Dylan Larkin hit the news today when he inked a five-year, $30.5MM ($6.1MM AAV) contract with the Detroit Red Wings which will take him to unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2023. That will be nearly a decade since he was drafted 15th overall in 2014, a year that is still recent enough to not be able to make clear definitions of the players taken in the first round. Aaron Ekblad was the first-overall selection that year and has turned into a very good defenseman for the Florida Panthers, though has been slowed in recent seasons by head and neck injuries. Leon Draisaitl was the third-overall pick and quickly established himself as a pillar of the contender that the Edmonton Oilers were trying to build, signing an eight-year $68MM contract last summer. Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett were second and fourth respectively and have been underwhelming, though the former will now be surrounded by the best supporting cast he’s seen since joining the Buffalo Sabres.
Lower down in the first round though there is a group of forwards that are constantly compared. Larkin is included in this group, which also stars William Nylander (8th overall), Nikolaj Ehlers (9th), and David Pastrnak (25th). Nick Schmaltz (20th) may be soon included in any comparison, but has only just finished his first full season in the NHL. Other forwards around this part of the draft lag significantly behind in point totals, but these four have all already established themselves as key parts of their team’s offense. Pastrnak leads the way with a 0.80 points/game rate, while Nylander falls in just behind him at 0.73. Ehlers signed a seven-year extension with the Jets last fall which is about to kick in and pays him an average of $6MM for the next seven years. Pastrnak, who stepped almost directly into the NHL, inked a six-year deal a year ago which pays him $6.67MM per season. He proceeded to record an 80-point campaign in the first year of it, immediately making him a bargain for the Bruins.
Nylander is the last of the group to be signed long-term, and the Toronto Maple Leafs now find themselves at something of a crossroads. With Larkin’s deal coming in shorter and more expensive than Ehlers’ extension, the Maple Leafs are likely looking at something more akin to Pastrnak’s deal. It could very well even eclipse that $6.67MM number if the team tries to buy out several UFA seasons, which the Red Wings were only able to secure one of with Larkin. Though Nylander has made it clear he wants to sign a long-term deal with the Maple Leafs, the team might be forced into a bridge deal just so they can fit all of their young talent in alongside John Tavares’ huge free agent deal.
Since these four are so closely linked and compensated, there is an obvious question that arises. Who would you rather have on your team? Though Pastrnak has the upper hand in point production at the moment, he’s also been able to play on a line with some of the best in the league in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Only Larkin plays center with any consistency, though Nylander has spent time there in the past. The added defensive responsibility in the middle might make him a better choice to build a team around, though he has lagged behind offensively through his first few seasons. Ehlers comes with three years of UFA status already purchased, and likely will have the lowest cap hit of the bunch. His $6MM cap hit is more than reasonable now, and should be a bargain as the cap continues to grow.
Cast your vote below for the player you would want most, including the contract situation they now come with. Make sure to leave your explanation in the comment section below.
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