There are certain molds of players in the NHL that are quite rare and hard to come by. A franchise goaltender, or an elite D-man make great examples. But there’s another staple for every team that will always remain a focal point — the versatile, two-way center. Nicklas Backstrom is just that and was rewarded handsomely with his flashy new contract (five years/$9.2 million per year) by the Washington Capitals. But, Backstrom hasn’t been the only 200-foot middle man to sign a big deal over the last couple seasons. Other teams have understood the importance of this asset, and clearly prioritized locking down their own versions of his skillset. The question we will strive to answer is: who came out on top with the best overall value for their signing?
The criteria we are going to utilize will center around players of similar structure to Backstrom. Meaning, players within four years of his age and with salary hits above the $7 million mark. The centers that have signed since July 1, 2018 (and meet the other criteria):
- Matt Duchene – 7 years/$8 million
- Joe Pavelski – 3 years/$7 million
- Blake Wheeler – 5 years/$8.25 million
- Logan Couture – 8 years/$8 million
Backstrom vs. Matt Duchene
At 32 years of age, Backstrom has been the epitome of consistency for the Capitals. Four straight seasons of 20-plus goals, six straight with 70-plus points and this is the first season he’s been a minus player since 2013-14 (currently minus-3). His chemistry with Alex Ovechkin is otherworldly, and his presence on both special teams units makes him irreplaceable. There is an obvious reason that the first-place Capitals prioritized getting his contract done as soon as possible in 2020.
At 29 years of age, Matt Duchene is already on to his fourth NHL roster. That speaks to his value with the teams he’s represented. Duchene hasn’t been a positive player since 2014-15, and has struggled for the most part since joining the Nashville Predators. His 10 goals sit tied for seventh on the team, and his 31 points put him on pace for 56 points this season.
His lack of consistency is a major reason the Predators sit sixth in their division and well out of a playoff spot. At an $8 million cap hit, that’s just not the same kind of value that Backstrom provides in D.C. and draws concern given the longevity of his term (under contract to age 36).
Winner: Nicklas Backstrom
Backstrom vs. Joe Pavelski
Everyone in the hockey world was a little concerned when Joe Pavelski ended up leaving California for the Dallas Stars. There’s always a big question mark when a guy leaves his long-time franchise for a new opportunity. That anxiety has proven to be justified as Pavelski is off to a dreadful start to his Dallas tenure. Through 48 games this season he has a woeful 8 goals and 19 points, and has lost the trust of the coaching staff. To put that into perspective, Pavelski sits seventh on the team in goals and points (Esa Lindell is ahead of him).
“Little Joe” is going to be turning 36 this summer and the Stars have him at a $7 million cap hit for two more seasons. This contract is likely heading in the “bust” direction as he falls further and further away from his 38-goal self of 2018-19. To pile on, Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov are continuing to prove they deserve top-six minutes and are dampening the veteran’s case. The Stars’ intentions were positive, but Backstrom gets another comparison victory given his value to a prosperous franchise.
Winner: Nicklas Backstrom
Backstrom vs. Blake Wheeler
Backstrom’s run of victories stops with big Blake Wheeler. One year older than Backstrom, Wheeler was locked up to the same term for nearly $1 million less per year. The Winnipeg Jets rely heavily (understatement) on Mark Scheifele and Wheeler, and No. 26 is able to deliver in a variety of functions. He’s posted back-to-back 91-point seasons, plays on both special teams units and is able to bounce between center and the wing with ease. His playmaking has always been on display, as he led the NHL in assists in 2017-18 and finished third in 2018-19.
The other attribute that stands out about Wheeler is his physicality. Not only is he producing more than the other players in this article, but he’s the only one laying the body in a dominant fashion. When Wheeler is on the ice, other teams know to respect what he can do, with or without the puck. Trailing only Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov in total assists over the past three seasons, Wheeler earns the victory for best overall value in this matchup.
Winner: Blake Wheeler
Wheeler vs. Logan Couture
Logan Couture is one of the most complete players in the National Hockey League, but an eight-year term? His annual cap hit ($8 million) is very reasonable, but his new contract has him signed to age 37. That means the San Jose Sharks are really paying him hoping for four or five strong seasons before his play falls off. That’s a tough bet. Couture has battled injuries throughout his career and has only played 82 games once (2014-15). Last season was a career year for Couture who tallied 70 points alongside the dominant play of Pavelski and Brent Burns, so you can understand why the Sharks highlighted him for a big deal.
This season has been a struggle for Couture who has 36 points through 45 games, and has the Sharks third from the bottom in the Western Conference. Recently, he suffered another injury setback breaking his ankle, which will require approximately six weeks to heal. If he’s going to truly earn this deal, he’s going to need to get healthy and elevate his game with Pavelski off in Dallas and Joe Thornton preparing to retire. Blake Wheeler is still one of the best in the game, and has the Winnipeg Jets just outside the playoff picture in the toughest division in the NHL. He earns the victory in this battle and takes the crown for best contract value of the group!
Winner: Logan Couture
It’s easy to provide 20/20 hindsight after contracts have been in place for some time, but in the moment it’s much harder to predict how a signing will transpire. NHL teams understand the importance of finding quality centers, so there are certain times it’s not much of a decision. Pay the man whatever it takes and hope for the best. Looking at these five individuals, it’s clear that certain decisions unfold better than others and value only becomes certain after all the cards are played.
Regardless of the team you cheer for, there is no greater sport to follow than the game of hockey! My aspirations are to provide incredible content for the greatest fans on earth. Former AJHL goaltender and now Senior Athletic Recruitment Scout for Hudson Athletic Recruiting.