NHL free agency: Ranking the 10 best contracts signed so far

NHL free agency is a place where teams usually rack up more losses than they do wins.

Players in their late 20s and early 30s often receive lucrative long-term contracts that pay them for the player they were yesterday, rather than the player they’ll be tomorrow when they’ve aged out of their prime.

This year’s free agent market was different because many clubs finally had spending power for the first time in a while due to the end of the flat cap era. Finding bargains wasn’t as easy compared to last offseason, but there was still value to be found in certain areas. Here are 10 of the best bang-for-buck contracts that teams have inked in free agency so far. We won’t be counting players who re-signed with their team (eg: Sam Reinhart, Matt Duchene, Jonathan Drouin) unless they actually hit the July 1 market without reports of an agreement in place.

Contract: $800,000 x one year

The Panthers have struck gold with a rare zero-risk, high-reward type signing. Nate Schmidt is the perfect replacement for Oliver Ekman-Larsson at less than a quarter of the price (OEL signed a $3.5 million AAV x four-year deal).

Schmidt is a mobile skater, defends responsibly and is a quality puck mover. He’s a left-shot defender but also has extensive experience playing the right side at the NHL level, making him a versatile piece. The Jets bought Schmidt out because they’re in a cap crunch and his $5.95 million cap hit was too steep, but his play was still admirable in a third-pair role. Winnipeg controlled 55.6 percent of expected goals and outscored opponents 31-23 during his five-on-five minutes.

Florida is also the perfect environment for defensemen to discover a higher level of performance. Just look at the glow ups that OEL, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling and Niko Mikkola experienced compared to their previous teams. Schmidt’s above-average skating and puck skills should mesh perfectly with Paul Maurice’s system which encourages up-ice pressure and aggressive pinches from defenders. Off the ice, he’s a high-energy, loveable personality who should fit seamlessly in the locker room.

Schmidt should flourish as the main driver of Florida’s third pair or offer second pair RD minutes if necessary. He could realistically provide $3-4 million in value next season despite making only a hair above the league minimum. Schmidt won’t be the most impactful signing on this list, but his contract has the best potential to be a steal.

Contract: $3 million x one year

If you thought Edmonton’s offensive attack was terrifying last season, wait until you see what the Oilers roll out in October.

Jeff Skinner has defensive warts and is coming off a down season (24 goals in 74 games), but he’s also only a year removed from potting 35 goals and 82 points. He probably won’t reach that type of elite production in Edmonton because he’s unlikely to get first unit power-play opportunity, but Skinner adds another lethal top-six scoring weapon. The 32-year-old left winger boasts an elite shot, is quick enough on his feet to mesh with Connor McDavid and reads offensive-zone plays well. He won’t have to do any heavy lifting driving play, all he needs to do is get open and rip chances home, which he’s perfectly suited for.

With Skinner in the fold, Kris Knoblauch can push Ryan Nugent-Hopkins down the lineup where he can deepen the Oilers’ middle-six. Committing only a modest $3 million cap hit and just one year of term to a player that can juice the Oilers’ top-of-the-lineup scoring is a huge win.

Contract: $4 million x two years

When Leon Draisaitl was asked to drive the second line instead of riding shotgun with McDavid, he was usually saddled with subpar linemates. Warren Foegele, Evander Kane, Ryan McLeod and Connor Brown all spent at least 150 five-on-five minutes on Draisaitl’s wing last season according to Natural Stat Trick. The second-line right wing spot, specifically, needed an upgrade because Kailer Yamamoto was bought out a year ago and Connor Brown didn’t live up to top-six expectations last season.

Enter Viktor Arvidsson. The 31-year-old shot-first winger didn’t command a substantial contract because he missed all but 18 games because of injury last season, but he has the talent to be a home run fit with Draisaitl. Arvidsson scored 26 goals and 59 points in 77 games during the 2022-23 campaign with the Kings and produced 15 points in the 18 games he played down the stretch when he finally became healthy this past spring. The undersized Swedish winger is a prolific shot generator, skates fast and is a tenacious battler. It’s easy to envision him finding immediate success and chemistry with Draisaitl’s cerebral, creative playmaking chops.

Durability is a concern but the contract itself is great value for a legitimate top-six upgrade.

Contract: $3.75 million x three years

Alexandre Carrier is an underrated top-four right-handed defenseman clocking in at a bargain $3.75 million cap hit. It looked like his future in Nashville was in jeopardy and he briefly hit the open market, but Barry Trotz was wise to extend him.

