letang.

2. Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles)

Cap hit of $1.8 million

Three-year deal, expires after 2012-13 season

Antti Niemi, Steve Mason, Nikolai Khabibulin, and Rick DiPietro are all paid more than Jonathan Quick. James Reimer has a matching $1.8 million cap hit. The Kings extended Quick’s contract for three years at the beginning of the 2009-10 season. Hestarted in 72 games that season, and six more in the first round against Vancouver. His level of play tailed off as the season wore on, showing signs of fatigue. In his final 16 regular season games, Quick allowed 3+ goals in 12 games. In the first round against the Canucks, he allowed 3+ goals in all but one of the six games, including five goals-against in consecutive games.

In the two years since, Quick has cemented himself as one of the game’s best goaltenders, and arguably the most athletic and flexible. His style is best described by Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber:

“Quick gets low in his crease — exceptionally low, like a man who feels the need to stoop in order to talk to a four-year-old at eye level. His angles are calculated, Euclidian. From his crouch he can see around screens and deflect close-in rebound attempts while obscuring much of the net from shooters. Quick is laterally adroit in the crease, scuttling as much as gliding from post to post. While Brodeur is almost erect in his crease, Quick resembles a crab.”

Many around the league were waiting for super rookie Jonathan Bernier to come in and steal Quick’s starting gig, but Quick’s elite play killed any potential goaltending controversy. The Kings will be happy to open the vault for him with his next contract.

1. Claude Giroux (Philadelphia)

Cap hit of $3.75 million

Three-year deal, expires after 2013-14 season

Claude Giroux may not be the best hockey player in the world, as he was referred to by Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette. However, he isn’t far from it. He is the heart and soul of the Flyers, and has increased his point totals each season since cracking the Flyers roster in 2008. Giroux finished his rookie campaign with 27 points. In the next three years, he produced 47, 76, and 93 points, respectively.

He has 55 points in 50 career NHL postseason games. Among all active players, his 1.1 points-per-game mark in the playoffs ranks him fourth behind only Crosby, Malkin, and Ovechkin. Among all players in league history, he ranks 15th, ahead of Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic, Bobby Hull, and Phil Esposito, among others.

Giroux is underpaid by at least $4 million, which is a good thing because the argument could be made that Ilya Bryzgalov played this past season like he was overpaid by the same number. His next contract will place him up with the highest paid players in the league.

Can you say, cha-ching?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tC9z3lC1Z6s]

 

Giroux’s opening shift in Game 6 of the Penguins series this postseason is the stuff legends are made of.

“When the best player in the world comes up to you and tells you, ‘I don’t know who you’re planning on starting tonight, but I want that first shift,’ that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there.”

He didn’t let his coach down.

“Giroux came out like a man possessed, laying out Sidney Crosby with a big hit, before scoring the game’s opening goal, just 32 seconds in.  As he celebrated by the glass, he shouted to the fans and players alike in the hopes of getting them even more amped up.  It set the tone for the rest of the game and has already become a part of Philadelphia sports lore.”

The new CBA will be contested on many fronts. The age a player is eligible for UFA status will be one of the most interesting to follow, as salary caps are structured around it. The best teams know when to reward their young stars with significant long term commitments, while at the same time managing risk with shorter second contracts if they are unsure of how a young player may fit in. The 2005 CBA and Kevin Lowe’s offer sheet madness put power into the hands of the players and their agents, but the best general managers have had little problem navigating through the always-changing financial landscape of the NHL.

9 Comments

  1. Joe Pavelski’s current 4 year/16 million dollar deal is a good deal as well. 30+ goals and 60+ points this year. Its a great bargain.

  2. Good stuff. Might be a year early for this list, but if Doan leaves town Hanzal may be an honorable mention.

  3. Jimmy Howard has a real good deal, in my mind. 2.25 mil per for a goalie with 2 different seasons of .920 save % or better

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