Projecting the NHL's 15 Best Contracts
Using WAR and an Age Curve to find the best deals in the league.
An uncomfortable reality of a salary cap world is that if you’re the fan of a team, you’re always rooting against your own players. Not on the ice (unless you’re a Red Wings fan), but at the bargaining table. We celebrate when our favourite players get underpaid because it means that the team can improve elsewhere, and when they receive even fair value on their contracts we revolt - just look at the way many Leafs fans reacted to the Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner contracts. Any happiness that a player got a great deal goes out the window if it hurts your team’s cap flexibility (even if that often amounts to the flexibility to sign bad UFA contracts on July 1st). This is a pretty crummy dynamic, but it’s ultimately inherent in a sport where team success is a higher fan priority than fair player compensation.
Players get underpaid for a variety of reasons aside from being “team-friendly” - like a poorly-timed down-season or excelling in stats that don’t show up on the back of a hockey card or in an arbitration hearing. Nonetheless, a lot of the time fans are left wondering how a player and his agent could have gotten played for for such fools, continually providing their team with surplus value (maybe for the Washington Das Kapitals? Get it?) because they bet low on themselves to get term.
This list will use the same methodology as its gloomy counterpart where I looked at the 15 worst contracts in the league. As with that article, there are two aspects I’m looking at to evaluate a contract: the projected on-ice performance of a player (measured using EvolvingWild’s Wins Above Replacement model) and the cap surplus value they provide (also converted to a WAR value) based on a projection and an age curve. This isn’t just a “biggest steals” article - although I will have a list of those at the end, which will also feature many players who are on great short-term deals. Entry-level contracts are of course not included here either (sorry Pettersson).
Finally, we have to remember that neither of these is anywhere near perfectly predictive, as Loui Eriksson and Milan Lucic will remind us. Age curves are based on league averages, which means that some of these guys are gonna fall off a cliff at a moment’s notice. Like GMs, we have no way of knowing who, although we can guess. That means I’m going to be (and would recommend that the reader be) a lot more reserved about the results of this list compared to the “worst” list, simply because it’s a lot easier to be consistently bad than it is to be consistently elite.
Honourable Mentions: John Gibson, Ben Bishop, Jaccob Slavin, Jake Guentzel, Thomas Chabot
#15: David Pastrnak - RW, Boston Bruins
The Bruins have undoubtedly gotten an insane amount of value out of Pastrnak’s RFA extension. With the young sniper still firmly in his prime for the remainder of the deal, the Bruins are projected to receive twice as much value as they paid in each of the next three seasons. The short-term nature of this deal is what keeps it to the edge of the top 15, and presumably Pastrnak will recieve an absurd payday in 2023. Until then, he’s expected to give his team over eleven wins from his play and over four from the extra cap flexibility.
#14: William Karlsson - C, Vegas Golden Knights
William Karlsson is not a superstar. His 40-goal breakout in 2017-18 was probably a fluke. But he’s a very solid top six forward - a strong playdriver and above-average defensively. Having a centre of that calibre locked in for what should the remainder of his effective seasons at a very manageable number is a great situation for Vegas to be in, even if he never reaches the dizzying heights of his first season in the desert again. This contract isn’t as flashy as the crazy surplus value of Pastrnak’s, but the term is a key asset here, especially if the cap rises at a decent clip in the near future.
#13: Nathan MacKinnon - C, Colorado Avalanche
MacKinnon’s contract is basically Pastrnak’s on steroids; he’s a little bit better and paid a little bit less. That’s worth an extra 0.6 wins in the next three seasons, and gives the Avalanche a window to really do something special, if they can figure out how to allocate that extra space well. Sakic’s work this season indicates that it’s a strong bet that they’ll target the right players to make a real run of it before they have to pay MacKinnon what he’s really worth.
#12: Connor Hellebuyck - G, WInnipeg Jets
There must be something about the number 12… Just as I was a little skeptical on how the model condemned 12th worst contract JG Pageau to six years of sub-replacement play, this one is more than a little optimistic. Hellebuyck led the NHL in goalie WAR this season, and was pretty strong last season. I don’t that means that it’s safe to assume that he will have a run of consistency in the next four years that would be pretty much unprecedented in recent memory. Goalies are a crapshoot, and in that stretch I expect him to have some real down seasons (just like John Gibson did this year).
#11: Ryan Ellis - D, Nashville Predators
I really hope that when Ellis’ contract expires, someone gives him a stupid retirement deal - the poor guy has never been fairly paid in his career. His previous deal, a 5 year $2.5M per season agreement, was a great deal when it was signed and grew more and more laughable as he developed into a top right defenceman in the league. With seven years remaining, there’s plenty of time for things to go south as Ellis enters his 30s, but he’s projected to provide the Predators with plenty of on-ice and cap value in that time.
#10: Leon Draisaitl - C, Edmonton Oilers
There was a lot of skepticism surrounding this contract when it was signed, but Peter Chiarelli’s decision to bet on Draisaitl and lock him up through his prime at a big but not excessive number has been proven right. He’s an elite offensive player who’s easily worth over $11M, and projects to be for the remainder of his contract. His excellence on the ice combined with his cap value project to provide the Oilers over 18 wins of value in the next five seasons.
#9: Jack Eichel - C, Buffalo Sabres
Eichel’s contract is similar to Draisaitl’s; he’s signed until he’s 29 years old at a manageable number that he clearly deserves. The difference is that because Eichel’s a year younger and has an extra year left, the Sabres (well, presumably) will receive an extra ~3 wins of value out of his play. Drai’s a better bargain, but Eichel just edges him out.
