In a league operating under a salary cap, teams that best manage their allocated funds by signing contracts that will provide surplus value over the life of the deal are usually the most successful. That can be easier said than done since timing plays an enormous role in determining whether a given pact proves to be a significant bargain. Inking a deal before a breakout campaign or after a significant injury are two scenarios under which a contract can deliver positive value. When each player is reduced to a number, their annual average value (AAV) becomes a major talking point for fans and the media in any contract or roster discussions. It can be unfair, but it’s the reality of living in a cap world.
To maintain some sort of baseline, any players still under the purview of their entry-level contract (ELC) are ineligible for the purposes of this ranking given the strict cap on their potential salary. In addition, players one year out from unrestricted free agency (UFA) such as David Pastrnak ($6.6 million) and Nathan MacKinnon ($6.3 million) are not included. These exceptions are also extended to players who have one year left before a hefty extension kicks in such as Robert Thomas ($8.125 million AAV beginning in 2023-24) of the St. Louis Blues. If the goal is to identify players most likely to provide the most value over the course of their contract, those with one year remaining have no time to accumulate the value required to pass others on this list.
Related: Every NHL Team’s Worst Contract
With those parameters in place, here are the 10 best contracts in the NHL currently on the books for the 2022-23 season.
10. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Contract Remaining: Four years, $7.142 million AAV
Winnipeg Jets’ winger Kyle Connor enjoyed the quietest 47-goal season in recent memory during the 2021-22 season, tying for fifth in the league with Kirill Kaprizov. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he did so without relying on powerplay deployment to boost his totals, only scoring eight goals with the man advantage. His 36 even-strength markers trailed only the league MVP in Auston Matthews, positioning Connor as one of the most underrated marksmen in the NHL.
Since his first full NHL season in 2017-18, the American sniper ranks sixth in total goals (176), but fourth in even-strength tallies (126). Over the last two seasons at 5v5, Connor also ranks 31st among forwards in scoring chances per 60 and 49th in shots per 60, but 10th in goals per 60, entering the upper echelon of offensive wingers by all counts.
By cap hit, the 25-year-old just barely cracks the top-50 forwards and is tied with Kevin Hayes in terms of cost, offering a sublime return on investment. Goalscoring often comes at a premium, but the Jets have one of the sport’s premier scorers at a bargain price for the rest of his prime.
9. Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche
Contract Remaining: Two years, $4.1 million AAV
Just barely sneaking by the contract term threshold, Devon Toews could have led this list if it was created prior to last season, offering Norris-caliber play while being paid just over $4 million annually, the 80th-highest cap hit at his position. While Cale Makar rightfully earns most of the plaudits on the Colorado Avalanche blue line, the 28-year-old rearguard functions as the defensive fulcrum of arguably the league’s best defensive pair. Toews finished 18th in total takeaways among all defensemen and allowed his superstar teammate to roam all over the ice.
Together, the pair accounted for 57.3% of shots (seventh among duos with 500 5v5 minutes played), 57.5% of expected goals (seventh), 57.5% of scoring chances (10th) and 69.6% of goals (third). Even without Makar, the Avalanche controlled over 55% of shots and chances when Toews was the only one on the ice. The Avalanche seek to dominate possession by activating their defensemen whenever possible and Toews, one of the league’s best at transitioning the puck, is a significant piece in executing that game plan.
Toews enjoyed his overdue breakout season in 2021-22 by achieving career-highs in goals (13), assists (44), and points (57), and likely would have had more if he didn’t miss a quarter of the season through a COVID-related absence. Although team president Joe Sakic facilitated many great trades during his tenure as general manager, procuring the underrated blueliner from the cap-strapped New York Islanders was arguably his greatest heist.
8. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames
Contract Remaining: Two years, $4.85 million AAV
It’s not often that a team can trot out both a Selke Trophy finalist and a 40-goal scorer in one convenient package but in center Elias Lindholm, the Calgary Flames are blessed with a unique player. While centering the now departed pair of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, he functioned as the defensive conscience of arguably the NHL’s best forward line last season. When Lindholm was featured at 5v5, the Flames claimed a 55.6% stake of all shots, 59.2% of scoring chances, and 58.5% of expected goals. If head coach Darryl Sutter could manufacture his ideal player in a lab, the final product likely looks very similar to the last remaining member of the aforementioned star trio.
It’s entirely possible that Lindholm’s incendiary 2021-22 campaign is unrepeatable but the Flames recouped Gaudreau’s replacement in the Tkachuk trade, promptly signing elite playmaker Jonathan Huberdeau for eight additional years. In the three seasons prior to his superb 2021-22 campaign, the Swedish pivot still scored at a 30-goal, 71-point pace while producing strong defensive results, suggesting he’s not a passive benefactor of his teammates’ offensive outbursts. As a result, another 40-goal season or two are not out of the picture for the 27-year-old.
7. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Contract Remaining: Four years, $12.5 million AAV
How can a player with the highest cap hit in the league provide any semblance of surplus value on his contract? When that individual is Connor McDavid, it happens quite easily in fact. Under the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), no player can earn more than 20% of the cap making the highest possible hit for 2022-23 $16.5 million, but it’s hard to argue McDavid wouldn’t provide value even at that number. Since his rookie season in 2015-16, the 25-year-old center ranks fourth in goals, but first in assists and points while posting the fifth-highest playoff P/G (1.49) of the modern era.
McDavid’s current deal takes him through his age-29 season, giving the Oilers the rest of his prime years at a severe discount. Given that he’s made strides on his once-subpar defensive game, no other player makes as much of an overall impact as the generational superstar. According to Evolving Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement metric (WAR), McDavid has accumulated the highest total WAR since joining the league, making him well worth the investment.
6. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Contract Remaining: Three years, $5.3 million AAV
Long renowned as one of the NHL’s top defensive defenseman, the three-year contract belonging to the Carolina Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin is one of the best in the league. The 2021-22 season saw the 28-year-old post career-highs in assists (38) and points (42), adding a new dimension to his profile as a defensive anchor. He finished third in takeaways among defensemen last season and only took five minor penalties (210th) despite seeing the 20th-most cumulative ice time in the league, primarily against top competition.
Slavin is capable enough with the puck to contribute to the Hurricanes’ up-tempo style, although the lack of offensive production has capped league-wide recognition for his defensive acumen, only finishing within the top-five of Norris voting once in his career (2019-20). With him on the ice at 5v5 last season, Carolina controlled 55.6% of shots (13th among defensemen with at least 1000 minutes), 57.4% of scoring chances (fifth) and 56.8% of expected goals (seventh), demonstrating his influence in the Hurricanes’ territorial dominance.
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With his current deal kicking in before the 2018-19 season, Slavin’s $5.3 million AAV ranks 50th among all defensemen, a pittance for the value he brings to the table. Even as he moves out of his prime, he should still be one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen for the duration of his existing contract.
5. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators
Contract Remaining: Three years, $5 million AAV
Juuse Saros, the second goaltender to feature on this list, matches Shesterkin’s term but comes in at just over half a million cheaper to provide great value from his age 27 to 30 seasons. Over the same three-year period used to evaluate the reigning Vezina winner, the 27-year-old Finnish netminder ranks ninth in SV% (.919) and sixth in GSAx (plus-22.3) while facing the fifth-most shots against during that time. With his $5 million AAV tying for 14th amongst all goalies in 2022-23, few provide as much surplus value as the third-place runner-up for the 2022 Vezina Trophy.
Despite finally getting out from under the shadow of Nashville Predators legend Pekka Rinne, the franchise’s lack of playoff success has prevented Saros from getting the recognition he deserves. By introducing offseason additions Nino Niederreiter and Ryan McDonagh into the fold, the organization has fortified its roster. With only three years remaining on Saros’ sweetheart deal, the win-now Predators must capitalize on their bargain.
4. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
Contract Remaining: Seven years, $8.45 million AAV
Due to a lack of eye-popping scoring numbers, there may not be a more underappreciated defenceman in the NHL than Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars. Despite only counting 36 points (2021-22) as his career-high, the 23-year-old rearguard is a star two-way defender capable of driving play at both ends of the ice. Among defensemen to have played at least 1,000 5v5 minutes since the 2019-20 season, he ranks 33rd in shots against per 60 minutes (SA/60), 11th in scoring chances against (SCA/60), and 13th in expected goals against (xGA/60). He’s managed those elite defensive results while playing 18:43 per night at 5v5, the 10th-highest usage among qualified defenders over that three-year span.
On the micro-stat level, Heiskanen grades out as one of the best blueliners in transition, completing the fifth-highest rate of controlled zone entries (with possession) last season. His most underrated skill may be in facilitating zone exits where among regular defensemen, only Quinn Hughes turned puck retrievals in the defensive zone into a clean exit more frequently than the Stars’ young star on the backend.
