NHL’s 10 best contracts, 2022 edition: Johnny Gaudreau, Cale Makar and others

A lot of discussion in pro sports revolves around contracts, for better or worse. Every player is reduced to a singular monetary value and in a salary-cap world that value is crucial in terms of which players are providing value — and which are not.

This list is about the “haves,” at the very top of the salary efficiency spectrum where players are providing incredible surplus value to their teams. “How is this guy only making that much?” is the usual refrain. Across fan bases, it leads to some warranted jealousy — a hope that one day they, too, can have a player on a deal so good, it fills other fans with rage. It’s an understandable feeling, but it’s one that doesn’t last forever. Contracts have terms and the best contracts of one year eventually make room for new selections. 

Gone are the days of Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak, Sean Couturier and Aleksander Barkov dominating the top of the best-contracts-in hockey list. It’s a new era now, one dominated in part by the next wave of elite defenders as well as some of the very best players in hockey.

There are a number of players worthy of the title of “best contract in hockey,” and any list of this nature will surely be debatable. But by the basis of one specific player evaluation model, these are the 10 best contracts in hockey.

The goal here is to grade contracts empirically with the same context being applied to each player across the league: How much value does each player bring to the table and how likely will they provide positive value over the life of the contract?

The way that’s measured comes from comparing a player’s GSVA and the expected salary that comes with it to a player’s current contract. Surplus value compares what they make with what the model believes they should be making, while positive value probability measures the certainty that a player will perform above his cap hit. The list of best and worst contracts is based on those two factors (with twice as much weight being placed on surplus value) looking outward. What players have already done holds no merit — this is about the future value of the deal. Contract clauses and bonus structure are important, but not considered in this assessment. Players on LTIR were not considered.

Best contracts in the league

1. Cale Makar

Contract: $9.0M x five years

Surplus Value: $53.4M

Positive Value Probability: 97.0 percent

Norris Trophy? Check. Conn Smythe Trophy? Check. Best contract in the world? Check.

It’s been an absolutely incredible year for Cale Makar. He was already arguably the league’s best defenseman going into the season, but he absolutely transcended that in 2021-22 with a season for the ages.

Now, it’s absolutely no question who the very best from the back end is. Before last season, Makar was the first defenceman ever projected to deliver four wins of value before the start of a season. He obliterated that, playing at a 5.8-win pace. Now, he might be the first defenceman to eclipse the five-win projection, an unheard of tier from the blue line. 

That’s usually a mark reserved for the game’s very best forwards and the fact Makar is that valuable from the blue line speaks volumes about his ability. He is one of just three players (Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews being the others) in the league whose long-term value is above the league maximum ($16.5 million).

For the next five years, Colorado is paying Makar nowhere close to that mark. At $9 million, Makar is an absolute steal. Consider who else signed for that number last summer — Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse, Dougie Hamilton, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox, Miro Heiskanen — and with all due respect to McAvoy, Fox and Heiskanen specifically, they’re not even in the same stratosphere. Makar is on another planet and it’s still baffling that Colorado was able to lock him up long term for under $10 million. Even that would’ve still had him at the top of this list. Makar is that good.

2. Charlie McAvoy

Contract: $9.5M x eight years

Surplus Value: $43.5M

Positive Value Probability: 75.0 percent

Do not sleep on Charlie McAvoy, who may be the ying to Makar’s yang. He is the league’s premier shutdown defender, one of the best defensive defensemen on the planet who last year showed off his offensive flair. He is the complete package. Remember Erik Karlsson versus Drew Doughty from the last generation? This is that, only supercharged. In terms of value, Makar and McAvoy are reaching heights those two previously never reached. As previously noted, Makar was the first defender in the model’s history to earn a projected value north of four wins. McAvoy is the second.

It’s only natural then that the next two stars of this generation on defence land first and second on this list, both after securing long-term extensions last summer. There was a bit of sticker shock when McAvoy initially signed his deal, but given what he had shown to date, there was a lot of upside to a price under $10 million. At $9.5 million the expectation was 2.1 wins per season, a mark McAvoy had easily eclipsed in his previous two seasons. In 2021-22, he took that a step further thanks to incredible two-way impacts at five-on-five. Last season McAvoy had a 63 percent expected goals rate, the third-highest mark ever in the analytics era. Add a 59-point pace to that and you get a defender with very few flaws to his game. That’s well worth the price of admission.

3. Connor McDavid

Contract: $12.5M x four years

Surplus Value: $29.5M

Positive Value Probability: 92.6 percent

The best player in the world led this list last season, but one fewer season left on his contract means one fewer season to put up massive surplus value. That makes it difficult to leap over the two defenders in front of him, but it was still really close due to the certainty that McDavid would deliver positive value on the remainder of his deal.

