If this NHL offseason has taught us anything, it's that general managers need to bring some serious money bags to the table just to be afforded the opportunity to negotiate with a No. 1 defenseman.
Blueliners like Dougie Hamilton, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and Darnell Nurse all received contracts that will carry a cap hit of $9-million or more. These are monstrous deals that place all four inside the top-10 of average annual value (AAV) for defensemen.
We could argue the value of each's contract until we're blue in the face, and thanks to Twitter, many already have.
Darnell Nurse is signing a 8-yr, $9.25M per year contract with Edmonton. (Per Friedman)
Just a reminder, Dougie Hamilton signed a 7-year, $9M deal with the #NJDevils.
Dougie Hamilton > Darnell Nurse.
Hamilton’s deal looking more and more awesome as the days go by.
— Devils Army Blog (@DevilsArmyBlog) August 6, 2021
Darnell Nurse, signed 8x$9.25M by EDM, is an offensive D who scored a lot of goals this season but who has consistently surrendered quality scoring chances when on the ice. Don't think he's nearly as bad as the overall projection suggests, but this is a BIG number. #LetsGoOilers pic.twitter.com/iCzkxRHkcS
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) August 6, 2021
— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) August 6, 2021
Regardless of what you think about each player's new deal, the truth is each will enter the upcoming season as his team's No. 1 rearguard. The new price for blue line leaders has been established, and it's steep.
This development is of no benefit to any team in the league, but particularly the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs. All three have their top defenseman, still in the primes of their career, entering the final year of their current contract, which means these teams will be the ones trying to scrape together enough cap space next offseason.
But exactly how high will they have to go to keep their prized players?
Adam Fox, New York Rangers
With Erik Karlsson's massive eight-year, $92-million overpay still leading the way as the largest contract signed by a defenseman, it's about time somebody else reset the market.
And if anybody's going to do it, it's Rangers blueliner Adam Fox.
In just his second year in the NHL, the 23-year-old won the Norris Trophy as the league's best rearguard, and it was well-deserved. His 42 assists ranked first among all defensemen, his 47 points sat second, his 102 shot blocks tied for 15th, and his 38 takeaways placed third. He was a dominant force at both ends of the ice and firmly put himself in the conversation as the best blueliner in the game.
Fox will be 24 years old when his current three-year, $2,775,000 pact ends and just getting into his prime. Teams have to pay a premium for defensemen that fit Fox's description, which means New York should be prepared to part with some major cash to keep him around.
Contract Prediction: 8 years, $94,000,000 ($11.75M AAV)
The contracts dished out this offseason have not done NHL teams many favors, but they're setting Fox up for a massive payday. The last defenseman to win the Norris Trophy prior to the age of 25 was actually Karlsson in 2015, who won it twice by the time he was 25. The difference between Karlsson's deal and Fox's, however, is that Karlsson's pact came into effect in his age-29 season, while Fox's will kick in five years earlier. The ginormous total salary equates to an AAV of $11.75 million, making Fox the highest-paid player at his position.
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy is entering the final season of a three-year bridge deal that scored him $14.7 million. Entering his age-24 campaign, McAvoy already has 10th-place and fifth-place Norris Trophy finishes to his name and has emerged as one of the best smooth-skating, defensively responsible blueliners in the league.
His 58.51 percent Corsi-for percentage (CF%) ranked sixth among all rearguards with over 200 minutes played last season, according to Natural Stat Trick, while his 80 blocked shots tied him for 45th. McAvoy hasn't had a standout offensive season yet, although his production during his final year at Boston University suggests there could be more to come. He produced five goals and 26 points across 38 games as a Terrier, while his best campaign in the NHL was actually his rookie year when he recorded seven goals and 32 points in 63 games.
Part of the reason why he hasn't broken through offensively is due to limited power-play time, as Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk have typically slotted in ahead of him on the man advantage.
Even if the offense never arrives, McAvoy drives play for the Bruins and with Zdeno Chara out of the picture last year, he proved he can be the unquestioned leader of the blue line.
Contract Prediction: 7 years, $70,000,000 ($10M AAV)
Again, based on the deals handed out this offseason, it wouldn't be shocking to see a young blueliner like McAvoy cash in with a massive payday after playing the past three years on a team-friendly deal. There is a history of players in Boston taking pay cuts, with guys like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak all currently playing on team-friendly pacts. But if McAvoy has another Norris-calibre season and looks to maximize his earnings, he could easily flirt with a $10-million AAV.
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly is entering the final season of his six-year, $30-million deal and it's clear that he holds all of the bargaining power entering negotiations.
For starters, Rielly isn't the same class of defender as McAvoy or Fox. He's a very good blueliner that slots onto Toronto's top power-play unit, has seen heavy usage on the penalty kill at times during his most recent contract, and has averaged more ice-time per game (22:48) than any other Maple Leafs defenseman since 2016-17.
His offensive numbers have dipped in recent campaigns, as he's now two years removed from his 20-goal, 72-point output from 2018-19. Still, he's been a respectable contributor over the last couple of seasons, recording eight goals and 62 points across 102 games during this stretch.
The reason why Rielly is set up well for a substantial raise, however, is due to the weak supporting cast Toronto's defense corps possesses.
With north of $40 million tied up in just four forwards - Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander - the Maple Leafs' defense has been predictably spotty. As a team that still hasn't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2004 and one that can ill-afford to get substantially worse on the blue line, general manager Kyle Dubas and Co. are in a situation where letting Rielly walk really isn't an option, especially if they want to be legitimate contenders.
Contract Prediction: 6 years, $47,100,000 ($7.85M AAV)
Given that Rielly will be entering his age-28 season at the start of his new deal, he's noticeably older than the other two players mentioned above and older than all but Dougie Hamilton from this year's wave of defensemen who received massive deals. This brings his AAV to $7,850,000, slotting him at 18th among all rearguards who are locked in to start the 2022-23 campaign. If he has another standout year offensively, though, his AAV could climb a little closer to $8 million and potentially beyond.
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