Nathan MacKinnon finally got his money. The Colorado Avalanche locked him into a 7-year, $44.1 million ($6.3 million AAV) in 2016 coming out of his entry-level deal. He almost instantly became the best bargain in the NHL, averaging 1.18 points per game over the agreement's lifetime.
Now MacKinnon is close to properly paid. The salary cap stops the top players from making an amount that truly reflects their value, but MacKinnon's $12.6 million AAV edges out Connor McDavid for the league's largest cap hit.
Those seven bargain years were something Kirill Kaprizov was trying to avoid in that protracted contract battle last summer. It's just one year into the contract, but he's arguably already failed. $9 million a year for a player with 55 career games caused jaws to drop all around the league. It's looking like a sweet deal now.
The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn estimates the market value of Kaprizov's last season at $14.3 million. He ranked fifth in scoring with 47 goals and 108 points, and his 7.3 Standings Points Above Replacement were 13th in the NHL. Despite this, he was tied for the 23rd-highest paid player in the league and eighth at his position.
Not only that, he'll drop further down the list as the market continues to go up. In one year, Kaprizov is already 32nd overall and 11th at his position. There are three more offseasons of signings before Kaprizov gets another crack at free agency.
It's a long way away, but should Bill Guerin already be budgeting to give him MacKinnon-type money in summer 2026? Let's look at his case to hit that $12 million-per-year home run deal.
It has to start with his play and how it compares to the rest of the market. Does Kaprizov deserve to be paid as (what would currently be) the highest-paid winger in the league?
We should probably look at who those players are. The top-5 AAVs for wingers are Artemi Panarin ($11.6M), Mitch Marner ($10.9M), Patrick Kane ($10.5M), Johnny Gaudreau ($9.8M), and Nikita Kucherov ($9.5M). Right now, that sets the price at around $10.5 million for an AAV for a Top-5 winger. That makes sense, as that's the deal Jonathan Huberdeau signed with the Calgary Flames, which kicks in next year.
Those contracts line up exceptionally nicely with the rate at which these players put up points. Kucherov ranks first in points per hour of every winger with 500-plus minutes in all situations since 2020-21. Huberdeau is second, Panarin is third, Gaudreau is fourth, and Marner is eighth. Kane is 20th but also is in the last year of an eight-year contract.
Kaprizov is in the mix, ranking sixth behind the top four and Brad Marchand. To continue the comparison with MacKinnon, the Colorado winger also has a slight lead on Kaprizov in points per hour, with 3.93 vs. Kaprizov's 3.74.
Throw in the fact that Kaprizov is eighth among wingers in SPAR over his first two seasons, and you can claim he's in that top group.
So it seems $10.5 million is the starting point for Kaprizov's next contract. Or, it would be, except things can change in a hurry over the next three seasons.
Remember, GMs are cutting these deals in Gaudreau, Huberdeau, and MacKinnon in an era where the cap is flat. Lost revenue from COVID is artificially driving down prices. But the cap will grow as the league gets further away from the shutdown. It's already projected to grow by $1 million per year for the next short while. By 2025, it might be back to normal growth.
If so, teams might be working with a salary cap of about $90 million, not $82.5. Huberdeau's deal took up 12.7% of today's cap. That same percentage is $11.4 million with a $90 million cap. That alone puts him within shouting distance of MacKinnon.
We also don't know how much more the market will rise. Gaudreau might have been able to get more money, except he took an apparent discount to remain close to home. Evolving Hockey projected his AAV at $10.9 million, which would have reset the market for elite wingers at around $11 million.
Matthew Tkachuk also left money on the table when he signed an 8-year deal at $9.5 million per year. Evolving Hockey estimates he left about $1.8 million on the table, with his total value coming in around $11.3 million.
Who might reset that market? Keep an eye on David Pastrnak, who's set to hit the open market at age 27. One of the best goal-scorers in the league, Pastrnak, is finishing off a sweetheart 6-year, $6.7 million AAV deal with the Boston Bruins. Is he, like MacKinnon, tired of being underpaid?
And if it's not Pastrnak, others will gladly take someone's money somewhere. Among players in line for big paydays between now and Kapriov's free agency are Auston Matthews, Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Leon Draisaitl, and Elias Pettersson. Those guys are getting paid.
Unless the Wild become Tampa Bay North in the next four years, they probably won't be able to count on any discount. Not after the one, they're already getting, certainly. The pattern over their franchise's history is simple. They attract stars with roots in Minnesota and only those stars.
Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Thomas Vanek, Eric Staal, and long-term players like Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon? Sure. But Marian Gaborik spurned the team, and their biggest free agency signing with no Minnesota roots is... Mats Zuccarello? Back-of-the-napkin math suggests something's going to need to happen to pull Kaprizov back.
That's going to be winning, or it's going to be money. That second one, the Wild can plan for and count on. $13 million or so of dead cap will come off the books in summer 2025 when the worst of Parise and Suter's buyouts come off. Might as well pencil in that for Kaprizov's next deal. Even at $12.75 million, Kaprizov would just slide into the buyout slot of the cap, leaving (effectively) a $9 million void for others to get paid.
Conventional wisdom might say that's a mistake, given that up-the-middle players (that is, every position except wing) drive winning. But is that really the case? Cale Makar and MacKinnon were foundational pieces for Colorado's Cup win. But Rantanen, who led their forwards in scoring, was right there with them.
You could also argue that Kucherov is the best player on the Tampa Bay teams that won two Cups before them. Alex Ovechkin undoubtedly drives the Washington Capitals' engine. That's four of the last five Cup winners rocking a Top-5-or-so winger making big money.
So enjoy the discount on Kaprizov's production now. Because if MacKinnon is any indication, those types of discounts don't last forever.