There may not be anyone more excited for the upcoming season than Heiskanen. Under former head coach Rick Bowness, the Stars played a conservative style which limited the defenseman’s involvement in the play. Under new bench boss Pete DeBoer who has experience with marauding defensemen in Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Shea Theodore, the Finnish blueliner could have his best offensive campaign to date. Remember, we are only a few years removed from a 20-year-old Heiskanen posting 26 points in 27 games in the 2020 Playoffs, the fifth-highest total of the modern era (post-1967). Having a future Norris winner under contract at an affordable rate until age 30 – buying many UFA years – is a tidy bit of business for general manager Jim Nill.
3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Contract Remaining: Three years, $8.5 million AAV
Has anyone done as much as the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl to change the perception of a contract in recent memory? With claims of an overpayment overshadowing the signing of his current deal which was inked in the summer of 2017, the 26-year-old German has developed into one of the NHL’s most fearsome attacking talents.
Since his contract went into effect before the 2017-18 season, Draisaitl has collected the Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy, and Ted Lindsay Trophy (all in 2019-20) while regularly sitting atop the league’s scoring leaderboards. He ranks third in goals (204), sixth in assists (275), and second in points (479) over that time, while his 1.79 P/G in 24 playoff appearances is the second-highest rate behind teammate Connor McDavid.
As of 2022-23, Draisaitl’s AAV comes in at 25th among forwards and questions about his efforts on the defensive end or his interdependent relationship with McDavid aside, that’s a bargain for one of the most prolific scorers in the NHL.
2. Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
Contract Remaining: Three years, $5.66 million AAV
If Igor Shesterkin‘s contract was a year or two longer, his pittance of a deal easily overtakes Makar’s as the most valuable pact in the NHL. The New York Rangers netminder enjoyed one of the most dominant seasons of the cap era in 2021-22, leading all goaltenders (minimum 10 games played) in save percentage (.935 SV%), goals-against average (2.07 GAA), and saving nearly 38 goals above expected (GSAx). The latter mark is the sixth-highest total since 2007-08 (when the stat was first tracked), and the five performances which ranked higher belong to goalies who played at least 62 games, nine more than Shesterkin’s 53 this past season. Unsurprisingly, he was named the 2022 Vezina Trophy winner for his efforts.
Since making his NHL debut in 2019-20, the 26-year-old ranks first in SV% (.928), first in GSAx (48.6), and first in delta Fenwick SV% (dFSV%), which is the difference between a goalie’s expected and actual SV%. If that’s not enough to prove Shesterkin’s value, his plus-22.6 GSAx in the 2022 Playoffs is the best single-postseason performance since 2008, outstripping Andrei Vasilevskiy (2020, 2021), Mike Smith (2012) and Jonas Hiller (2009).
The Rangers are likely to hand Shesterkin a blank cheque at the conclusion of his current deal but until then, the 2022 Eastern Conference finalists have, at worst, a top-three goaltender playing under the 11th-highest cap hit at his position. Considering the contracts awarded to Carey Price ($10.5 million) and Sergei Bobrovsky ($10 million) offer cautionary tales of giving goalies mammoth deals, New York must capitalize on the upcoming three-year window that has their starter at a bargain.
1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Contract Remaining (Beginning with 2022-23 season): Five years, $9 million AAV
Although several elite players – including several on this list – come in at a lower AAV than the Avalanche’s Makar, no contract collects more of a player’s prime at such a bargain rate. Despite being tied for the fourth-highest cap hit amongst defensemen last season, the 23-year-old rearguard finished with the most goals (28) and ranked second in points (86) at his position. Over the last three seasons, he ranks first in goals (48), sixth in assists (132) and fourth in points (180), but leads all blueliners in points per game (P/G) with 1.01 P/G over that time.
Detractors can point to his formidable supporting cast as the main reason for his elevated production, but the 2022 Playoffs demonstrated why Makar is the leading man for the Stanley Cup-winning Avalanche. Joining Bobby Orr and Nicklas Lidstrom, he became the third defenceman to win the Cup, the Norris Trophy, and the Conn Smythe Trophy in the same season.
With the extensions handed out to Zach Werenski ($9.58 million AAV), Adam Fox ($9.5 million), Charlie McAvoy ($9.5 million), Seth Jones ($9.5 million), and Darnell Nurse ($9.25 million), his cap hit drops to ninth in 2022-23. For the reigning Norris and Conn Smythe winner, a contract that takes him through to his age-28 season represents tremendous value for the Avalanche. It’s also not inconceivable to suggest that Makar could win the Hart Trophy in the very near future.
Who Has the NHL’s Best Contract?
The concept of value is subjective and can vary depending on your preferred mode of analysis or which statistics you place the most emphasis on in your evaluation. Whether you swear by the eye test, traditional boxscore numbers, or advanced analytics, everyone can wrangle up a different list.
Let me know in the comments – who owns the most valuable contract in the NHL?
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.