The best NHL team money can buy under the 2017-18 salary cap

Scott Morrison sets the scene for the 2017/18 NHL season.

When you take a look around the NHL and try to pick out which team is your Stanley Cup favourite in 2017-18, you quickly realize there is no superpower out there. There are any number of legitimate Cup contenders this season and if all of them have one thing in common, it’s that each has a glaring weakness or significant question mark.

The salary cap era has also ushered in the era of parity, when it should be nearly impossible for a traditional dynasty to form. That said, the Pittsburgh Penguins will strive to be the first team since the early-1980s to win more than two Cups in a row this season.

The cap has gotten in the way of potential super teams in Chicago or Pittsburgh or Los Angeles over the years and will start impacting the young upstarts in Toronto and Edmonton before too long. It’s just impossible to build a top-down team of studs because there isn’t enough financial wiggle room. Eventually, the cheap contracts to strong players will skyrocket and force a team into tough moves.

But what if we built a team to come in under the cap for just one season? How good could that team be? Forget any extensions that will kick in next season or the season after, if you could build your best team for $75 million or less for just 2017-18, what would it look like?

I took a stab at this exercise by building out four lines, three sets of defence and two goalies to comply with this season’s salary cap. The results, and the explanations for the picks, are below.

It’s important to know that while this team was built to be cap compliant, it is for one season only. The lines were also formed for a purpose, so we didn’t put players next to each other without reason or purpose. Check out my Best Team Money Can Buy, complete with a reasoning behind each trio, pairing and why I went with the two goalies shown.

FORWARDS

LINE 1
Brad MarchandSidney CrosbyNikita Kucherov

Why: Naturally, we’ll start with Crosby at centre. His $8.7 million cap hit is the highest on this team, but having the 1a/1b best player in the world and a three-time Stanley Cup champion as the top-line pivot is a no-brainer. Apparently, it can be difficult to play with with Sid, who is so fast and always one step ahead of the play — Chris Kunitz made an Olympic team because of this theory. So, Marchand is an easy pick to play on his left side, since the two played together at last year’s World Cup and were the two top scorers in the tournament. Marchand will provide the sandpaper here, but has stepped forward as a sniper the past two seasons, so the skill is a fit too.

There wasn’t a super right winger who had played with Crosby before, but we’ll trust that the quickly rising star of Nikita Kucherov would be able to fit in on this line just fine. Coming off a breakout 40-goal season, Kucherov has the speed and offensive chops to make this one heck of a scary threesome. He doesn’t have the defensive game of Patrice Bergeron (who played the left side with Crosby and Marchand at the World Cup), but we’ll be happy with his offensive upside in this setting.

LINE 2
Max PaciorettyConnor McDavidPatrik Laine

Why: We’ll follow up the high-scoring top line with another scoring line, led by Crosby’s No. 1 challenger for top player in the NHL. McDavid on the last season of his entry-level deal was another easy pick to give us a superstar on an ultra-cheap contract. If we did this again in a year, we might end up having to choose between McDavid or Sid.

With his speed, McDavid creates so much space for himself and his linemates as he draws defenders his way. He recorded 70 assists last season and made Patrick Maroon a 27-goal man, so just imagine what he’d do with Pacioretty, still one of the more underappreciated shooters and goal scorers in the NHL. A terrific forechecker and defensive player as well, Pacioretty is a nice complement to McDavid in every way and his relatively cheap contract helps fit him on our team.

And I went with another pure goal scorer on the right side with Laine — why not surround McDavid with two guys who can bury the puck consistently? The knock on Laine following his 36-goal rookie season is that his scoring totals may drop due to a high 17.6 shooting percentage in 2016-17. But put him with McDavid and another scoring threat on the other side, and Laine might be able to maintain that with plenty of quality looks. Plus, as Elliotte Friedman wrote in 31 Thoughts this week, indications are Laine’s shot is better than ever.

LINE 3
Viktor ArvidssonJohn TavaresWayne Simmonds

Why: Just before Tavares strikes it big on a re-sign with the Isles or as a free agent in July, we’re able to fit him in here as the third-line centre. On a team like this we’re always going to have offensive talents, but it’s worth noting how improved Tavares was on defence last season. I debated putting Bergeron in this spot, but Tavares saved about $1.3 million and his higher offensive upside.

Also, Tavares ranked sixth in Andrew Berkshire’s top 23 centres breakdown, where he noted that Tavares had the “third-biggest defensive impact of any centre in the NHL.”

