With the 2017-18 NHL season just passing the halfway point and the All-Star Break on the horizon, many of the league’s top players have proven their worth with outstanding production. Some of the highest-paid players, including the likes of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Alex Ovechkin, have all had tremendous success and played a role in their teams being in the playoff race. Other, lesser-paid players, however, have also experienced success this year; there have been plenty of instances of a player outperforming their contracts and providing their teams with great value. Rather than focusing on the Crosbys and Ovechkins of the hockey world, let’s take a look at these lesser-paid players that, if they keep performing at a high level, will soon be earning a large pay raise in the near future.
Sean Couturier, Center, Philadelphia Flyers
Current Contract: 6 years/$26 million ($4.33 AAV)
Breaking into the league at the age of 18 in 2011, Sean Couturier has always been regarded as one of the league’s premier defensive forwards. Now, in his sixth season in the league and at 25 years of age, it seemed, at first, that Couturier would be exclusively used as a third center and penalty killer. The 2017-18 season, however, has seen Couturier have an offensive revelation. Coming into this season, the former eighth overall pick had never posted 40 points in a season and held a career-high of 15 goals in a season. Halfway through the 2017-18 season, Couturier has smashed his own personal records, registering 25 goals and 45 points, and dismissing any speculation that he may never provide anything more than defense.
Signed to a six-year deal in the summer of 2015, Couturier is now in the second season of a deal that pays him an average of $4.33 million a season. That figure ranks him seventh on the Flyers and 62nd among all centers. Under contract through the 2021-22 season, Couturier, who has enjoyed his move to the top line with Claude Giroux sliding outside to left wing, seems poised to provide the Flyers with great value. He should be among the Selke Trophy finalists, with the likes of Patrice Bergeron.
William Karlsson, Center, Vegas Golden Knights
Current Contract: 2 years/$2 million ($1 million AAV)
Taken from the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he was a mid-line center who had career-highs of nine goals and 25 points in his three years in the NHL, Karlsson was not expected to make the leap to being a high-points player. As the 2017-18 season has unfolded, however, Vegas has been the biggest surprise in the league, and Karlsson has played a pivotal role in their success, as he leads the Golden Knights in goals, with 23, and is second in points, with 37. At the age of 25, Karlsson is centering one of the most productive lines in the league, which consists of wingers Jon Marchessault (41 points) and Reilly Smith (36 points). The line, pieced together over the summer by General Manager George McPhee, has helped Vegas to the top of the Pacific Division, a feat no one saw coming.
Fortunately for Karlsson, his career season is coming at the best time, as he is set to be a restricted free agent after this season. He has clearly earned himself a hefty pay raise from the two-year/$2 million deal he signed two summers ago with Columbus, and Vegas should be eager to get a deal done with Karlsson, as they would love to have both Karlsson and his linemate Jonathan Marchessault, who recently signed a six-year/$30 million extension with Vegas, locked up long-term.
Nikita Kucherov, Right Wing, Tampa Bay Lightning
Current Contract: 3 years/$14.3 million ($4.766 million AAV)
Perhaps one of the best bridge contracts ever given out in the NHL, the three-year/$14.3 million contract that Kucherov inked in October 2016 has aged quite well, as Kucherov is the clear-cut favorite to bring home the Hart and Art Ross Trophy, with a league-leading 60 points. He and Steven Stamkos form the best duo in the league, as Stamkos himself has 52 points, good enough for eighth in the league. With Stamkos rejoining Kucherov and the Lightning after missing almost all of last season due to injury, Tampa Bay has been the most consistently dominant team this season.
Currently, Kucherov is making an average of $4.766 million per year, a number that falls well short of what a player leading the league in points should earn. Kucherov, who is in the middle of his three-year bridge deal that will pay him $4.5 million in 2017-18 – 24th-highest among right wingers – will be in for a hefty raise come the summer of 2019.
Josh Bailey, Left Wing, New York Islanders
Current Contract: 5 years/$16.5 million ($3.3 million AAV)
A solid producer for the Islanders since he was chosen with the ninth overall pick in 2008 (joining the team at the tender age of 19), Bailey took a step forward last season with a career-high 56 points (besting a previous career-high of 41). He has continued that upward climb, as the 2017-18 season has seen Bailey become one of the most productive forwards n the league. He is currently tenth in the league in scoring with 50 points, which puts him on pace to break his career-high of 56 points before January concludes, which has earned him a spot on the Metropolitan All-Star Game.
The 28-year-old Bailey is currently on the final year of a five-year deal which pays him an average of $3.3 million per year, including $4 million this season. The Islanders will have some work to do this offseason, as John Tavares is set to be an unrestricted free agent – and will undoubtedly be one of the hottest commodity on the market – and Bailey is up for a pay raise. Bailey is someone the Islanders should work to bring back to their up-and-coming team.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Goaltender, Tampa Bay Lightning
Current Contract: 3 years/$10.5 million ($3.5 million AAV)
Another key piece of the NHL-leading Lightning, 23-year-old starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has quickly become one of the league’s best. The former first-round pick became the clear-cut starter last year after the departure of Ben Bishop, and has taken on an even larger role this year, starting 37 of the Lightning’s 44 games. In those 37 starts, Vasilevskiy has won a league-leading 27 games while posting an impressive .930 save percentage that ranks him second among all goaltenders.
The Russian-native is currently in the second year of a bridge deal that he signed before the season which pays him an average of $3.5 million – a figure that ranks him 29th among all goaltenders – and just $3 million this season. The deal will keep him under contract with Tampa Bay through the 2019-20 season where, if he keeps up his current trajectory, he will be deserving of an elite goaltender deal.