With more than half of all National Hockey League clubs within $4 million of the current $79.5 million salary cap, it’s safe to say many were relieved when it was widely reported that next season’s ceiling will increase to $83 million. That $3.5 million increase may be enough to give contending teams the room they need to piece things together. What’s even more helpful, however, is when some of your best players are already signed to team-friendly, long-term deals.
Young stars signed to long-term deals without a sky-high cap hit? Does that actually exist? Well, we’re going to break down the most team-friendly contracts in the NHL, and as you’ll see, it’s more common than you might think.
Before we begin, a couple stipulations for this list.
- Entry-level contracts (ELC) do not qualify. There’s a never-ending number of young stars in this league making peanuts because all entry-level deals have a maximum allowable salary of $925,000 (with performance bonuses, the cap hit cannot exceed $2.85 million). On their next deals, those stars will cash in big time and likely not qualify for this list.
- Players on this list must be signed through at least the 2020-21 season (two more years after this season), so players like Andrei Vasilevskiy ($3.5 million through 2019-20) and Max Domi ($3.15 million through 2019-20) don’t qualify even though they are both on bargain deals. The idea here is to focus on long-term deals, not bridge deals.
- Average annual value (AAV) will be used, not the actual salary
Without further ado, let’s get started.
10. Sean Couturier, 26, $4.33 Million AAV Through 2021-22
The 26-year-old put up a career-high 76 points last season, including 31 goals, and currently has 32 points in 42 games this season for the struggling Philadelphia Flyers. While he’s on-pace for 60-plus points for the second straight season, Couturier used to be just a 40-point player known for his excellent defensive play.
That is is why he signed a six-year, $26 million contract in July 2015, one that was inked following a 37-point season. He makes this list because he’s now a legitimate top-line center making peanuts for the next three seasons and he’s only 26. Is he elite? No, but he’s pretty darn good, especially after rounding out his game on offence.
In 124 combined games from 2017-18 and 2018-19, Couturier has 108 points, or 0.87 points-per-game (P/G). His 88 even strength points rank 15th in the NHL. If the Flyers weren’t so awful on the power play this season, he may very well be on-pace for another 70-point season. Even a 60-point season is a bargain for someone with the 225th-highest cap hit in the NHL.
9. Mattias Ekholm, 28, $3.75 Million AAV Through 2021-22
Ekholm recently told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News that his current contract is “already so much money that [he] probably won’t spend it in [his] lifetime.” That’s not something a professional athlete usually says, especially when that athlete earns under $4 million per season.
If the Nashville Predators defenseman were due for a new contract this offseason, he could command twice his $3.75-million cap hit, which is currently the 97th-highest in the league among defensemen. The Swede is having a career-year offensively, with 34 points in 45 games this season (just one point shy of his career high set in 2015-16), but he doesn’t make this list because of his offensive prowess.
Mattias Ekholm putting a whole new meaning to a "two-way defenseman." pic.twitter.com/3TAYc1cFn4
— NHL (@NHL) January 11, 2019
The 28-year-old is as sturdy as they come on the back end, playing tough minutes night in and night out. Since 2015-16, his offensive zone start percentage is just 46.38, meaning he often begins shifts in the defensive zone. But in those same three and a half seasons, his Corsi For percentage (CF%) is 53.82, meaning his team has controlled most of the shot attempts.
Since 2016-17, Ekholm has averaged 23:26 of ice time per night, including 2:28 each game shorthanded. It may be an outdated stat, but going back to 2014-15, Ekholm has plus-75 plus/minus rating, sixth-best in the NHL. His 91 points the past two and a half seasons are also nothing to scoff at, ranking just outside the top-30 league-wide among defensemen.
8. Seth Jones, 24, $5.4 Million AAV Through 2021-22
We’re not even a quarter of the way through this list and already we’ve made it to the elite players. Yes, Jones is elite, so it’s safe to say the Columbus Blue Jackets have handily won the Jones for Ryan Johansen trade with the Predators.
While Jones is an undisputed number one defenseman, Johansen is not an elite top-line center. Their respective cap hits make this an even bigger win for the Blue Jackets. Johansen’s $8 million AAV (signed through 2024-25) is the 18th-highest cap hit among forwards in the NHL, while Jones’ $5.4 million cap hit is the 38th-highest among defensemen.