The 27-year-old is a tad undersized at 5-foot-11 but has regularly been trusted by the Predators to match up against top players. He’s usually won those minutes both in terms of play control metrics and actual goal differential. Carrier is a tenacious competitor who plays bigger than his size. Nashville has also leaned on him in a large penalty-killing role. He’s sound positionally, a mobile skater and a capable puck mover. He’s a great modern-day shutdown defender but doesn’t always get his flowers because of his size.

Carrier’s deal looks even better when you contrast it to what Matt Dumba ($3.75 million x two years) and Ilya Lyubushkin ($3.25 million x three years) cost, for example. He’s miles better than them at a very similar cap hit. If Carrier was only a couple of inches taller, he’d be earning a lot more money — instead, he’s on a contract that’s likely to age quite well in Nashville.

Contract: $3 million x two years

If landing Skinner and Arvidsson at team-friendly rates wasn’t enough, the Oilers also managed to re-sign Adam Henrique at a bargain $3 million cap hit late on July 1.

Henrique is a versatile top-nine forward who can play both wing and center, coming off a 24-goal, 51-point campaign. He’s a qualified candidate to solve the club’s longstanding third-line center woes — he formed excellent chemistry centering a line with Connor Brown and Mattias Janmark in the Stanley Cup Final and has terrific faceoff numbers. He can always shift back to the wing and play higher up the lineup too, where his offensive IQ and clinical finishing allow him to flourish as a complementary scorer.

The 34-year-old contributes to both special teams and owns above-average defensive numbers too. He could have fetched more money elsewhere and there’s a high probability that he’ll provide surplus value on his $3 million AAV.

Contract: $9 million x seven years

It was pretty challenging to decide where exactly to slot the Jake Guentzel signing because it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison with all the other contracts on this list in terms of the price paid and the player’s ridiculously high ceiling. There’s risk involved — a $9 million cap hit is steep (although I’m less concerned about it with the rising cap) and his deal is signing-bonus laden which means it’s virtually buyout proof — but this profiles like a potential home run fit for the Lightning.

Guentzel proved he can be an elite player away from Sidney Crosby, scoring 34 points in 28 games (a 99-point pace) with the Hurricanes between the regular season and playoffs. Coming to Tampa Bay, he’ll have more help around him because he’s expected to play on a line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, meaning he’ll now have two superstar linemates instead of one. He’ll also go from the Penguins’ abysmal power-play situation to the Lightning’s elite man-advantage unit.

If he stays healthy, 40 goals and 90 points feel well within reach.

Naturally, many will wonder how much the Bolts are really improving because they’re simultaneously losing franchise icon Steven Stamkos’ 40 goals and 79 points. I don’t like how the Lightning treated Stamkos, but if we’re purely looking at on-ice impact, the gap between Guentzel and Stamkos is way wider than their similar goal and point totals would lead you to believe. Here’s why:

  • Stamkos’ play-driving ability and defensive numbers are in significant decline. The Lightning had a minus-13 goal differential during Stamkos’ five-on-five shifts last season because they leaked goals against at an alarming rate.
  • Stamkos doesn’t produce five-on-five points at an elite level anymore. He scored 1.82 points per game last season, which ranked 125th among NHL forwards, in the same range as players like Reilly Smith, Sean Monahan and Anthony Duclair.
  • Guentzel, on the other hand, ranked top 20 in five-on-five points rate last season, in the same range as players like Point, Aleksander Barkov and Filip Forsberg.

It won’t be easy to replace Stamkos’ best-in-class power-play impact, but Guentzel has the potential to reinvigorate the Lightning’s even-strength offensive attack, after a year where they ranked 16th in five-on-five goals scored and below league average in generating shots and scoring chances.

It also speaks volumes that the Hurricanes — who are one of the most cautious, risk-averse teams when it comes to signing UFA-aged players to expensive long-term contracts — reportedly offered Guentzel $64 million in total contract value.

Ultimately, the mammoth upside of Guentzel’s fit with Kucherov and Point outweighs the risks and concerns.



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7. Anthony Duclair, New York Islanders

Contract: $3.5 million x four years

Anthony Duclair can bring second-line caliber talent and production for a price that’s closer to third-line territory. The speedy 28-year-old left winger scored 24 goals last season despite spending a large chunk of the year on an awful Sharks team.

