Winning the Stanley Cup is about grit, toughness and the will to overcome adversity. But in the NHL’s salary-cap era, it’s also about finding the right mix of core talent and complementary role players to succeed while keeping an eye on the budget. Because the NHL has a (mostly) unforgiving hard cap (like the NFL) and players rarely make the maximum salary (unlike the NBA), smart hockey teams are what my old colleague Ben Morris calls “economizers.” They excel by hunting for surplus value, whether by collecting stars who live up to their billing or finding unheralded bargains up and down the roster.
Using Modified Point Shares1 per 82 team games, we can see which players are delivering that value relative to their cap hits so far this season. Some superstars, like Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, carry large cap hits but also still manage to provide good bang for the buck, as evidenced by the massive effects they have on their teams’ play while on the ice. Other players have midrange cap hits but still deliver top-tier production — a formula that has been key for some of the league’s biggest success stories this season. Among players with cap figures between $2 million and $9 million, the Calgary Flames (with Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Tkachuk) and Colorado Avalanche (with Devon Toews, Nazem Kadri and Cale Makar) own each of the top seven bargains in the league by surplus value relative to their cap hits.
For example, the cap hit of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Anthony DeAngelo of $1 million has him tied for 164th among all defensemen this season, but his 9.8 MPS per 82 team games ranks eighth among blueliners. Although DeAngelo is injured now, he was previously one of the driving forces behind Carolina’s reloaded bid for the Cup. Of course, it bears mentioning that DeAngelo was available for such a low price tag this year precisely because he was one of the least valuable players in hockey last season; despite his then $4.8 million cap hit, DeAngelo produced -0.5 MPS per 82 and was jettisoned from the New York Rangers’ roster after playing only six games, following multiple on- and off-ice incidents. His current one-year deal was a high-upside gamble for both player and team, but it’s one that has paid off big so far.
DeAngelo’s fellow defenseman (and former Rangers teammate) Adam Fox is providing even more value for his price this season. According to the betting markets, Fox trails only Makar and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman as the favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top D-man. Fox ranks fifth at the position with 11.4 MPS per 82, helping anchor one of the league’s best defensive teams with a +0.46 Game Score per game relative to position average2 (14th-best among qualifiers) and a +4.8 percent relative rate of unblocked shot attempts while on the ice (15th) in 24.3 minutes a night. For all of that excellence, Fox has a cap hit of just $925,000 this year, which is tied for 168th at his position. He will get a huge pay raise soon — the Rangers signed him to a seven-year, $66.5 million contract extension in November (which will bump his cap hit up to $9.5 million starting in the 2022-23 season). Right now, though, Fox is one of the most underpaid players in the league, and his surplus value — along with those of bargain midcap teammates Igor Shesterkin, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad — has helped fuel the Rangers’ promising run this season.
But the most underpaid player in the entire league so far this year is neither Fox nor DeAngelo. Instead, that less-than-envious title belongs to 22-year-old left wing Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars. Robertson was already one of the most impressive young players in the league last season, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov, but his production has skyrocketed even further in 2021-22. In 48 games, Robertson has 29 goals (tied for ninth-most in the NHL) and 25 assists for 54 points, with a +20 plus/minus rating. His 11.5 MPS per 82 ranks 11th among all forwards, and he ranks seventh among qualified forwards with a +8.0 percent relative rate of unblocked shot attempts while on the ice. With performances like the back-to-back hat tricks he recorded over this past weekend, it’s fair to say Robertson has been one of the best players in hockey this year:
And that’s before we consider his meager cap hit of $795,000, which ranks 404th-highest among forwards this year.3 For each raw Modified Point Share that Robertson has created this season, he’s been paid just $101,612.21 — easily the lowest payout for any player with at least 1 MPS.4 He’s also been paid $27,413.79 per goal (lowest among players with at least one goal), $31,800.00 per assist (third-lowest among players with at least one assist) and $14,722.22 per point (lowest among players with at least 1 point).
Based on his MPS per 82, we would expect a player with Robertson’s value to have a cap hit of about $12.6 million; instead, he makes $11.8 million less than that, creating the league’s biggest gap in surplus production.
So just about any way you slice it, Robertson has been the literal most valuable player in the league this season relative to his salary. (Given all that surplus value, it’s a wonder Dallas ranks only 15th in our Elo ratings, though the Stars do have a 2 percent chance to win the Cup.) As a restricted free agent this summer, Robertson is due for a big long-term contract extension, which would pay him like the elite player he is. In the meantime, he’s been the biggest bargain in the sport where bargain-hunting might be prized the most.
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