When working with a salary cap, especially one that has not been increasing as expected in recent year, it is vital for general managers to get the most production out of their players. Teams with players who meet the expected level of production implied by their contracts and teams that lack wasted dollars in bad, expensive deals are often the same teams that thrive in today’s NHL. Forget market size or free agent appeal, the key to a winning franchise nowadays is getting the best bang for your buck on every player on the roster. While no player can be fully quantified by their scoring, cost per point is an easy way to look at which players are producing at the most team-friendly rate and which have been more of a cap space killer than a positive member of the team. Thanks to CapFriendly, that information is readily available to fans and NHL executives alike.
The benchmark for this metric is about $100K/point, as GM’s expect those big-time forwards and offensive defenseman who they award with $6MM, $7MM, and $8MM per year contracts to be putting up 60, 70, or 80 points respectively. For the second year in a row, St. Louis Blues superstar Vladimir Tarasenko was the poster boy for this standard, coming in at exactly $100K/point with 75 points on a $7.5MM deal. Winnipeg’s Bryan Little and New Jersey’s Adam Henrique are two other notable names that hit the mark exactly, while phenoms like Sidney Crosby and Duncan Keith landing close to the $100K/point mark show that it is an accurate expectation.
However, the exception to the rule is obviously entry-level contracts. It is no secret that drafting and developing well is the best way to improve you team, beginning with affordable scoring from players on their rookie deals. Nowhere is that more apparent than in cost per point, where nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20 best contracts were rookie deals. To no one surprise, 20-year-old MVP Connor McDavid and his 100 points on a $925K entry-level contract was far and away the best bargain in hockey. McDavid cost the Oilers only $9,250 per point in 2016-17. That will all change soon, as McDavid is set to begin an eight-year, $100MM contract in 2018-19, after which a 100-point campaign will cost Edmonton $125,000/point, closer to the expectations of a standard contract. For now, the Oilers can enjoy one more year of McDavid likely being the best deal in the NHL, as well as the best player. Entry-level deals joining McDavid in the top ten last year (in order) were Viktor Arvidsson, Artemi Panarin, teammate Leon Draisaitl, Conor Sheary, David Pastrnak, Auston Matthews, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Patrik Laine. Not all entry-level deals are created equal, so while Draisaitl and Pastrnak were second and fourth respectively in entry-level scoring, they were also on the ELC maximum deal of $925K and of slightly lesser value to their teams than the likes of Arvidsson ($632K) and Sheary ($667.5K). Panarin had the best contract in the league in 2015-16 and fell only to third with $10,980/point for the Chicago Blackhawks. Now in Columbus and on a two-year, $12MM deal, the Blue Jackets have to hope that they can continue to get 70+ point seasons out of him to maximize the value of that deal.
So, entry-level contracts aside, who was the best contract in hockey last season? Another easy answer, former Blue Jacket gamble Sam Gagner. After a horrendous 2015-16 campaign with the Philadelphia Flyers, Gagner struggled to find a new team last summer, eventually settling on a $650K “show me” deal with Columbus. Right away people tagged that contract, for a six-time 40+ point scorer, as an absolute bargain, even if Gagner simply bounced back to normal production. He did one better, posting a career-high 50 points for the Jackets and coming in at $13K/point, good enough for sixth in the NHL. Gagner has since moved on to the Vancouver Canucks, signing a three-year, $9.45MM contract on July 1st. However, if he is able to continue to produce at 40-50 point levels over that deal, his $3.15MM cap hit will remain a great bargain deal. Behind Gagner, another player on the move this summer, former Florida Panther and current Vegas Golden Knight Jonathan Marchessault had the 13th-ranked cost per point last year at $14,706/point. Marchessault had a breakout year, netting 51 points in the first season of a two-year, $1.5MM deal. Rather than take advantage of one more $750K season for a 30-goal scorer, the Panthers allowed Marchessault to be selected in the Expansion Draft and Vegas surely hopes he continues to be one of the best values in hockey in 2017-18. The final contract in the top 20 not belonging to an entry-level player, and the only 35+ veteran contract in the top 50, belongs to Marchessault’s replacement in Florida, Radim Vrbata. Vrbata returned home to Arizona last season after a down year in Vancouver the season prior, and the swift 36-year old proceeded to score 55 points, more than double his previous year’s total. On a one-year deal with a $1MM base salary, that only cost the Coyotes $18,182/point last season. Now at a base salary of $2.5MM in Florida, the Panthers hope that Vrbata isn’t starting to slow down just yet. Other impressive value contracts included Patrick Eaves, whose breakout season in Dallas led to a trade and subsequent extension with the Anaheim Ducks, Derek Ryan, who shocked the hockey world with 29 points for the Carolina Hurricanes in his first full NHL season at age 30, and a quartet of recently re-signed RFAs in Richard Panik, Ryan Dzingel, Ryan Spooner, and Jordan Martinook.
With the good comes the bad, and there were certainly some poor value contracts in the NHL last year. Many of the worst belong to players who were injured or AHL depth players that saw only limited time. With zero points in 13 games with a $1.25MM cap hit, Tampa Bay Lightning winger Erik Condra’s value was not even quantifiable it was so bad, and at the highest salary of any player who went pointless last season. Limited to just 18 games with only four points, another Bolts forward, Ryan Callahan, was one of the worst values due to injury with $1.45MM per point on his $5.8MM cap hit. However, the truly worst contract in the NHL has to belong to a player that player a majority of the season. Sadly for a Detroit fan base that is already feeling pretty down-and-out, that designation belongs to Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who began a six-year, $30MM extension by scoring about a third less points for the third season in a row. With 12 points in 82 games at $5MM, DeKeyser’s $416.7K/point is pretty ugly. The Buffalo Sabres struck out twice on the blue line, with both Dmitry Kulikov (five points in 47 games at $4.33MM) and Josh Gorges (six points in 66 games at $3.9MM) coming in at $866.7K/point and $650K/point respectively, though neither is known as a major point producer. The worst forward contract? Andrew Desjardins may not have been relied upon as a full-time player with much ice time last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, but with only one point in 46 games, $800K/point, it’s not difficult to see why he remains an unsigned free agent.
While statistics and analytics in hockey are normally geared toward displaying on-ice production, it is always interesting to look at the game from a business perspective. It is important for teams and fans alike to understand not just the absolute of how a player is producing, but the relative value of that production based on how much money that player is being paid. In a salary cap league, there is nothing more important that production value, and as the game grows the focus will only further tighten on scoring as a function of dollars and the cost per point metric.