Tuesday, January 25, 2022

What’s the best six-man lineup you can make out of guys with the exact same cap hit?

This space has turned into salary cap central over the last little while, as we worked through my previous cap-related predictions and then put some potentially bad contracts on trial. That wasn’t intentional, since that would imply that I do any kind of long-term planning. But sometimes these sort of themes just pop up, and you just have to go with them.

So today, we’re finally going to tackle a question that lots of you have sent in over the years: What’s the best six-man lineup you can make out players who all had the same cap hit?

This is exactly the sort of question we love around here, because it’s dead simple and also harder than you think. For example, right off the bat we know we can’t use a lot of really good players. Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million hit can’t help up, because nobody else is that high. A $10.5 million hit gives us a solid start with Carey Price, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but then we run out of options. And some guys have completely unique AAVs, meaning we have no use for Auston Matthews at $11,640,250, Artemi Panarin at $11,642,857, or Alexander Ovechkin’s old $9,538,462.

Still, we should be able to find some solid combinations. But first, a few ground rules:

  • First and foremost, the same cap hit means what is says: The exact same AAV, down to the dollar and cents. Close enough is not close enough.
  • We’re looking for a goalie, two defensemen and three forwards, but we’re not otherwise getting hung up on position here.
  • We’re not using ELCs or league minimum deals here, because that would (literally) be cheap. We’re also not looking at retained salary, buyouts, or any bonuses that rolled over into the following season.
  • This part is important, so watch me break out the italics: We can use any contract a player has had during the cap era, but our team only gets credit for the best of what he did during those seasons. If we want to put Joe Thornton on Team $5,000,000 we can, but that means we only get his one 2018-19 season in San Jose, not his entire body of work.
  • Finally, one quasi-exception to that last rule: We’ll allow extensions that have been signed but haven’t kicked in yet. That will involve making some assumptions about aging curves and productivity down the road, but that should be fine because when has a hockey writer ever been wrong about the future.

Let’s do this. (As always, thanks to the invaluable Cap Friendly for all salary-related info.)

Before we start listing teams, let’s huddle up for some strategy. I can see two paths forward: either we go with nice round numbers that will probably have more players to choose from, or we pick a well-known bargain contract as see if we can build a team around that.

Let’s start with the second option. Arguably the single best contract of the cap era is Nathan MacKinnon’s current one, with MVP-level play in exchange for a $6.3 million hit. That’s a great start, and gets even better when we realize we can put him on a line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in their early-20s. But that’s about as far as we can go, as Cam Ward is the only other player to have a cap hit of exactly $6.3 million. We can’t make a team here.

We run into a similar problem if we try to build off two current Florida Panther bargains in Jonathan Huburdeau and Alexsander Barkov, both at $5.9 million. We can give them William Karlsson to play with, and have a few goaltending options with long-ago deals to Kari Lehtonen and Semyon Varlamov, which are enticing, and current-day Phillip Grubauer, which is not. But again, there are no defensemen to pick from, although Nate Schmidt’s current $5.95 million is close.

I also can’t find enough teammates for Brad Marchand’s $6.125 million hit (which only offers us Mark Schiefele), Shea Theodore’s $5.2 million (just Sam Reinhart), or Leon Draisaitl’s $8.5 million (which gets us a great forward line with Steven Stamkos and Mika Zibanejad’s upcoming extension and has in-his-prime Henrik Lundqvist in goal, but no blueline). It gets especially frustrating if you try to build a team around David Pastrnak’s $6,666,667 hit, only to realize that elite seasons from guys like Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk and Dan Boyle came at a price of $6,666,666. You just had to squeeze that one extra dollar, didn’t you David.

OK, so the “build around a bargain” strategy doesn’t seem to be working. For now, let’s go with the round numbers that we know will at least give us enough players to work with.

Team $5,000,000

This number is low enough that we won’t find many elite options from current contracts, although we can grab Jonathan Marchessault as well as the pre-extension deals for Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock and Zach Werenski. Up front, we could also look at two Avalanche contracts from the past: two years of Ryan O’Reilly’s offer sheet, and Peter Forsberg for one of his comeback attempts. Instead, I’m going to take Marchessault and then grab a 40-goal season from Jeff Carter, plus some Selke-winning defense from a young Patrick Bergeron.

On the blueline, I’ll take Rielly from today’s group and pair him with Sergei Gonchar’s first few years in Pittsburgh. And I’ve got lots to choose from in goal, where I could have today’s Juuse Saros, Thatcher Demko or Robin Lehner, or a Cup-winning Marc-Andre Fleury from the Penguin days. But there’s an easy call here, as I can take Tim Thomas during his Bruins’ peak when he was the best goalie in the league.

Forwards: Patrice Bergeron (2011 – 2014), Jeff Carter (2008 – 2011), Jonathan Marchessault (2018 – 2024)

Defense: Sergei Gonchar (2005 – 2010), Morgan Rielly (2016 – 2022)

Goalie: Tim Thomas (2006 – 2009)

Not bad! But almost certainly not the best we can do. Let’s toss another million on the pile and see what that buys us.

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