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Matching NHL cap hits to ice time

What range of pay is typical for a top line forward, what about a third-liner?

NHL: MAY 14 Playoffs Round 1 Game 7 - Lightning at Maple Leafs Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Inflation isn’t just for the grocery store. It affects wages too. Not your wages, of course, unless you’re in upper management. Minimum wage isn’t indexed to inflation, and employers love to freeze wages in periods of inflation. But for some types of earners, inflation in wages is just a regular thing. It is in the NHL, where the average NHL salary went up every year but the Covid-shortened season in 2021.

Because salaries, and therefore cap hits, rise over time, it’s hard to keep in mind what a typical player at a given position gets paid. I wanted to know this, so I used Cap Friendly’s active player list to come up with all the Standard and 35+ contracts in effect for 2021-2022 for players who had at least 20 games played. I left out everyone on an ELC since including those just gives us all a false idea of how many cheap players there are at every position.

Forwards

This is the full set of forwards:

2021-2022 Forwards - 20 GP, standard & 35+ only
CapFriendly data

note: ice time is all-situations

The colours split the group into quartiles to give a very rough idea of line assignment. You can see some obvious and expected things here:

  • You need to play at least 12 minutes a game before you can get $5 million, but that kind of money doesn’t become the rule rather than the exception until a player plays over 16 minutes.
  • There are cheap players all the way up to that same 16 minute mark.
  • No one playing below 12 minutes (except Zach Kassian) made over $2.5 million.
  • There’s some very highly paid players who were getting third to second line minutes.

What’s less obvious is motivation behind ice time. Are more expensive players playing more just because of that contract? Or is the system of trades and buyouts reducing the mistakes, so that there’s not that many highly-paid players being overplayed?

To look closer at the middle of NHL lineups, I zoomed in on just the players making $7 million or less:

Same forward group with cap hits of $7 million or less.
CapFriendly data

note: the quartiles here are from the full set, so they are as roughly valid as those are.

The two shades of red/orange in the middle — the middle-six players — form a fairly continuous band from cheap veteran deal all the way up to $6.5 million. Two million to four million seems to be the range where the middle ranks live for the most part, with players above $4 million mostly made up of second liners.

There’s an interesting dividing line at $4 million where most players are clearly on one side or the other of the line. This seems to be a psychological dividing point in contract negotiation. The three people right on it were Viktor Rask, David Perron and Alex Iafallo.

The Leafs fairly substantial list of players over 12 minutes and under $3 million in cap hit last year is not unheard of, but it’s not typical.

The slightly surprising result is three people at or over $6 million at less than 13 minutes a game. They were Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Milan Lucic and Loui Eriksson, so there’s the really big mistakes that have gone unfixed.

One more name for you: the guy at the bottom at league minimum with the most ice time is... Travis Boyd. I liked him a lot as a depth guy, but Sheldon Keefe disagreed. I’d call his Arizona usage this season exploitation.

What I wanted to know was how much do you pay for what we’d call a top-six player, not a middle-six. And It think that $4 million barrier is the floor for a real top-six player. So when someone gets a contract in the $4.5 range on Wednesday and you don’t think they’re special, don’t be surprised. Special gets you over $7 million. $4.5 is ordinary guy money.

Defenders

And now the defenders, which I’ve barely looked at:

Defenders with at least 20 games played
CapFriendly data

One stat from this cohort: 66 defenders made less than Timothy Liljegren’s new deal last year. So at most, the cheap D is one or two per team, and most of them are confirmed third-pairing players who did not play a full season’s worth of games.

Goalies

And because you’ll ask, I made these two of just the goalies to play over 20 games in 2021-2022, to show what has been proven over and over:

CapFriendly data
CapFriendly data

Goaltending prices don’t correlate with save %, but they do, very loosely, with games played.