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Context of cap percentage is what matters most in an Elias Pettersson extension

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Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
7 months ago
A phrase you’ll hear an awful lot in NHL circles is that “the hockey world revolves around Toronto.”
The very worst of Leafs fans will say so with full earnestness. The rest will deliver the line with either bitterness or a hefty dose of sarcasm.
But sometimes, the phrase actually rings true, and the events of this past week are one of those times.
If not the entire hockey world, then at least the “realm of elite hockey players about to sign contract extensions” has revolved around the Maple Leafs and franchise centre Auston Matthews for the entirety of the summer.
Heading into the final year of his previous five-year, $58.195 million deal, Matthews had been subject to more speculation, conjecture, and outright rumour-mongering than perhaps any pending RFA in this sport ever. But all that chatter came to an end this past Wednesday when Matthews re-upped for four more years at a staggering $13.25 million AAV, which will make him the highest per-season earner in NHL history.
When a player of Matthews’ stature signs a deal this big, the reverberations are felt across the league. But they’re definitely felt most strongly in this clubs that also have big-ticket pending RFAs of their own to sign, and that includes the Vancouver Canucks and Elias Pettersson.
Now, we’re not really here to draw direct comparisons between Matthews and Pettersson. Most would agree that Matthews is the superior player at this point, and that doesn’t seem particularly likely to change anytime soon.
But Pettersson is absolutely in the same stratosphere as Matthews. They’re both part of the same elite club. Each is widely-recognized as a top-ten NHL center. Both are in the upper echelons of talent in terms of both offence and defence.
And with news that Pettersson and his camp don’t intend to negotiate a contract until after the 2023/24 season is complete, there’s every chance that he’ll post another 100-point season and earn more Selke votes, drawing him even closer to Matthews’ level.
The point we’re making here is that, while Pettersson can’t reasonably expect to earn quite as much as Matthews on his next contract, he’s got every reason to demand something in the same ballpark.
An $11 million AAV seems to be a near-guarantee at this point. A $12 million AAV now seems entirely possible, too. Throw in another season like 2022/23, and those possibilities become far stronger.
So, it makes sense that many Canucks fans are hearing the terms of the Matthews deal, and quaking a little in anticipation of what it might mean for Pettersson.
But maybe they shouldn’t be.
In this business, we talk an awful lot about “cap hits,” and that’s sensical enough. It’s the easiest form of shorthand for the value of a contract, and it’s what ultimately gets tallied up to see if a team is under or over the annual “cap ceiling.”
But when it comes to comparing the value of contracts over any significant period of time, cap hits quickly lose their relevance. What really matters at that point is cap percentage. And, under the context of cap percentage, the Matthews contract isn’t all that scary, really — nor should be the prospect of Pettersson signing something comparable.
One thing that you’re going to hear in abundance as Pettersson negotiations continue, and something that Toronto fans are already hearing in regards to Matthews, is that “no team has ever won the Stanley Cup with someone making more than $10 million on their roster.”
Which is, technically, true. Last year, Vegas won the Cup with Jack Eichel with exactly a $10 million cap hit, but not a penny more, and he’s now the record-holder for biggest cap hit for an NHL champion.
The thinking goes that if $10 million is almost too much, then $12 or 13.25 million definitely will be. With a cap hit that big, can there be enough room for the rest of a championship-calibre roster to form?
The answer, of course, is yes, and just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it will. Because cap hits inevitably go up over time, but so too does the NHL’s cap ceiling (pandemic years notwithstanding.) Which brings us back to that cap percentage.
Matthews’ prior (and still ongoing) contract gave him a cap hit of $11.634 million. His new one gives him a cap hit of $13.25 million. That’s ostensibly a raise of more than $1.5 million.
But back when that last deal was signed, it represented 14.64% of the cap ceiling.
This new deal, as of now, represents 15.87% of the cap ceiling, a fairly modest raise of just 1.23%. But even that isn’t truly accurate, because that’s based on the cap ceiling right now, and Matthews’ contract won’t kick in until 2024/25.
By that point, the cap ceiling is expected to have risen significantly. Current estimates have it rising from $83.5 million to 87.5 million, a jump of $4 million. By the time his contract actually becomes active, Matthews’ cap percentage should be about 15.14%, barely a raise over his previous slice of total team compensation. And then that percentage will go down in each year thereafter as the cap continues to rise, to the point that it will almost certainly be a lower cap percentage by Year Four than he currently incurs.
For those Leafs fans who wanted Matthews to take a hometown discount, there you have it. By the end of this next contract, he’ll be taking home a lesser chunk of the pie than he was before.
Which brings us back to Pettersson.
Let’s imagine, for the time being, that the 2023/24 is another stellar one for him, and that he remains uninterested in a discount, and that his next contract winds up being in the $12 million AAV range.
It’s a big number. It’s a scary number. But percentage-wise, it’s also entirely workable.
Under that $87.5 million cap, $12 million represents 13.7% of the total. That’s, one will note, less than Matthews made on his last contract. It’s also a higher percentage than any Vancouver Canuck has made anytime in the recent past.
Most importantly, however, it’s a cap percentage that is well in line with what championship teams have paid their best players in the past.
Sidney Crosby’s still-current contract, for example, was a 14.50% contract when it was signed. He went on to lead the Penguins to two Stanley Cups on that contract.
Same goes for Alex Ovechkin and his previous deal, which expired in 2021. That one saw him paid a cap percentage of 18.96%, and he led the Capitals to the Cup in 2018.
Even Jack Eichel’s $10 million last year represented 13.33% of Vegas’ possible spending. That’s right in line with what Pettersson’s maximum cap percentage should be.
The math works no matter how far you go back. When Anze Kopitar was leading the LA Kings to multiple Cups, he was only making an AAV of $6.8 million, which sounds like a bargain, but even that was 11.99% of the cap.
It’s why we can never get too caught up on cap hits. Their standards change over time, but our expectations are often a little bit slower on the uptake. So, yes, a $13.25 million AAV sounds extreme, and, yes, the notion of paying Pettersson anywhere north of $11.5 million sounds comparatively extreme.
But with the context of cap percentage, it’s really not. It’s not, at the very least, something that is guaranteed to leave the Canucks’ shorthanded in their attempts to build a championship-calibre roster, despite what folks will inevitably claim when the contract is signed.
The numbers, and specifically the percentages, don’t lie.

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