It’s sometimes hard to wrap heads around the league’s highest-paid player being underpaid, but in terms of relative value, McDavid brings so much more bang for buck than the majority of the league. He’s a six-win player and that valuation puts him well above what it takes to be worth a max contract. You could pay McDavid $20 million per season and still field a competitive roster. That’s his power, and that makes $12.5 million an absolute steal. In four years’ time, it’ll be extremely interesting to see how much McDavid goes for as an unrestricted free agent. It’s going to set the bar. 

And even then, he’ll probably be worth it. Maybe not to this current degree where he’s on one of the league’s best contracts, but no matter what he signs for, he’ll be underpaid. That’s always the case with the league’s very best. McDavid is no different.

4. Brad Marchand

Contract: $6.1M x three years

Surplus Value: $24.6M

Positive Value Probability: 86.5 percent

Over the years there has been a lot of turnover on this list as players age out or their contracts dwindle into their final years. But there has been one constant every season and that’s Brad Marchand who will go down in hockey history as the owner of one of the best contracts ever. The Bruins sure made out like bandits over the life of his deal, and still should going forward.

Marchand is 34 now and aging like a fine wine. When he first signed there was obviously plenty of risks involved with a contract that mostly covered his 30s. And yet, Marchand actually elevated his game shortly after signing, turning his deal into an absolute bargain from the get-go. Since raising the bar for his game, he’s only gotten better each year, turning into a consistent 100-point threat. There aren’t many players in their mid-30s who can say that.

Because of his advanced age, Marchand has a steep downward trajectory planned for his future. But because the bar for his game is so high, and his contract is so low, there’s still a very high level of certainty that he’ll bring a plethora of positive value over the final three years of his deal. He’s a 4.5-win player, a rarity in this league, and is being paid like a high-end second-liner. That’s an absolutely ridiculous bargain. 

Marchand is a player who has done it all and can continue to do it all. Offence or defence, you name it. At $6.1 million, it doesn’t get much better. The only reason he isn’t higher is because of term, meaning the day is coming when he’s no longer a fixture on this list. That day isn’t today.

5. Johnny Gaudreau

Contract: $9.8M x seven years

Surplus Value: $28.2M

Positive Value Probability: 76.0 percent

Ah, the newest contract on the block. It still boggles my mind that after an MVP-calibre season, Johnny Gaudreau got paid nearly $2 million less than Artemi Panarin got a few years prior. Yes, pandemic and flat cap effects exist, but they shouldn’t exist for one of the league’s most dynamic wingers. Gaudreau was better this year than Panarin was going into a contract year. That alone makes this a bargain — one of the best contracts in hockey.

Of course, that was the case with Dougie Hamilton last year too and he had a trying first season with the Devils. The thing is, you never really know with players switching teams and while Gaudreau looks like a real driver in every sense of the word, so too did Hamilton. It’s a case where the model may be overrating Gaudreau’s value — especially after a large one-year spike the year prior to signing. That’s a bit of a red flag! It doesn’t help that both players were so unique that they didn’t have many comps to compare age curves with either.

Still, going beyond the model actually paints Gaudreau in a brighter light. His ability with the puck, especially transporting it up the ice and feeding it into high-danger areas, is almost second to none. He’s a magician with the puck on his stick and is the kind of guy who makes linemates look substantially better.

Right now, he’s being paid like last year didn’t happen. Like he’s still the same player he was prior. But last year did happen, and as the most recent season, it should be weighed most heavily. Gaudreau is back to looking like a franchise player, and getting that for under $10 million on a long-term commitment is a strong investment. 

Columbus got a good one, though it does remain to be seen whether he maintains that level of goodness in Columbus.

6. Roman Josi

Contract: $9.1M x six years

Surplus Value: $26.1M

Positive Value Probability: 76.9 percent

Last season Roman Josi scored 96 points as a defenceman. Enough said. He deservedly finished second in the Norris Trophy race as a result and even garnered more first-place votes than Cale Makar in a razor-tight finish. He is one of the league’s very best defensemen and deserves to break the bank for that.

Like seemingly every No. 1 defenseman on the planet, Josi makes somewhere close to $9 million per season, but as we know, there’s a very big difference in the range of talent at that pay range. The expectation at that number is around two wins and Josi has been well above that in two of the last three seasons. His projected value has yo-yoed a bit due to a down year in 2021, but at the end of the day we’re still talking about a top-five defenseman, and that’s someone who should be paid handsomely. 

Where there’s a bit of trouble here is, as is the same with Gaudreau, a lack of comparables. That means using a standard age curve without any basis of historic context to compare to. That makes it hard to know exactly how Josi ages, especially with this deal going into his late 30s. So far, Josi is aging extremely well however and it’s more than fair to expect the good times to keep rolling for the stud blueliner. Another near 100-point season is probably unlikely, but point per game isn’t out of the question. Couple his strong play-driving ability with that and Nashville has an extreme bargain on its hands for the foreseeable future.