Enough about the trade. Jones is elite because he can do it at both ends of the ice, much like Ekholm, but with a bigger offensive ceiling (and he’s younger). Last season was his coming-out party with 16 goals and 57 points. In 114 games played between this season and last, Jones’ 83 points are just outside the top-10 among NHL blueliners. His .73 P/G during that same stretch is tied for ninth-best.
When he signed his six-year extension in the summer of 2016, his $5.4 million AAV was just 7.4 percent of the team’s cap. That percentage goes down each time the cap increases, making Blue Jackets fans even happier than they were when he first signed.
7. Morgan Rielly, 24, $5 Million AAV Through 2021-22
Even though the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman won’t be going to the All-Star Game in San Jose, 2018-19 has been his coming out party, with Rielly currently second in scoring among NHL defensemen with 46 points in 43 games. Much of his offensive uptick has been due to his placement on a lethal top power play unit, but his 12 even strength goals this season rank first among blueliners as do his 32 even strength points.
The 24-year-old’s previous career high was the 52 points he recorded last season, a total he will surely smash by season’s end. Over the last few seasons, Rielly hasn’t been top-three like this season, but he has hovered around the top-10. His .64 P/G since 2016-17 is tied for 13th among all NHL defensemen, while his 81 even strength points rank ninth.
A lot of what he does best is also hard to quantify. Because he’s such an exceptional skater, he excels at transitioning the puck out of his own zone and into the offensive zone with possession.
It’s not actually that surprising that Rielly’s cap hit is so low. The Maple Leafs were coming off a last-place finish when he signed and he had recorded 36 points that season. It’s a good thing they have their top defender signed long-term with such a reasonable cap hit, because team salary issues are on the horizon this summer.
6. Aleksander Barkov, 23, $5.9 Million AAV Through 2021-22
While an argument could be made for Barkov to be ranked even higher, I have him sixth because his offensive production doesn’t quite match the forwards listed below. Nonetheless, he is an incredible talent at both ends of the ice and he’s just 23 years old.
During the last three and a half seasons, he has recorded 232 points in 247 games, for a .94 P/G that ranks just outside the top-20 of all NHL forwards. During that span, he has received the fourth-most ice time per game at 20:53.
His coaches trust him, and for good reason. He’s one of the best faceoff men in the league and is often in the Selke Trophy discussion for top defensive forward.
The young Finn signed his current six-year contract halfway through his breakout campaign in 2015-16. When he put pen to paper on Jan. 25, 2016, he had recorded 30 points in 38 games so far that season. He finished that season on a tear; after returning from injury on Feb. 25, he notched 24 points in the final 23 games.
Point-per-game centers who are consistently in line for the Selke shouldn’t have the 94th-highest cap hit in the league, but alas, that’s exactly the case for Barkov.
5. John Klingberg, 26, $4.25 Million AAV Through 2021-22
Klingberg and Sergei Zubov are the only defensemen in Dallas Stars history to record 65 or more points in a season.
That accomplishment occurred last season for the 26-year-old Swede when he notched 67 points. Klingberg recently returned to the Stars lineup after missing 18 games because of a hand injury, but he still leads the team in points among defensemen this season with 21.
Over the course of the last three and a half seasons, Klingberg is tied with Roman Josi for the fourth-most points among blueliners, with 195 in 265 games. Only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman have more during that time.
So if that’s the case, how is Klingberg on a seven-year contract with an AAV of only $4.25 million? Because he spent three years playing in Sweden after signing his ELC, and while the first of those years allowed his contract to ‘slide,’ he only had 65 games of NHL experience under his belt by the time his ELC had expired. Tallying 40 points in those first 65 games was impressive, leading to a long-term offer from the Stars that is now the best bargain deal in the NHL for a defenseman.
4. Mark Scheifele, 25, $6.13 Million AAV Through 2023-24
It’s only forwards from here on out, and only the best of the best. You could make an argument for each that they are a top-10 forward in the NHL and yet, each has an AAV under $7 million for at least the next three seasons.
