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What’s the best NHL team you can build for 2025-26 using today’s contracts?

Back in 2019, my readers wanted me to build the best possible cap-compliant roster I could assemble using existing contracts. That’s not an especially unique idea, and it’s not even all that challenging if you load up on entry-level contracts. So we added a twist: We were trying to look three years into the future, to the 2021-22 season. That meant we had to rely on long-term contracts, with no entry-level deals or other short-term bargains.

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

All in all, I did OK. 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 era made it tougher to guess. But we do have Elliotte Friedman’s report from a few months ago that the league was projecting $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, meaning every contract we pick has to stretch at least that far. Extensions that are signed but haven’t kicked in 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’d never doubt them, but until that happens he can’t be on our roster.

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

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

• We need 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies. We don’t need to have any spares, although we can add some at the end if we have room, which we absolutely will not. We’ll try to balance centers and wingers and defensemen playing on their proper side, but we won’t obsess over it. After all, these guys have three years to adjust to new positions if we need them to.

• We’re assuming 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 those players is better than the other. One is also more likely to end up on our roster, but we’ll get to that.

Let’s get started, building from the net out as all good teams do.


Goaltenders

This was the toughest position last time, and it’s not much easier this time around. There are only 14 goalies in the league with deals that run through 2025-26, and one of them is Carey Price. Among the others, it’s a hard pass on names like Elvis Merzlikins, Philipp Grubauer, Jack Campbell and Sergei Bobrovsky. I won’t fall for Gibson this time. And at a lofty $9.5 million, I don’t think we’ll be able to afford Andrei Vasilevskiy.

That leaves seven candidates for two spots, and here’s where things look a little brighter than they did a few years ago. This time, there are actually a handful of reasonably priced 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 awful this year, which makes me a little nervous. Knight hasn’t been much better, but at 24 in 2025-26 he should just be entering his prime. Of course, he may already have turned out to be a bust. I’m not sure I trust Skinner, and Kochetkov is in the AHL right now and could be yet another fake Hurricanes goalie that they bail on before the rest of us figure it out.

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

Cap space spent so far: A tidy $7 million on two players, leaving us with $85 million for our 18 skaters, an average of $4.7 million each.


Defensemen

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 did at least think 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 won’t be able to afford to stock my blue line with big names.

Instead, I’ll splurge on 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’ll pair him with another young star in his prime who should be a nice value Quinn Hugheswho’ll cost us $7.85 million.


Quinn Hughes. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

That’s a nice start, but we’re spending almost twice our $4.7 million average on our top pair which means we’ll have to go cheap the rest of the way. Of our 59 blue-line options, only seven carry a cap hit under $4 million, so this can 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 next most obvious pick on the whole list might be Matt Benning, a perfectly solid third-pairing option who’ll carry a rock-bottom price tag of just $1.25 million in the last year of an extension he signed in July. The other name that jumps out here is Calgary’s Rasmus Anderssonwhose $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’m considering: Josh Morrissey and Hampus Lindholm. Both are having unexpectedly great seasons this year, which doesn’t guarantee that 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 by the time our team takes the ice. I went back and forth a bit, but I’ll go with it Josh Morrissey at $6.3 million since he’s both younger and cheaper.

I have one spot left on the third pair, and I’ll give it to another cheap option: Brett Kulak, who’ll be in the last 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’s even still in the league. But he’s been perfectly fine in Edmonton, so I’ll risk him over someone like Brandon Carlo or Josh Manson to save some extra space to spend on a forward.

Cap space spent so far: We just spent $31.65 million on our blue line, an average of $5.275 per player. That’s above what we’d budgeted, but this is the hardest position to fill in this kind of exercise, so I think we’ll be OK. 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.


Forwards

There are 98 forwards who are signed through our 2025-26 season, most of whom we want no part of. But there’s certainly some value available, even among top-line talent. We’ll start there, building an elite first line and then hoping we have enough left over to fill out the others.

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

Our top left winger will be another obvious choice Jason Robertson, who’ll 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 deals in a few years. Both Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle came to mind after making long-term commitments in Ottawa at just north of $8 million. Kyle Connor is just above $7 million. I thought about Nico Hischier and Andrei Svechnikov. But in the end, I just can’t resist: Give me Tage Thompsonwho should be valued at $7.14 million even if he can’t maintain this year’s monster pace.

That’s a fun first line, but also a pricey one, so it’s time to go bargain hunting. I’ll start with Kirby Dach, who’ll come in at just $3.36 million. When he signed that extension, I said there was no way he’d be worth that by the end, but I wasn’t sure if it would be way too high or way too low. He’s midway through his first year in Montreal and trending towards the latter, so he’s on our team. I’ll round out with an all-Atlantic second line Alex Tuch at $4.75 million and Drake Batherson at $4.975 million.

I’ve got 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 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’ll stay around with that range Boone Jenner, who’ll come in at $3.75 million. And those two value deals mean I can splurge just a bit on my final top-nine forward, so give me Arthur Lehkonen at $4.5 million.

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

Cap space spent 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 under our $92 million upper limit.


Here’s what our final roster ends up looking like.

Forward Forward Forward

Jason Robertson

Jack Hughes

Tage Thompson

Alex Tuch

Kirby Dach

Drake Batherson

Boone Jenner

Nick Paul

Arthur Lehkonen

Paul Cotter

Nicolas Roy

Calle Jarnkrok

Defense Defense Goalies

Cale Makar

Quinn Hughes

Thatcher Demko

Rasmus Andersson

Josh Morrissey

Pyotr Kochetkov

Matt Benning

Brett Kulak

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

Three years from now this team will be reasonably young, with many key players just entering their prime. It will also have most of the roster entering their contract year, so they should be motivated. And if anyone gets hurt, we’ve still got a handful of loonies and toonies to spend on depth. This cap-era roster-building stuff is harder than it looks, but I’m OK with how this turned out.

Can you do better? Want to swap anyone in or out? Take your shot in the comments.

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

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