Biggest contract AAVs traded in NHL’s salary cap era

The Hockey Central at Noon panel discuss the price of cap relief and picks before this years free agency.

It’s fun to daydream about blockbuster NHL trades involving the game’s biggest stars.

An annual tradition, when the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ season ended Evgeni Malkin‘s name hit the rumour mill, though that has seemed to dry up as it does every summer. If Malkin were to be moved, his $9.5-million cap hit would instantly become the biggest ever traded in this era.

The trouble with moving these players is how they’d fit under a new team’s salary cap. Acquiring a $10-million player would be great and all, but if you’re a team already near the ceiling you’d have to find a way to move out a similar amount and still have the trade work for both sides.

That was probably the most shocking thing about last weekend’s P.K. Subban trade – the Predators didn’t really get anything of significance in return. But the real value for Nashville was finding a partner willing to take on Subban’s full contract value, leaving the Preds with all that room to use on their own re-signs, or chase a free agent to address an area of greater need.

To express the difficulty of moving big contracts, and perhaps douse frisky armchair GMs in cold water, we decided to look back at the biggest average annual values moved since the cap was instituted in 2005. If you only included the largest cap hits to be traded at their full value, Subban (x2) and Shea Weber would take up the three top spots, but we wanted to see the full scope of big-value deals that have been traded in this era, so we decided to include those where salary needed to be retained. What you’ll notice is that, in order to get a lot of these done, some percentage of the cap hit needed to be held on to by the trading team.

So while we sit in the summer sun and fantasize about Drew Doughty ($11 million), Jamie Benn ($9.5 million) or, heck, even Connor McDavid ($12.5 million) being traded at some point, it’s never as simple as it seems.

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1. P.K. Subban: $9 million AAV
Montreal decided to go the bridge contract route with Subban when his entry-level contract was finished, signing him to a two-year extension in 2013. But he won the Norris Trophy in the first year of that deal, so when the contract wrapped up the next round of negotiations became a tough one. Going all the way to arbitration, the two sides nonetheless settled outside of the arbitrator’s ruling and came together on an eight-year, $72-million contract that stood as the highest AAV for any player at his position until Drew Doughty signed for an $11 million AAV last summer.

Subban holds the distinction of being the most expensive player traded in the salary cap era, and it’s happened twice. Montreal moved him to Nashville in a hockey deal for Shea Weber, but at the 2019 draft the Predators moved Subban to New Jersey for bit pieces just to dump his salary. He still has three years left on his current contract.

2. Eric Staal: $8.25 million AAV
A career-long Hurricane since they made him the second overall pick of the 2003 draft, Staal was dealt to the New York Rangers in the last season of a seven-year contract as the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs again. Eric went from playing with one brother (Jordan) to another (Marc) and Carolina got back two second-round picks and forward Aleksi Saarela, who was just sent to Chicago with Calvin de Haan this week. Staal managed just six points in 20 games with the Rangers, and then was shut out in five playoff games.

While Staal’s full AAV comes in second on this list, the Hurricanes retained 50 per cent of that, so he really only took $4.125 million of it with him to the Big Apple.

3. Phil Kessel: $8 million AAV
Cruising off the cliff in their 18-wheeler and crashing towards the bottom of the standings, the Toronto Maple Leafs shipped their best player to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2015 after just one season of Kessel’s eight-year, $64-million extension with the team concluded. The return was largely crapped upon for how underwhelming it was, but looking back on this deal four years later, it didn’t turn out so bad.

Kasperi Kapanen hadn’t yet played a full season in North America when this trade went down, but he’s the most notable player who came back to the Leafs now. Scott Harrington only played 15 games in a Toronto jersey and Nick Spaling played 35. The Leafs also got a first-round pick in the deal, which they later flipped to Anaheim to acquire Frederik Andersen.

Toronto also retained $1.2 million of Kessel’s cap hit, which is still on their books and will continue to be until the summer of 2021. He carries a $6.8-million hit with the Penguins right now, but is again a part of the summer trade rumour mill.

