NHL

What is the best NHL team you can build for 2025-2026 using today’s contracts?

Back in 2019, my readers wanted me to build the best possible cap-compliant roster I could put together using existing contracts. It’s not a very unique idea, and it’s not even that challenging if you read up on entry-level contracts. So we added a twist: We tried to look three years into the future, to the 2021-22 season. This meant we had to rely on long-term contracts, with no entry-level deals or other short-term offers.

You can find that post here and I visited it at the end to see how it turned out. In short: I scored big with guys like Nathan MacKinnon, Elias Lindholm and Aleksander Barkov. I also flogged John Gibson over Connor Hellbuyck and somehow Paul Byron ended up on the team.

All in all, I managed. But I want another shot. So today I’m giving myself one as we revisit the concept in an updated attempt to build for the future. We don’t know what the cap will be in 2025-26, and the pandemic made it harder to guess. But we have Elliotte Friedman’s report from a few months ago that the league was expecting $92 million, so we’ll go with that.

As a refresher, here are the ground rules:

• We’re focused on the 2025-26 season here, which means every contract we pick must stretch at least that far. Extensions that are signed but not started yet are fine, but otherwise we can’t use anyone whose current contract expires before then. Boston fans keep telling me that pending UFA David Pastrnak will take another hometown discount, and I would never doubt them, but until that happens, he can’t be on our list.

• We want the best possible team in 2025-26, not today, which means we’re projecting forward and age will be an important factor.

• We don’t care about real dollars, only cap hit.

• We need 12 forwards, six defenders and two goalkeepers. We don’t need to have any spare parts, although we may add some eventually if we have room, which we absolutely do not want to. We will try to balance centers and wingers and defenders playing on their right side, but we will not obsess over it. After all, these guys have three years to adjust to new positions if we need them.

• We assume everyone will be healthy in three years, with the exception of guys like Shea Weber, who are already LTIR-retired.

There are 171 players with deals that run through 2026, ranging from MacKinnon’s $12.6 million cap hit to Paul Cotter’s $775,000. One of these players is better than the other. You’re also more likely to end up on our list, but we’ll get to that.

Let’s get down to business, build from the grid and out like all good teams do.


Goalkeepers

This was the hardest position last time and it’s not much easier this time. There are only 14 goalkeepers in the league with deals that run through 2025-26, and one of them is Carey Price. Among the others, it’s a tough game with names like Elvis Merzlikins, Philipp Grubauer, Jack Campbell and Sergei Bobrovsky. I won’t fall for Gibson this time. And at a hefty $9.5 million, I don’t think we can afford Andrei Vasilevskiy.

That leaves seven candidates for two seats, and here things look a little brighter than they did a few years ago. This time around, there are actually a handful of reasonable options, including apparent All-Star Stuart Skinner at $2.6 million and Pyotr Kochetkov at just $2 million. There are also two solid young options in Spencer Knight at $4.5 million and Thatcher Demko at $5 million.

A few months ago, this would have felt like a slam dunk: Demko would be our starter. But he’s been terrible this year, which makes me a little nervous. Knight hasn’t been much better, but at 24 in 2025-26, he should be just entering his prime. Of course, he may have already turned out to be a bust. I’m not sure I trust Skinner and Kochetkov is in the AHL right now and could be another fake Hurricanes goaltender that they appreciate before the rest of us find out.

Even with all reasonable doubt, I can’t talk myself into a more expensive option like Jordan Binnington or 35-year-old Jacob Markstrom. So I roll the dice on a cheap-ish combination that will free up money elsewhere. give me Thatcher Demko and Pyotr Kochetkov as my duo.

Limitation of space used so far: A nice $7 million on two players, giving us $85 million for our 18 skaters, an average of $4.7 million each.


Defenders

There are 59 players to choose from here, at least in theory. I’m not going anywhere near Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty in their age-35 seasons, for example, and I’m certainly not paying north of $9 million for Darnell Nurse or Seth Jones. I was at least thinking about spending the $9.5 million on a Charlie McAvoy or Adam Fox, and Miro Heiskanen is very tempting at $8.45 million, but I just can’t afford to fill my blue line with big names.

Instead, I’ll throw in two big-ticket items, starting with a 26-year-old Cale Makar, who might have three Norris Trophies by then and will still have a year left on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league. I would pair him with another young star in his prime who should be a good value in Quinn Hugheswhich will cost us $7.85 million.


Quinn Hughes. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

That’s a good start, but we’re spending nearly double our average of $4.7 million on our top pair, which means we’ll have to go cheap the rest of the way. Of our 59 blue lines, only seven have a cap below $4 million, so it could get away from us quickly if we don’t find a few serious bargains. In fact, I’d argue that once Makar and Hughes are off the board, the second most obvious choice on the entire roster might be Matt Benning, a perfectly solid third-pairing option who will carry a floor price of just $1.25 million in the final year of an extension he signed in July. The other name that jumps out here is Calgary’s Rasmus Anderssonif the $4.55 cap hit is a bargain right now, let alone in three years when he’ll still only be 28 on opening night.