On his left side is 2016-17 breakout star Arvidsson. Again, it’s important to build a roster of speed which Arvidsson certainly has, and his offensive upside was finally tapped with 31 goals and 61 points. But he’s also defensively responsible and can play on the penalty kill where he’s still a threat on offence, leading the NHL with five shorties last season.

Not everyone will pick Simmonds on a team like this, but I’m big fan of his sandpaper, the importance of which is still real. While putting value in grit can be a polarizing concept (ask Leaf fans about Matt Martin’s spot in the lineup), it is important in today’s NHL any player in that role is also able to contribute in other meaningful ways. Simmonds can do that, with his back-to-back 30-goal seasons and the capability of logging some PK time. Simmonds will bring the body, the intensity and some offensive upside.

LINE 4
Nik Ehlers – Auston MatthewsWilliam Nylander

Why: I was able to load up on a few highly paid stars in other areas of the lineup because of the flexibility this fourth line of youth gives. Coming off a 40-goal season and Calder Trophy, it’s easy to pick Matthews as the cheap fourth-line centre to lead the kids line and put up monster totals. And although he didn’t log any meaningful PK time for Toronto last season, his well-rounded game suggests it’s a role he could fit into in no time.

I’ll also put someone Matthews is familiar with on his right side and Nylander brings sky-high offensive potential as well. On the left, we have another 21-year-old in Ehlers who had a breakthrough of his own in 2016-17 with 25 goals and 64 points alongside Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg. This fourth line is essentially a cheap first line.

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DEFENCE

PAIR 1
Erik KarlssonDuncan Keith

Why: Keeping with the philosophy that anyone on this team has to be able to skate well, our top defence pair has a combined four Norris Trophies on it. Karlsson can put up the same offensive totals as a first-line forward and although Keith can still go up over 50 points, he’s more or less the “stay-at-home” guy here. That said, no one would be discouraging either of these players from rushing with the puck — his partner is smart enough to cover and capable enough to be a tough beat on the defensive side, too.

PAIR 2
Victor HedmanJacob Trouba

Why: There isn’t a Norris Trophy here yet, but I’d be willing to wager Hedman has at least one in his future. Roughly $19.8 million in cap space was committed to the top three blueliners on this team because they’re worth it and the bottom three cheaper options are bargains. After starting last season late because of a contract holdout, Trouba still set career highs in 60 games and figures to be on a crash course towards another career year. Trouba averaged 24:57 of ice time per game for Winnipeg last season, and played significant minutes on the power play and penalty kill, leading all Jets blueliners in TOI for the latter.

PAIR 3
Zach Werenski – Jaccob Slavin

Why: This pair keeps an even L-R split on defence and we save a lot of money on a couple players in their early-20s with huge offensive and defensive upside.

With Werenski, all three of last year’s Calder Trophy finalists are on this team, which wasn’t intentional. He brings offensive pop, though, and is a nice complement to the other defenceman on this pair. Slavin comes with the cheapest cap hit on our team and is a defensive specialist who, while he doesn’t put up very many points, is the “safe” player here — the Canes felt comfortable paying him $5.3 million on an extension that kicks in next season for good reason. Slavin creates offence in his defence, but Werenski is the real play driver on this pair.

GOALIES

STARTER
Matt Murray

Why: From the start, the plan was to save as much money on the goaltending position as possible — there was no sense in spending a lot of money on a position where value can be had. So here we have two-time Cup champion and sophomore Matt Murray.

Some people believe he’s a candidate for the Vezina Trophy this season, and it’s hard to look at something in Murray’s game or situation that would eliminate him from that consideration. Murray, obviously, has been a star in the playoffs, but don’t forget he also posted a .923 save percentage in 49 games last regular season. This will be the first NHL season where he doesn’t have a stud like Marc-Andre Fleury as a safety net, but that shouldn’t be an issue. And besides, on this Best Team Money Can Buy, we have a pretty good backup for him anyway.

BACKUP
Philipp Grubauer

Why: He’s cheap at $1.5 million per season and as far as backups go, he’s fairly well proven and reliable. In 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2016-17, Grubauer played at least 17 games as Braden Holtby’s backup and had a save percentage of at least .918 each time. In fact, just last season, Grubauer played in a career-high 23 games and posted a career-high .926 SP and career-low 2.05 GAA. Before arriving in the NHL, Grubauer was a stud in the AHL and ECHL so he fits in here as the perfect, affordable backup for Murray.


So that’s how my Best Team Money Can Buy would look for 2017-18. How different would yours be? Share in the comments below.