Tage Thompson leads the NHL’s 2022-23 “Best Bargain” team

The National Hockey League is getting close to rebalancing its books, but it’s not there yet.

As play resumes Tuesday after the three-day holiday break, 16 of the league’s 32 teams have needed to dip into their long-term injured reserve pool, per CapFriendly, to remain in compliance with the league’s hard salary cap this season, with the cap set at $82.5 million.

Cap space is so tight, many teams also run with lists below the max. 23 players, and many eligible players were shuffled down to the teams’ minor-league affiliates over the holidays to help create a little more cap space.

Every dollar counts, making players on high value contracts more valuable than ever. And while young stars on cost-controlled entry-level contracts have become an important part of the equation, this all-star team of good players comes from the next tier — players who are past the entry level but deliver well above their current salary grades.

For this list, cost-per-point/win calculations are based on each player’s production to date, against his full-season salary. The statistics are valid up to and including Monday 26 December.

Forwards

Tage Thompson – Buffalo Sabres

  • Top hit: $1,400,000
  • Stat Line: 32 GP – 26-24-50
  • Cost per point: $28,000

Yes, Tage Thompson gets paid – but not until next season.

A few weeks before his 25th birthday in October, the big, soft-handed center entered the final season of a three-year deal when he and the Buffalo Sabers agreed to a seven-year contract extension worth $50 million. season 2022-23. He was coming off a breakout campaign, putting up 38 goals and 68 points in 78 games.

His production spike had seemingly come out of nowhere, but it has proven to be sustainable. By the holiday break, Thompson was up to 26 goals in just 32 games, second in the NHL behind only Connor McDavid. At 6’6″, Thompson is a player who needed some time to grow into his body. Now he embodies a new breed – a skilled scorer and playmaker who is built like a power forward and has become one of the most exciting players in the NHL.

Gabriel Vilardi – Los Angeles Kings

  • Top hit: $825,000
  • Stat Line: 36 GP – 14-8-22
  • Cost per point: $37,500

Another big center at 6’3″ and 215 pounds, the Los Angeles Kings had high hopes for Gabriel Vilardi when they drafted him 11th combined back in 2017. But he struggled to make an impact in his pro career, slowed by injuries.

Vilardi played 54 of 56 games with the Kings during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, collecting 10 goals and 23 points. But he found himself back in the AHL for more than half of the 2021-22 campaign.

This summer, as a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, he signed a one-year, one-way deal in July – and set out to prove he belongs in the NHL.

So far so good. Vilardi burst out of the gate with eight goals in the month of October. His 14 numbers currently lead a Kings, who sit comfortably in second place in the Pacific Division.

His strong production this season should also help him in his next contract negotiation. He will be a restricted free agent again at the end of the season, but will have arbitration rights this time.

Adam Ruzicka – Calgary Flames

  • Top hit: $762,500
  • Stat Line: 25 GP – 6-14-20
  • Cost per point: $38,125

Like Vilardi, Ruzicka is a big center who was drafted into the NHL in 2017. But the Slovakian native didn’t have nearly the same pedigree — he spent two years in the Czech junior system before joining the OHL’s Sarnia Sting for his draft season , where he recorded 46 points in 61 games, and was drafted 109th overallth all in all.

The flames slowly brought Ruzicka with them. He played three more seasons as a major junior before joining the AHL’s Stockton Heat in the 2019-20 season, then getting a three-game stint with the big club the following year.

Last season, Ruzicka saw just 44 games – 16 in the AHL and 28 with the Flames, where he put up 10 points. As a 23-year-old, he was then at the same crossroads as Vilardi – no longer exempt from waivers when he enters this season, and with limited bargaining power.

In September, he agreed to a two-year deal, with a two-way component for this season. He made the big club out of camp, but was a healthy scratch for 10 of the Flames’ first 11 games of the year.

When Ruzicka finally entered the lineup on a consistent basis, he made a positive impression on coach Darryl Sutter. Averaging 12:50 of ice time, his 0.80 points per game ties him with Tyler Toffoli for the second-best rate of offensive production on a Flames team that has struggled to score since Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk left town. His ice time dipped after mid-December, but he rode a three-game hitting streak heading into the Christmas break as the Flames battle to stay on the right side of the playoffs in the West.

Defense

Erik Gustafsson – Washington Capitals

  • Top hit: $800,000
  • Stat Line: 35 GP – 4-13-17
  • Cost per point: $47,058

It’s easy to make the argument that cost per point isn’t the best metric to measure a defenseman’s overall effectiveness — especially at the lower end of team budgets. Of the four NHL defensemen averaging better than a point per game this season, the least expensive is Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin, with his cap hit of $6 million and a cost per point of $162,162.

At less than a third of that price, Erik Gustafsson’s performance with the Washington Capitals is remarkable. The 30-year-old has bounced around since establishing his reputation as an offensive force with his 17-goal, 60-point season with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018-19, and is now on his fifth different team.

But even while Washington coach Peter Laviolette is known for his solid defensive system, Gustafsson has thrived. On an injury-riddled Caps team, he has averaged 19:33 of ice time per game, the most since his time in Chicago. Thirteen of his 17 points have come at even strength, and at plus-two he hasn’t been a defensive liability.

Connor Clifton – Boston Bruins

  • Top hit: $1,000,000
  • Stat Line: 33 GP – 3-9-12
  • Cost per point: $83,333

They say a rising tide floats all boats, and that seems to be the case for Connor Clifton. The 27-year-old, a fifth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2013, has seen his role increase this season on the NHL’s best team. He is averaging a career-high 19:02 of ice time per game, and his 12 points thus far have already beaten his previous career high of 10, set in 60 games last season.

Clifton’s outburst is well timed. His $1 million cap hit comes from the final season of a 3-year contract that will make him an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2022-23. With the Bruins leading the league in points and just about every other key statistic, he should get plenty of attention from other teams over the next few months, and he can translate that attention into a tidy payday the next day.

Goal

Logan Thompson – Vegas Golden Knights

  • Top hit: $766,667
  • Stat Line: 24 GP – 16-8-2
  • Cost per win: $31,944

An undrafted 25-year-old from Calgary, Thompson signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Vegas Golden Knights in the summer of 2020, following a strong season with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. After a season and a half of solid work with the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate, he re-signed in January 2022 on a three-year deal, effective this season.

It wasn’t until March that he was called up to finish the season in Vegas – and with a 10-5-3 record and a .914 save percentage, he played well enough to keep the Golden Knights’ faint playoff hopes alive until the final week of the season.

This year, Thompson has picked up right where he left off, with an identical .914 save percentage and 2.66 goals against average. And the Golden Knights are back in first place in the Pacific Division.

Thompson, just young enough to qualify for rookie of the year, is undoubtedly the best goaltending bargain in the NHL this season. And even better for Vegas, he’s locked in for two more seasons after this on his bargain basement deal.

After an unlikely path to hockey’s top level, Thompson has proven he belongs.

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