New York desperately needed a top-six left winger and Duclair could easily slot on the top line alongside Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal. Duclair knows how to leverage his wheels and finishing to mesh with top players — he scored 15 points in 17 games after being traded to Tampa Bay where he largely played on the Kucherov line and his career-best 31-goal campaign in Florida came when he rode shotgun with Barkov.

Duclair is streaky and isn’t always a model player defensively, but he has 25-goal upside and should be a top-six fixture for a very reasonable $3.5 million cap hit.

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Shayne Gostisbehere played 23 games for the Hurricanes down the stretch in 2022-23. (Jaylynn Nash / Getty Images)

Contract: $3.2 million x three years

Brady Skjei is obviously a far better all-around defenseman than Shayne Gostisbehere. But with Dmitri Orlov ready to step into a top-four role to replace some of Skjei’s even-strength workload, all that the Hurricanes had left to do was replenish the latter’s offensive punch (13 goals and 47 points) at an economical price. That’s where Gostisbehere steps in.

Gostisbehere scored 56 points for the Red Wings last season and has hit the double-digit mark for goals in three consecutive years. He ranks 18th among all NHL defensemen in points since the 2021-22 season and 11th in goals.

Top Point Producing D Since 2021-22

Gostisbehere needs to be sheltered defensively at even strength, but Carolina is the perfect destination for that. He played 23 games for the Canes down the stretch in 2022-23 and his numbers spiked in the insulated environment as he drove a 63.5 percent share of five-on-five scoring chances. Signing Gostisbehere and Sean Walker (he could have just as easily cracked this top-10 list) for a combined $6.8 million is a savvy way of replacing Skjei and Brett Pesce at $12.5 million. For reference, the $5.7 million Carolina saves there can cover Jaccob Slavin’s entire salary for next season.

Contract: $5.4 million x three years

It was clearly time for the Blackhawks to add a proven top-six winger or two, not only to better insulate Connor Bedard but to win a few more games and avoid a hopeless losing culture.

That can be a tricky phase for an organization to navigate because rebuilding teams often have to pay an extra premium when they recruit coveted free agents. Credit to the Blackhawks for landing Teuvo Teravainen on a very reasonable contract.

Chicago paid Teravainen roughly market value on his $5.4 million cap hit, but the real win was limiting the term to just three years. The 29-year-old left winger has been a consistent 50-60 point producer on top of being very responsible defensively. Teravainen is a dual threat offensively with above-average playmaking chops and a good shot. He isn’t a prolific even-strength producer (his five-on-five points rate is closer to third-line territory) but he’s a major threat on the power play. That should provide a significant lift because last year, opposing penalty killers could recklessly cheat over to Bedard’s side without fear of getting burned, simply because the Blackhawks’ top power-play unit lacked other scoring weapons.

Contract: $1.25 million x one year

I’m not the biggest Anthony Beauvillier fan, but at a dirt cheap $1.25 million cap hit, it’s easy to see the upside case. Beauvillier struggled last season as he split time between Vancouver, Chicago and Nashville but the five years before that, he’s produced at a 19 goals and 39 points per 82 games pace. That includes scoring 18 goals and 40 points just a year ago in 2022-23.

Beauvillier’s long-term track record is that of a quality third-line winger and given that he only turned 27 a month ago, there’s a high probability last season was just a down year in a trade-filled season rather than a sign of precipitous decline. He’s an excellent skater, defensively responsible and has the scoring touch to produce at a middle-six rate. Beauvillier is streaky — he’ll go on heaters where he flashes top-six potential but also long stretches where he goes cold production wise and doesn’t accomplish much else.

The Penguins are starved of quality top-nine wingers which makes this a savvy bet. He should improve the Penguins’ speed, secondary scoring and could get looks further up the lineup depending on how he fits in — that’s good value for $1.25 million, especially when inferior, fourth-line quality players like Sam Lafferty and Ryan Lomberg both commanded $2 million x two years contracts on July 1.

Honorable mentions: Sean Walker, Carolina ($3.6 million x five years), Danton Heinen, Vancouver ($2.25 million x two years), Anthony Mantha, Calgary ($3.5 million x one year), Kiefer Sherwood, Vancouver ($1.5 million x two years), Jack Roslovic, Carolina ($2.8 million x one year), Erik Brannstrom, Colorado ($900,000 x one year)

(Top photos of Adam Henrique and Alexandre Carrier: Andy Devlin and John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images) 

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