7. Adam Fox

Contract: $9.5M x seven years

Surplus Value: $21.6M

Positive Value Probability: 62.6 percent

Look at that — another big-name defenseman making $9 million or more for an extended period of time. Adam Fox joins Makar, McAvoy and Josi on this list for all the same reasons they do: He’s an elite point-producing defenseman that is one of the very best in hockey. The price tag for that should be in the eight-figure range, especially for all of Fox’s prime years.

Fox is right there as one of the very best defensemen in the world, but he’s just a shade below Makar and McAvoy which brings him a little further down on the list. He’s not as offensively dynamic as Makar, nor is he as complete a player as McAvoy. Nothing wrong with not quite stacking up to those two — it’s an exceedingly high bar to clear, and it’s one Fox is very close to. He wouldn’t be on this list if he wasn’t close and 3.6 wins of projected value are damn impressive.

The reason Fox isn’t higher is that his ability to drive play at five-on-five slipped a bit over the past year, but that might have more to do with team effects than him. Regardless, this is a former Norris Trophy winner and one of the game’s best young defensemen. Getting that kind of value under $10 million is terrific for the Rangers.

8. Auston Matthews

Contract: $11.6M x two years

Surplus Value: $20.0M

Positive Value Probability: 98.8 percent

As mentioned above a few times, term length matters a lot. It means a player can stack surplus salary year-over-year. But shorter term also means more certainty that a player will deliver the goods — and it helps if a player is well above their salary to begin with. Auston Matthews, despite his high salary, fits the billing and just barely cracks the list despite only two years left on his deal. Thank an MVP-calibre season where he put up one of the best regular seasons in the analytics era, playing at a ludicrous seven-win pace.

Matthews just gets better and better every year and is now the highest valued player going into next season according to GSVA. I would still take McDavid over him (thanks to a ridiculous playoff run), but last year’s regular season made it an actual debate, something that seemed impossible after McDavid’s 2021 season.

When Matthews signed his deal, many viewed it as an overpayment. Fair enough, but it didn’t take long for that to be demonstrably false as he continued to provide more and more value, blossoming into a freakish unicorn who scores goals better than anyone else, and drives play at both ends to an elite degree. There’s no one like him.

That’s where his strong valuation comes from, joining Makar and McDavid as players worthy of a max deal. His $11.6 million cap hit is nowhere near that, and that means a lot of surplus value from the superstar center. It’ll be extremely interesting what his next extension is worth, especially if he tests the open market. For now, he’s extremely underpaid for what he brings to the table.

9. Miro Heiskanen

Contract: $8.5M x seven years

Surplus Value: $20.4M

Positive Value Probability: 62.5 percent

Last, but certainly not least on the “young superstar defender making around $9 million on a long-term deal” list is Miro Heiskanen. He’s not the offensive beast that Makar or Fox are and thus not as well-rounded as McAvoy either. But his defensive ability is through the roof and that more than makes up for his lighter offensive ability. There are very few defensemen in this league who can shut down the opposition’s best better than Heiskanen can. His smooth-skating and puck-moving ability make him an incredible asset in that regard.

A lot of Heiskanen’s value comes from the defensive side of the puck, which explains why his cap hit is the lowest of The Big Four. But with the likely departure of John Klingberg, the door is wide open for Heiskanen to add to his arsenal as he becomes The Guy offensively, too. He has all the tools to be a do-it-all defender and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him climb up this list next year. He has a legitimate four-win upside once he starts producing like all the other big names. It feels like only a matter of time.

10. Kirill Kaprizov

Contract: $9.0M x four years

Surplus Value: $16.5M

Positive Value Probability: 70.6 percent

A lot of people thought it was absolutely wild (pun intended) that Minnesota gave Kirill Kaprizov $9 million per year over five seasons after playing just 51 NHL games. There’s not a lot of certainty with such a small sample size. But anyone who watched a lot of Wild hockey in 2021 would tell you Kaprizov deserved that and more — he was a future superstar in this league.

In his second season, he proved just that by scoring 47 goals and 108 points, all while turning into a dominant presence at five-on-five. The Wild heavily outplayed teams with Kaprizov on the ice as he proved he was the superstar fans expected he would be.

After all that, $9 million feels like nothing. Kaprizov is now a player who can be counted on to reliably score 40-plus goals and 90-plus points in this league. That’s a rare find and contributes to him being worth over four wins per season, something only 11 other skaters can also say. Over the next four years, he’s expected to be worth closer to $13 million in terms of on-ice value. Getting him under $10 million has turned into a bargain.

Honourable Mentions: Mikko Rantanen, Devon Toews, Aaron Ekblad, Rasmus Andersson, Jaccob Slavin

(Photo of Cale Makar: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)