With the NHL’s salary cap only increasing marginally over the past half-decade, there’s an even greater emphasis on management groups to round out the edges of their roster with cost-efficient deals.
In a perfect world, that comes via entry-level contracts – but the timing doesn’t always align for that to be a constant. Sometimes, you got to go bargain shopping.
Let’s take a look at five discount deals signed this past off-season that have paid dividends for clubs. For this list, we’re only including contracts under $1 million (not including entry-level contracts).
Adam Ruzicka, LW, Calgary Flames
Contract: Signed two years at $762,500 on Sept. 21
You can chalk up Adam Ruzicka’s contract extension – particularly the term of it – as another of Brad Treliving’s wins from the summer of 2022.
After being scratched for the first seven games of the Flames’ season – followed by logging 5:33 TOI as a fourth-line center in his season debut – Ruzicka was given a shot on Calgary’s top line alongside Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, when Jonathan Huberdeau went down with an injury. And the 23-year-old Slovak hasn’t looked back since.
Ruzicka – 13 points in 15 games – has evolved into a solid top-nine piece for the Flames. The six-foot-four forward has recorded the third most 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes (3.55) out of any player that’s played a minimum of 150 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick. Ruzicka has also been a driver during 5-on-5 play. And he’s carved out a spot on the second power-play unit, too.
There’s a lot to like about the 2017 fourth-round pick’s game. Ruzicka – who split last season between Calgary (10 points in 28 games) and Stockton (20 points in 16 games) – weaponizes his big frame to separate himself from defenders and maintain puck possession.
On top of being an imposing forechecker, he’s got a knack for creating slot chances. His 9.66 5-on-5 scoring chances per 60 minutes rank third on the Flames thanks to his slick hands in-tight to go along with his hulky frame.
Make no mistake, Ruzicka isn’t just thriving because he was riding shotgun on the first line for a bit – he’s recorded four points in as many games while playing with Blake Coleman and Mikael Backlund. Even if his production tailors off – which it probably will to some extent – it’s clear Ruzicka has proven himself as a capable contributor, and for the Flames, having that at near league minimum dollar through 2023-24, is a massive win.
Sonny Milano, LW, Washington Capitals
Contract: Signed for one year at $750,000 on Oct. 15
It appears Sonny Milano has found himself a perfect landing spot with the Washington Capitals.
Despite registering a career-high 34 points with the Anaheim Ducks last season, the 2014 first-round pick went unsigned through the summer. Milano, 26, signed a PTO with the Flames during training camp but was released ahead of the regular season, just days after the Capitals had Brett Leason and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby plucked off of waivers. So, Washington took a flier on him.
Following a brief AHL pit stop to start the year – recording three points in five games with the Hershey Bears – Milano has come out flying, recording nine points in 15 contests.
His crafty skill set – which made highlight reels last year alongside former Ducks teammate Trevor Zegras – has flourished. Especially on the wing of Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, as of late.
It’s worth noting that Milano, whose defensive game has been critiqued in the past, has recorded 3.38 takeaways at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes – which places him in the 96th percentile among forwards who have played at least 150 minutes this season, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Milano has played well enough to earn power-play time, where his high-end skill package fits like a glove.
The key for Milano, though, is remaining consistent. As encouraging as his 2021-22 campaign was, his output really tapered off in the second half. He went from scoring 0.79 points per game in his first 33 games to registering 0.30 points per game in his final 33 games – and one ought to think that contributed to Anaheim not extending a qualifying offer.
Mark Giordano, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
Contract: Signed for two years at $800,000 per year on May 22
Mark Giordano’s contract looked like a steal when it was signed. It’s now looking like an all-out robbery.
The 39-year-old has been playing upwards of 20 minutes a night since T.J. Brodie went down with an oblique injury 11 games ago.
Better yet, through that span, he’s topped all Maple Leafs defensemen in suppresing shot attempts, shots on goal, expected goals and scoring chances against.
All year long, Giordano has been a staple on the penalty kill as well – logging the second-most minutes of any Toronto defenseman.
Now, in a perfect world, Giordano isn’t playing that much on a nightly basis. But with that said, given how well he’s fared in his recently expanded role, he could really feast on secondary matchups once Toronto’s blueline is back to full health.
But ultimately, it can’t be understated how much of a win this contract was for GM Kyle Dubas. Even if his play drops off next year, Giordano’s deal may end up being worth its salt just by saving the Leafs from shopping for a defenseman and in turn, ponying up a lot of assets.
Erik Gustafsson, D, Washington Capitals
Contract: Signed for one year at $800,000 on July 13
Entering this season, Erik Gustafsson played for four teams in the span of three seasons.
The 30-year-old defenseman appeared past his expiry date for a while now. His 2018-19 campaign – where he recorded 60 points and finished sixth in defenseman scoring – is a distant memory.
Gustafsson – long renowned as an efficient puck mover with defensive defiances – has struggled to find his footing over the last couple of years. But when Dmitry Orlov got sidelined with an injury last month, opportunity opened up and the Swedish rearguard took full advantage of it.
Gustafsson – nine points in 27 games – has joined John Carlson on Washington’s top pair and together, the duo has recorded a 55 percent xGF and a 54 percent CF, according to moneypuck.com. And it’s not like Gustafsson has been a passenger, either.
“He’s been fantastic,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette told reporters. “Night in and night out, he’s been a very consistent player for us. We knew that he could break pucks out, we knew he had a good first pass and we knew that he can contribute on the power play. But he is doing an awful lot defensively as well, playing a really complete game.”
Zach Parise, LW, New York Islanders
Contract: Signed for one year at $750,000 on March 31
Just like the team he plays on, 38-year-old Zach Parise isn’t flashy – but he’s sure effective.
After being abruptly bought out two summers ago, Parise has quietly gone from being very publicly labelled as overpaid by the Wild to being, arguably, underpaid in Long Island.
Parise – 12 points in 26 games – has proven to be very efficient while being deployed in several spots throughout the top nine.
The crux of Parise’s impact has a lot to do with him creating a high volume of quality chances for an Islanders team that scores 3.15 goals per game. His 1.29 5-on-5 individual expected goals per 60 minutes ranks him fifth among NHL forwards that have played at least 150 minutes per game, according to Natural Stat Trick. Amongst that same cohort, he’s third for 5-on-5 rebounds created per 60 minutes.
If this list was made last year, Parise – who recorded 35 points in 82 games last season — would have been on it then, too. Since signing that first league minimum deal with the Islanders after being snipped from the Wild, Parise’s scored 47 points through 108 games with the Islanders.
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