I need a lefty to play with Andersson and there are two names I am considering: Josh Morrissey and Hampus Lindholm. Both are having unexpectedly big seasons this year, which doesn’t guarantee they’ll still be at that level in three years. Both have cap hits that start with a six and both will be on the wrong side of 30 when our team takes the ice. I went back and forth a bit, but I’ll go with it Josh Morrissey to $6.3 million, as he is both younger and cheaper.

I have a spot left on the third pair and I’ll give it to another cheap option: Brett ear, who will be in the final year of a $2.75 million deal, making him the third-cheapest option on the board. He’ll be 33 in 2025-26, so there’s no guarantee he’ll still be in the league. But he’s been just fine in Edmonton, so I’d risk him over someone like Brandon Carlo or Josh Manson to save some extra cap space to spend on a forward.

Limitation of space used so far: We just spent $31.65 million on our blue line, an average of $5.275 per player. It’s over what we budgeted for, but this is the hardest position to fill in this kind of exercise, so I think we’ll be fine. Combined with our $7 million goaltending, we’ve spent $38.65 million so far, leaving us with $53.35 million for 12 forwards, an average of just over $4.44 million each.


Extenders

There are 98 strikers signed through our 2025-26 season, most of whom we want no part of. But there is certainly value available, even among top-line talent. We start there, build an elite line, and then hope we have enough left over to fill out the others.

We start with our first line center: Jack Hughes, an $8 million no-brainer. He’s having the breakout we’ve been waiting for, and there’s a decent chance he could have a Hart Trophy to his name in three years. He’ll also be just 24 years old and will somehow still have four full seasons left on his deal. This could be the contract that overtakes MacKinnon as the best trade in the entire league.

Our top left edge will be another obvious choice i Jason Robertson, who will be in the final year of an extension that carries a cap hit of $7.75 million. We can probably afford one more big-ish ticket, and there are a few options that should look like value propositions in a few years. Both Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle come to mind after making long-term commitments in Ottawa for just north of $8 million. Kyle Connor is just over $7 million. I thought of Nico Hischier and Andrei Svechnikov. But in the end, I just can’t resist: Give me Take Thompsonwho should be valued at $7.14 million even if he can’t sustain this year’s monster pace.

It’s a fun first line, but also an expensive one, so it’s time to go bargain hunting. I’ll start with Kirby Roof, which will come in at just $3.36 million. When he signed that extension, I said there was no way he was going to be worth it at the end, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be way too high or way too low. He’s midway through his first year in Montreal and heading towards his last, so he’s on our team. I round out an All-Atlantic second line with Alex cloth to $4.75 million and Drake Batherson to $4.975 million.

I need to be even cheaper on the third line, so I’ll start with Nick Paul. I still don’t understand why the Lightning signed him to a contract that doesn’t expire until the Sun explodes, but it works for our purposes because his cap hit is only $3.15 million. I stay around that area too Boone Jenner, which will come in at $3.75 million. And these two value deals mean I can splurge a bit on my final top-nine forward, so give it to me Artturi Lehkonen to 4.5 million dollars.

I’m down to about $6 million to spend on my entire third line, so my options are limited. I will start by spending half of it on Nicholas Roy, which will cost us $3 million. On the one hand, while I don’t like the four-year contract my Leafs committed to him, I’ll use it to take Calle Järnkrok to 2.1 million dollars. And our final forward will be the guy you always knew we’d end up with: Paul Cotter and his $750,000 deal, which just barely gets us under the wire.

Limitation of space used so far: Our forward group ended up costing us $53.26 million. That brings our total to just a shade over $91.9 million, just barely below our $92 million upper limit.


This is what our final list looks like.

Forward Forward Forward

Jason Robertson

Jack Hughes

Take Thompson

Alex cloth

Kirby Roof

Drake Batherson

Boone Jenner

Nick Paul

Artturi Lehkonen

Paul Cotter

Nicholas Roy

Jarnkrok Street

Defense Defense Goalkeepers

Cale Makar

Quinn Hughes

Thatcher Demko

Rasmus Andersson

Josh Morrissey

Pyotr Kochetkov

Matt Benning

Brett ear

That is not bad. It’s not some kind of unstoppable All-Star team either, but then that’s kind of the point of a cap league. We’ve got an absolutely dominant first line that we could split up to balance the scoring, and some nice depth with upside. We have a Norris Trophy winner leading an excellent top pair. In goal, we have … well, we have a Norris Trophy winner on the top pair, so we’ll find out.

In three years, this team will be reasonably young, with many key players just entering their prime. It will also have most of the guard entering their contract years, so they should be motivated. And if someone gets hurt, we still have a handful of goofballs to use on depth. These cap-era roster-building things are harder than they look, but I’m okay with how this turned out.

Can you do better? Do you want to trade someone in or out? Take your shot in the comments.

(Top photo by Cale Makar: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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