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The $4ish million defensemen in the NHL aren’t what they used to be...

It’s not taking a long time for young NHL defensemen to make bank

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

One weird random thought a couple of weeks ago that popped into my head (scary place) was when the Flyers announced they had signed defender Travis Sanheim to a two-year contract extension that would pay him a cap hit of $4.65 million.

It stood out since Sanheim is about the same ago as some Penguin defensemen who now are in the same salary space. Sanheim, 25, has 255 career NHL games under his belt. He also played an average of 21:53 per game for Philadelphia last season, second most on the team. Sanheim was also on ice for the most 5v5 goals against, and had by far the worst plus/minus on the team. Which, you can feel whatever kind of way about that stat that you’d like, but when 5/7 of the team’s regular defensemen are a -3 or better and Sanheim rocks in with a -22, that stands out a bit relative to his peers.

Point being, paying a young defenseman now might now be what it should. Perhaps we could take that and remember it when it comes to Marcus Pettersson ($4.025 million cap hit) or even Mike Matheson ($4.875 million), and now also John Marino, whose $4.4 million contract kicks in.

Here’s a survey from CapFriendly of defensemen under the age of 28 who make in a cap hit in the $4-5 million zone.

The 20 players above are an interesting mix. Some are playing at relative steals for their team, a sign of bets that paid off in spades. It can be philosophical: a team like the Bruins is notorious for having a cheap owner negotiating harsh deals with RFA players like Charlie MacAvoy, Brendan Carlo (and forward David Pastranak on a $6.6m cap hit too). However, MacAvoy, one of the league’s best defensive defenseman. if not THE best, by advanced marks, is now in the final year of his deal and looking at a massive raise. Even for Boston’s management, the gravy train comes to an end at some point.

There are some really good deals beyond just negotiation tactics- Brett Pesce’s $4.025m cap hit that he will carry through 2023-24 is a downright Brian Dumoulin-esque value for Carolina. Mikhail Sergachev is probably worth about double the money he’s getting, and he’s on a $4.8m hit for two more seasons.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, there are bets that didn’t pay off. This is the last year of Olli Maatta’s deal signed way back in February 2016, when he was just 21-years old and his future looked like a great bet. That’s now three organizations ago for him. That’s got to give at least a half-second of pause for Pens’ fans remembering the same manager locked Marino up for the next six seasons. While it’s unlikely Marino’s career path will resemble Maatta’s, a long-term contract doesn’t always go to Pesce/Dumoulin levels of solid deal for the team, there’s always some risk.

That risk is something teams are taking more and more now. Marino may be worth $4.4m as soon as this season, but that contract was signed when he played 56 career NHL games. The purpose primarily to lock the player in for a solid price for years down the line. Ditto in Calgary for Rasmus Andersson, who signed a six-year deal worth a $4.55m average and cap hit with barely 100 NHL games under his belt. Filip Hronek hasn’t been that flashy in Detroit, in a tough role for 167 games, and now carries a hefty $4.4m hit for it.

Shayne Gotisbehere is another cautionary tale, inking a six-year deal with a $4.5 million cap hit after an encouraging first two seasons. He more than lived up to the new deal in his first year with a career-high 65 points in 2017-18, but soon after found himself in the coaching and seemingly organizational dog house not long after. The Flyers had to ante up a second and seventh round pick to clear him out for no return, and he only has two years remaining on a reasonable enough deal, considering he also scored 20 points in 41 games last season.

The Gotisbehere situation is something to remember when we circle back to Mike Matheson, with Pittsburgh fans wondering why he (or Marcus Pettersson) just couldn’t be traded or moved along. Matheson has five years left on his contract. Which is backloaded too, so the more expensive years are actually beginning now, somehow making an over-priced contract even less attractive.

Overall, young defensemen in the $4-5 million range make for an interesting collection of players. Some hit and teams probably wish they could keep forever at that rate. Other teams are stuck with players who didn’t live up to the expectation, or have to pay a premium to clear space.

It’s an especially important group for the Penguins, considering in the last decade they’ve made bets on four players in Dumoulin (smash hit), Maatta (miss), Pettersson (jury out) and Marino (hasn’t begun), and I guess they took on six years of Matheson for some reason, so he could be included in this group to make it five. If it turns out the Pens can add some quality from the newest batch of younger players in the group, it will help their chances to have a very efficient team. If players like Pettersson and Marino continue to languish on the third pair, it will make it very, very difficult for the team as constructed to operate and build a winner on the ice.