By Allan Muir
It’s been a busy summer at the NHL’s home office.
The league has registered nearly 200 new player contracts since the Blackhawks skated off with the Stanley Cup at the end of June. Most of those were low-level signings, players happy to find a chair before the music stopped. But there were scores of deals signed by legitimate NHLers as well, players who cashed in on their free agency or settled in for some long-term security with their current club.
Most of those deals left fans shaking their heads at the money that will be changing hands even though we all understand, on some level, anyway, that the numbers are bound to be crazy.
But there were others that seemed shockingly, well, sensible. Put in context, they’re set up to provide great value for the team . . . and in most cases, the player probably isn’t complaining, either.
Here are the deals signed this summer that should provide the best bang for the buck:
Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders: seven years, $27 million
Hamonic’s no household name, and maybe he never will be, but in just three seasons he’s established himself as a key element of New York’s promising young core. That $3.85 million cap hit is a little generous in the early going — a trait shared by most of these deals — but it aims for bargain territory in a hurry, especially as it buys up three years of free agency at the end. Hamonic is already a top-two defender for the Isles, averaging nearly 25 minutes last season with a game that’s smart, tough and reliable, but his best years are yet to come. This easily ranks as the smartest deal of the summer.
Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals: four years, $11.2 million
Alzner, who turns 25 in September, has emerged as a reliable top-two defender for the Caps over the past three seasons. For that $2.8 million cap hit, they secured a player who averaged nearly 21 minutes of defensively sound play last season, and looks ready to take on more moving forward. His numbers aren’t flashy — unless you consider blocked shots to be a glamor stat — but he’s that guy you can send over the boards to shut down an opposing star, kill a penalty or preserve a lead. Add in his ability to free up Mike Green to do what he does so well and Alzner’s deal is a remarkable value.
Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers: six years, $28.2 million
It might not be the bargain that Alzner’s and Hamonic’s are, but a deal that locks up a 24-year-old with proven two-way talent and the ability to chew up some serious minutes (24:21 per game last season) for a $4.7 million cap hit is pretty easy to celebrate. GM Glen Sather recognized McDonagh, stolen from the Habs in a 2009 trade, as a core player and locked him down with a deal that buys three years of free agency on the back end. It might be a bit generous for the first year, maybe even two, but those final four set this contract up to be a clear win for the Rangers.
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers: two years, $3.5 million
Okay, so his boxcar numbers were pretty meek last season, but those aren’t the only, or best, way to measure what Couturier brings to the Flyers. Coach Peter Laviolette knows he can count on the big pivot to play the tough minutes against the opposition’s top players, especially when the draw is in the neutral zone or Philly’s end. He may never put up big offensive numbers, but this bridge deal buys him time to develop that part of his skill set while he plays a prevent game that’s already mature beyond his years.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins, eight years, $76 million
So many of the long-term, high-dollar contracts signed over the summer were high wire acts of faith that risk fat stacks now in exchange for value down the road. No such concerns with Malkin, who would be tough for anyone to leave off a list of the game’s top-five forwards. He already has captured the Calder, Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies and, at 27, has just entered his prime years. He’s struggled with injuries during the past four seasons, missing 78 of 294 games, but he’s not burdened by any chronic troubles. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t provide full value, or something close to it, for that $9.5 million cap hit over the duration of this deal.
David Rundblad, Phoenix Coyotes, two years, $1.57 million
I’m still not sure exactly what the Coyotes have in Rundblad, the twice-traded defender who was taken 17th overall by the St. Louis Blues back in 2009, but there’s no denying the kid has the tools. He has terrific instincts in the offensive zone and moves the puck precisely and without hesitation. Used properly — protected at even strength, first unit with the extra man — he could provide some juice for an offense that ranked in the bottom third in total goals and the power play at a cap hit of just $785,000.
Nathan Gerbe, Carolina Hurricanes: one-year, $550,000
Gerbe always found a way to defy the odds, at least until last season when he was lousy, scoring just 10 points and providing nowhere near enough of the agitating play that made him so valuable in the past. No one was surprised when the Sabres decided to cut ties, but there were some eyebrows raised at this deal. It’s not just the league minimum, it’s a two-way agreement — pretty unusual for a player with his experience to sign. But this isn’t just a low risk flyer by the Canes. There’s potential for real reward here. Gerbe was hampered in 2013 after rushing back too soon from spinal surgery last July. The recovery time kept him from putting in his offseason work, and it showed. Now healthy, and carrying a sizable chip on his shoulder, Gerbe could fill a valuable role for a Carolina team that needs its depth lines to be harder to play against. And if he can chip in 10 goals and 30 points, GM Jim Rutherford’s gamble will look awfully smart.
Jay Bouwmeester, St. Louis Blues: five years, $27 million
Bouwmeester’s bank account benefited from a poor financial decision by former Calgary GM Darryl Sutter back in 2009, but his reputation as an elite defender took a serious hit during his five years with the Flames. Fair? Not really. Yeah, he was overpaid, but he was a solid performer who ate big minutes, moved the puck effectively and played in all situations. The Blues recognized that, and the undeniable chemistry he had with No. 1 blueliner Alex Pietrangelo, and made the decision to commit long-term to the 29-year-old. That’s a smart move. Kings captain Dustin Brown noted during their playoff series how J-Bo’s presence gave St. Louis a different look and made them a more effective team in transition. Bouwmeester adds to their enviable depth, and provides a calm, steadying presence, all for just $5.4 million per season — a fair price for a proven top-two defender.