#8: Shea Theodore - D, Vegas Golden Knights
Shea Theodore doesn’t have too much name recognition, but in the past two seasons he’s become part of a long tradition of underpaid defencemen on long-term deals through their twenties that included Roman Josi and Jared Spurgeon. Theodore plays top-pairing minutes for the Golden Knights, and excels in them; no defenceman in the league has had a greater impact on driving expected goals and expected goals for than him since 2018-19. The Knights are lucky to have him locked up through his prime at about half of what he’s worth, a situation that’s projected to gain them over 13 wins in on-ice value and the ability to acquire or keep almost seven thanks to cap surplus. Something to watch: Theodore is sheltered more heavily than almost any defenceman who plays his minutes in the league. He’s still great against top players, and WAR inputs are adjusted for quality of competition, but it will be interesting to see if his usage shifts moving forward.
#7: Artemi Panarin - LW, New York Rangers
Panarin was exceptional this season, in my mind the best forward in the league by a wide margin. Before the hiatus, he was on pace for the highest single-year even strength offensive WAR since 2007-08, and he did it playing with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. Is he going to replicate this dominance? Probably not. Based on his past three seasons, he’s projected to remain elite throughout the duration of the contract, worth the cost of admission each year (although not by nearly as much as he was this year). But as this is also potentially risky territory. There are six years for something to go horribly wrong, or at least slightly wrong here. Can Panarin remain a top-30 player in the league until he’s 34?
#6: Nico Hischier - C, New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier had a real bad season this year by his standards - which means he was only pretty good. Despite not setting the scoring race on fire in his first few seasons, Hischier’s excellent even strength goal- and expected-goal driving established him as a prime analytical darling early on, especially thanks to above-average defensive play in his sophomore year. He undeniably struggled this year (just like almost everyone on the Devils), but was still about average overall. Assuming that he can regain at least some ground, this contract should be a great deal even if he never approaches those heights again - and remember, the kid is only 21 years old and not even in his statistical prime yet.
#5: Nikita Kucherov - RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Earlier on I said mentioned how hard it is to remain consistently elite in the NHL. Apparently nobody told Nikita Kucherov that. He’s been worth 3 to 3.4 wins in five of the past six seasons, a model of consistency. He’s also been consistently underpaid, although at least he isn’t making only $4.5M anymore (one of the biggest cap steals of all time). Kucherov is projected to continue his excellent play throughout the remainder of his contract, slightly declining after year three but still firmly outperforming his cap hit. $9.5 isn’t a cartoonish underpay for what he brings but it is still low, and will allow the Lightning to add (or more likely keep) a little more talent over the duration of his term.
#4: Jared Spurgeon - D, Minnesota Wild
Here’s a risky one. Spurgeon has long been considered among the league’s most underrated defencemen by the analytics community, culminating in a superb campaign this season that got zero attention from pretty much anyone. He finally received a well-deserved payday last offseason, and rewarded the Wild for it with his best season yet. Using a typical age curve, he’s expected to exceed his paygrade even into his mid-30s, providing his team with the cap room to acquire 5.7 extra wins while contributing almost 19 of his own. At the same time, you do never know with players over 30 - especially defencemen. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he falls off dramatically at some point in the next 7 years, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
#3: Brad Marchand - LW, Boston Bruins
This contract really is just a case of bad timing (for Marchand at least). WAR picked up on Marchand’s shocking late-twenties glow-up a year earlier than the point totals did, as he was projected to be worth over $10M in the 2015-16 season despite finishing with only 61 points. Since then, and since signing this long-term extension, he’s only gotten better, finishing 5th in the league in WAR this season and putting up the types of gaudy point totals that get players into double-digits in free agency nowadays. Marchand’s huge cap surplus (he’s projected to be worth more than double what he’s paid in each of the five remaining years of this deal) should allow the Bruins to stay near the top of the pack for a while yet, and he should remain very effective for a while. The question mark for Marchand is whether his game (which relies so much on speed and grit) will age as gracefully into his mid-thirties as projected. I think a decent amount of skepticism is warranted, but in the short term this is undeniably an incredible deal.
#2: Connor McDavid - C, Edmonton Oilers
The fact that the highest-paid player in the NHL is on this list is a testament to both how good Connor McDavid is and how underpaid elite players in the league are in general. No player has a higher WAR in the past three seasons than McDavid, as he’s blown away the competition offensively. It’s easy to forget that he’s so young - 23 next season - and the Oilers wisely locked up his entire statistical prime at less than the league maximum. McDavid is projected to provide his team with over 24 wins in that time, and which the ~3 wins from cap savings aren’t excessive, they’re not negligible either.
#1: Mark Stone - RW, Vegas Golden Knights
It wouldn’t be an analytics-based post without having Mark Stone at #1, now would it? While the hockey world at large has only really noticed Stone in the past two seasons, he’s been a top player for much longer than that because of his excellent play-driving and elite defensive play. Stone has been on pace for over 4 WAR in four of his past six seasons, including an off-the-charts 2018-19 campaign. Using this same measure and including his ELC, up until this point in his career Stone has provided his teams with 27 on-ice wins and given them an insane 12 from cap savings, the highest surplus of any player in the 2010s. Even in a relatively “down year” this season Stone was a top 5 individual playdriver and expected goals for driver. His contract is basically an even better version of Panarin’s, since he got paid about two million dollars less. That means it carries similar uncertainties about aging, although the lower cap hit does cushion it a bit more. That Stone’s game is built more on smarts than speed is another attribute that works in his favour - I view him as the type of player who should age gracefully and remain very effective later into his career.