Scheifele is without a doubt an elite playmaking center. He was also a bit of a late bloomer, not getting in a full NHL season until two years after his draft year (2011). Because his ELC slid two years, he wasn’t due for a second contract until the end of 2015-16, at which point he had totaled 144 points in 227 games. During his ELC, his single-season point totals had risen from 34 to 49 to 61, which led to the eight-year contract he’s currently on.
The Kitchener, Ontario native has been incredibly consistent since signing, tallying 196 points in 182 games from 2016-17 until now. That 1.08 P/G is tied for seventh-best in the NHL during that span with a minimum of 82 games played.
If you’re a top-10 point producer in the league on a consistent basis, you shouldn’t be making just $6 million for the next five seasons. That is the definition of a team-friendly deal and one that has made Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff look like a genius.
3. Johnny Gaudreau, 25, $6.75 Million AAV Through 2021-22
‘Johnny Hockey’ is having a career season, and that’s saying something since he’s coming off an 84-point campaign. Ever since entering the NHL in 2014-15, all Gaudreau has done is dazzle and score points. His 353 points in the last four and a half seasons rank eighth in the NHL, while his .99 P/G are tied for seventh. If you take away his rookie season, his 289 points are sixth, as are his 1.05 P/G. He has never failed to hit 60 points in a season.
As good as he’s been in the past, this season seems different. He’s on-pace for 120 points with 66 through the first 45 games of the season, while the Flames look like a serious threat.
How he’s making under $7 million per season is beyond me, especially considering he signed his deal after putting up 30 goals and 78 points in 2015-16. At the time, his $6.75 million AAV was nearly 10 percent of the cap, so it’s not like it was declared a slam dunk right away. What’s changed is that Gaudreau has solidified himself as a top-10, perhaps top-five, forward in the NHL. The question now for Flames fans is what he can do in the playoffs.
2. David Pastrnak, 22, $6.67 Million AAV Through 2022-23
We go from one elite winger to another in Pastrnak, who will join some exclusive company whenever he notches his 30th goal of the season.
The Czech star is already at 25 goals through just 44 games this season, and when he hits 30, he will become just the sixth player in the last 25 years to score 30 or more goals in three separate seasons before the age of 23. The other five players are Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
Pastrnak’s goal-scoring is clearly what makes him elite. His 94 goals dating back to 2016-17 are tied for the fifth-most in the NHL, along with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. Only Nikita Kucherov, Patrik Laine, Connor McDavid and Ovechkin have scored more during that span.
What puts Pastrnak ahead of Scheifele and Gaudreau is his age. He’s only 22 and is well on his way to his third-straight 70-point season. His progression from 70 points two years ago to 80 last season to who knows how many this season (he’s on-pace for 97) is what makes his $6.67 million cap hit such a steal.
1. Nathan MacKinnon, 23, $6.3 Million AAV Through 2022-23
A year and a half ago, MacKinnon would not have been on this list. Not even close. He was coming off a 53-point season for a Colorado Avalanche team that was a complete joke after recording 48 points.
Then last season, he came back a completely different player. He was more than just fast; he was dangerous because he could make difficult plays at high speed, like changing the angle of his shot or pushing defenders back before pulling up and finding an open teammate.
MacKinnon is not just a top-10 player in the NHL. He’s top-five right now. His 163 points dating back to the beginning of last season are the third-most in the NHL, behind only McDavid and Kucherov, as are his 1.38 P/G.
While those stats are impressive, the reason MacKinnon tops this list is because he’s dangerous every time he steps onto the ice. The same can be said for Schiefele and Gaudreau, but MacKinnon is younger than both and has the highest ceiling. Pastrnak is younger than MacKinnon, but is slightly more expensive and centers are more valuable than wingers. Pastrnak may score more goals than MacKinnon in the next five years, but he’s going to be hard pressed to score more points.
Just Missed the Cut
Rickard Rakell, 25, $3.79 Million AAV Through 2021-22
Jacob Slavin, 24, $5.3 million through 2024-25
Vincent Trocheck, 25, $4.75 million through 2021-22
Bo Horvat, 23, $5.5 million through 2022-23
Elias Lindholm, 24, $4.85 million through 2023-24
Oscar Klefbom, 25, $4.17 million through 2022-23
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.