Breaking down how NHL teams used their players on entry-level contracts

In the salary cap era, NHL clubs have had to be especially careful to build out their teams, trying to ensure that the value that their players add matches their paycheques. With the cap being flat, this has become especially challenging. To maximize value, teams have increasingly looked to their younger players on entry-level contracts (ELCs) to fill out the bottom of their rosters.

Some teams have done this with immense success, with teams like the Montreal Canadiens’ most recent run to the Stanley Cup Finals built on the backs of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, and budding star Cole Caufield. While other cup contenders like the Washington Capitals, managed to get just a handful of games out of their players on ELCs.

In the 2019–20 season, ELCs were most successfully utilized by the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, and Ottawa Senators, with those teams getting the most production from their young players. The Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and San Jose Sharks did not get the same level of production from their players on ELCs.

Entry-level performances by team

Things were quite different in the pandemic-shortened season. Let’s break it all down by seeing which teams had the most games played as well as point production.

Most and least ELCs

With a young but quickly developing core, the New York Rangers got the most number of man-games from their young stars. Their combined 456 games were mostly played by Alexis Lafreniere, Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, and Ryan Lindgren. They also got 35 games from goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who led all netminders on an ELC who played more than 10 games with a 0.916 save percentage.

On the flip side, the Toronto Maple Leafs managed only 17 games from three players: Timothy Liljegren, Nicholas Robertson, and Rasmus Sandin. They tied with the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders with three ELCers a piece.

Interestingly, two teams only had two players on ELCs play with them during the regular season, The Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild. The Lightning are one of the deepest franchises in the league, so it is no surprise that they did not rely heavily on their younger players as much even though most of their key players and management came through the Syracuse Crunch system. They got just six points out of 50 man-games, mostly played by Cal Foote.

The Wild had a unique case too. They got a combined 58 man-games from their players on entry-level deals, 55 of which came from Calder Trophy Winner Kirill Kaprizov. He also led all players on ELCs in points with 51, which was also all the points that the Wild got from their cohort. Whether Kaprizov stays in North America or heads back to Russia, expect that the Wild will call on their young players much more over the next few years.

Offensive impact by ELCers

With the likes of Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk, and others still on their ELCs, it is no surprise that the Ottawa Senators got the most points from their ELC players. Comined, the Senators’ players on ELCs managed a whopping 74 goals and 175 points this past season. They led the league in goals, but it was the aforementioned Rangers who led the way in assists with 111. This makes sense given how many defencemen the Rangers had on ELCs.

Given the Wild had just two players on ELCs, one of which was Kaprizov, it is no surprise that they led the way in points per games played. However, among teams that managed over 100 man games played by players on ELCs, it was the Carolina Hurricanes who managed 0.63 points per man-game played. They were carried heavily by Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas who put up 42 and 41 points respectively.

On the flip side, the Washington Capitals did not manage a single point from their players on ELCs. However, this is worth clarifying, as 19 of their 21 man-games came from netminder Ilya Samsonov, who got them 13 wins and finished with a 0.902 save percentage.

The Winnipeg Jets finished with just 0.09 points per man-game played from the players on ELCs. Through 58 games, they got just five points, four of which came from defenceman Logan Stanley. With Cole Perfetti coming up through the Manitoba Moose this past year, expect their production to go up substantially next season.

Most of the teams at the bottom of the league in terms of points-per-games played did not get more than 100 games per played, but the San Jose Sharks only managed 60 points in 255 man games. Mario Ferraro led the way for the Sharks with 17 points in 56 games this season. As a rebuilding franchise, the Sharks will need to hope to get more production from their young players.

Maximizing the returns on ELCs

Unsurprisingly, teams that were rebuilding tended to get more games from their players on ELCs, while teams that were challenging for the Stanley Cup tended to keep their young players in their AHL clubs. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals are prime examples of this. However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule, including the Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, and Arizona Coyotes, who preferred to sign low cost UFAs to fill out their roster.

That being said, almost every single team had an impactful player on an ELC on their roster. Whether it was Cale Makar in Colorado, Joel Farabee in Philadelphia, or Juuso Valimaki in Calgary, teams were made better by their young players. And with the salary cap as tight as it is, expect teams to continue to push their younger players into the lineup to help them improve their game.

There is a big jump from the AHL to the NHL, and teams need to be patient with their players as they continue to develop, however once these young players make the jump to the next level, they often become difference-makers for their team on the ice, and come in at a cap hit well below their value.

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