4. Shea Weber: $7.857 million
It’s fair to say most assumed Weber would be a career Nashville Predator. A second-round pick, his massive 14-year, $110-million contract came via a Philadelphia Flyers offer sheet that was designed to make it a difficult match, but David Poile did so anyway. This deal will take him through his age 40 season, so it’s likely to be the last NHL contract he ever signs.

But after just four years on this contract, Nashville dealt him for a young, quicker Subban. It’s not that Weber had suddenly fallen out of good graces or was a declining problem on the ice, but Subban is four years younger and, the thinking went, would help extend the Predators’ window. Although Weber missed the majority of his second season with the Canadiens, it’s fair to say now that the deal has worked out alright for both sides. There are still some fans in Montreal who would rather have Subban, and that’s fair, but Nashville couldn’t fit him anymore and were forced into a salary dumping trade. No salary was retained on either side of the Weber-Subban deal.

5. Rick Nash: $7.8 million
After the second 40-goal season of his career, Nash signed an eight-year, $62.4-million extension with the Blue Jackets one year away from the expiration of the deal he was on. But just two years into the new contract, Nash wanted out, and after dancing a bit over a few months, the Blue Jackets and Rangers came together on a deal that sent Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick to the Blue Jackets.

Nash played nearly six seasons for the Rangers before he was dealt again at the trade deadline in the final year of his contract. This time he went to Boston for Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey, Ryan Lindgren, and first- and seventh-round picks. The Rangers retained 50 per cent of that salary for Boston’s stretch run and playoff push, and Nash retired at the end of it.

6. Ryan O’Reilly, Marian Gaborik, Pavel Datsyuk: $7.5 million
O’Reilly is the most recent and most impactful of these three. The Sabres signed him to this AAV on a seven-year contract just days after picking him up in a trade from Colorado for J.T. Compher, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko and a second-round pick, but after three years they flipped him to St. Louis for Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and first- and second-round picks.

O’Reilly was the Blues’ best player from start to finish this post-season, wrapping up with a Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup win. In hindsight, it’s hard to see how the Sabres will ever come out on top of that trade.

Gaborik signed a five-year, $37.5-million deal with the New York Rangers as a UFA in 2009, following an injury shortened season where he was limited to just 17 games. He answered with 42 goals and 86 points in Year 1 of the contract and totalled 76 points in Year 3, but that was the end of his most productive days. The fourth year of his contract was the lockout shortened 2012-13 season and that’s when New York shipped him and the entirety of his $7.5-million cap hit to Columbus for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore. The next season, the Blue Jackets sent him to Los Angeles for Matt Frattin and picks in the second and third rounds of the draft.

Datsyuk retired from the NHL to head back to the KHL when he still had one season left on his contract, but since that was a 35-plus deal, the Red Wings couldn’t easily get out from under that cap hit. So they shipped his contract in a salary dump to the Arizona Coyotes along with picks 20 and 53 in the 2016 draft for the 16th-overall selection. The Coyotes used it to pick Jakob Chychrun and Datsyuk’s hit was on Arizona’s books for just the one season.

7. Paul Stastny, Dion Phaneuf: $7 million
Phaneuf had been with the Leafs for more than four seasons when he signed a seven-year, $49-million extension on New Year’s Eve 2013. But a season and a half after that new contract kicked in, Toronto traded Phaneuf to Ottawa just to get the cap hit off the books.

It took a nine-player deal to get done, with the Leafs also sending Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and Cody Donaghey to the Senators and getting Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Tobias Lindberg in return. Greening’s 30 games played with Toronto was the most of any player in that package. No salary was retained.

Stastny was dealt at the tail end of his four-year, $28-million contract with the St. Louis Blues. At the 2018 trade deadline, the Blues were acting as sellers while the Jets for the first time felt comfortable enough moving in as a buyer with an eye on making a big post-season run. They wanted an upgrade at second-line centre, so after striking out on Brassard they were able to land Stastny for prospect Erik Foley and a first-round pick. The Blues retained 50 per cent of Stastny’s cap hit for the rest of that season, after which he headed to free agency and signed a three-year, $19.5-million contract with the Vegas Golden Knights.

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