Top 10 entry-level players of the salary cap era
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With a ton of restricted free-agent chatter around the league - but little action - we thought it would be interesting to review which players performed the best while on their entry-level deals since the salary cap era began in 2005-06.

Our list summarizes the 10 most productive players of the cap era during their first three NHL seasons along with the subsequent contract they earned for their efforts. But before we begin, let's go over a few ground rules.

  • Players on the list require a minimum of 200 games played over their entry-level deals. Being in the lineup consistently matters, and this also helps avoid inflated per-game averages for players who weren't regulars.
  • The contracts must be three-year, entry-level deals, which excludes players like Artemi Panarin, who signed a two-year ELC with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was on his first big-money contract by his third NHL season, and therefore doesn't qualify.
  • All cap-hit shares are relative to the cap for the year each player signed their respective deal.

10. Mikko Rantanen

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GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
239 80 (0.33) 129 (0.53) 209 (0.87) ?? ??

The strapping winger holds the record for most points totaled over a player's first three seasons since the franchise moved to Colorado in 1995-96. After a mediocre 38-point rookie campaign, Rantanen exploded for 111 assists and 171 points over the following two seasons.

The 22-year-old is one of only two players on this list from the current free-agent class, and he's yet to sign his first big-money deal. You can check out our contract projection for the hulking Finn here.

9. Mitch Marner

Mark Blinch / National Hockey League / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
241 67 (0.28) 157(0.65) 224 (0.93) ?? ??

The man who's reportedly stalled all negotiations for the current class of restricted free agents certainly had the most productive entry-level stint among them. The Toronto Maple Leafs superstar followed up consecutive 60-plus point seasons with a historic third campaign.

In 2018-19, at 21 years old, Marner became the youngest player in the franchise's 101-year history to break the 90-point mark, while his 68 assists were the fourth-highest total by any Maple Leaf in a single season. Marner also holds the record for most points by a Maple Leaf over his first three NHL campaigns. You can check out our contract projection for Marner here.

8. Patrick Kane

Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images Sport / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
244 76 (0.31) 154 (0.63) 230 (0.94) 5yrs / $31.5M 11.1%

The first overall selection of the 2007 draft lived up to the hype right away, collecting 72 points in his first season to set a new Chicago Blackhawks rookie record. That mark has since been broken by Artemi Panarin, but Kane was just 19 years old when he did it, while Panarin was 24.

Kane ranks second all time in assists among American-born players over their three entry-level seasons, and third in points. The former Hart Trophy winner is also just one of two players on this list to capture a Stanley Cup while still on his entry-level contract.

7. Auston Matthews

Mark Blinch / National Hockey League / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
212 111 (0.52) 94 (0.44) 205 (0.97) 5yrs / $58.17M 14.63%

Matthews potted four goals in his rookie debut and has dominated ever since.

What's perhaps most impressive about the 21-year-old's early numbers is how little he's relied on special teams. With 86 even-strength goals, only Alex Ovechkin has scored more in that fashion during a player's first three seasons over the past 20 years. Matthews also holds the record for the most goals as a Maple Leaf over his first trio of NHL campaigns, and if it weren't for a few injuries along the way, his totals would be even higher.

6. Nicklas Backstrom

Patrick McDermott / National Hockey League / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
246 69 (0.28) 189 (0.77) 258 (1.05) 10yrs / $67M 11.28

Backstrom broke onto the scene with the Washington Capitals when he produced the second-most points (69) by a rookie in franchise history. He also holds the club record for the most assists by a rookie with 55. And in the third and final year of his entry-level deal, the superstar Swede became the fourth player in franchise history to break the 100-point mark.

Additionally, Backstrom is the only player on this list to play in every single game of his entry-level deal, and he therefore holds the all-time record for games played over a player's first three campaigns.

5. Steven Stamkos

Scott Audette / National Hockey League / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
243 119 (0.49) 113 (0.47) 232 (0.95) 5yrs / $37.5M 11.66%

Stamkos scored 23, 51, and 45 goals in his first three seasons, putting him second on this list in that department. Overall, the Tampa Bay Lightning's all-time leading goal-scorer produced by far and away the most productive entry-level stint in franchise history, with 28 more goals and 34 more points than any other Lightning player in that span.

A lethal threat from the left hashmark, Stamkos' 50 power-play markers through his first three seasons are good for fifth by any player in that span. And in the first year of his well-earned five-year contract, Stamkos more than delivered, becoming just the 20th player in NHL history to record 60 goals in a season.

4. Connor McDavid

Jamie Sabau / National Hockey League / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
209 87 (0.42) 169 (0.81) 256 (1.22) 8yrs / $100M 16.67%

Despite having his rookie season cut nearly in half due to a fractured clavicle, McDavid was still able to notch 256 points on his entry-level deal for the fourth-best three-year start to a career in Edmonton Oilers history. Had he remained healthy, McDavid was on pace for an 87-point rookie season, which would have lifted his three-year total to 295 points, putting him behind only Wayne Gretzky among all Oilers in any era.

Despite being known for his playmaking, McDavid actually ranks third on this list with 74 goals at even strength during his entry-level deal. The Ontario native also ranks eighth all time in any era with 0.81 assists per game over his first three seasons. And on his first big-money contract, McDavid earned the maximum eight-year term, while his cap-hit share of 16.67 percent is the second highest of the salary cap era.

3. Evgeni Malkin

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GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
242 115 (0.48) 189 (0.78) 304 (1.26) 5yrs / $43.5M 15.34%

The Pittsburgh Penguins marksman holds the modern-day record by scoring in each of his first six NHL contests as a rookie, tallying seven goals and 11 points over that span. That early brilliance was just a sample of what was to come, as Malkin recorded 85 points in his first campaign to take home the 2006-07 Calder Trophy.

The 6-foot-3 sniper went on to record back-to-back 100-plus-point seasons in his second and third NHL campaigns, and he ranks eighth all time in points over a player's first three seasons. He's also the second player on this list, along with Kane, to capture a Stanley Cup during his entry-level contract.

2. Sidney Crosby

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty
GP G (PerGP) A Pts Contract Cap%
213 99 (0.46) 195 (0.92) 294 (1.38) 12yrs / $104M 14.5%

The wunderkind dubbed hockey's "Next One" upon entering the league answered the bell with a 102-point rookie season at just 18 years of age, and he followed that up with an incredible 84-assist, 120-point sophomore campaign.

Crosby then played at a 111-point pace in his injury-riddled third season. If he had stayed healthy, he was projected to record 333 points over his first three campaigns, which would have been the fourth-best mark in history in any era. His assist-per-game mark of 0.92 is also good for the fifth-best rate in a player's first three years.

1. Alex Ovechkin

Harry How / Getty Images Sport / Getty
GP G (Per GP) A Pts Contract Cap%
245 163 (0.67) 147 (0.60) 310 (1.27) 13yrs / $124M 16.82%

The "Great 8" played in all but one game during his three-year, entry-level deal and was among the most productive players of all time during that span. Ovechkin and fellow Russian Pavel Bure hold the modern-day record for the most game-winning goals in their first three years with 24, and only Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky potted more goals than Ovechkin over their first three NHL seasons.

Ovechkin scores in all fashions at an elite level, and therefore sits third all time in even-strength markers and second in power-play goals while playing on an entry-level deal. In the final season of his first contract, Ovechkin set what remains his career high with 65 goals, becoming the second-youngest player in history to hit that mark. His cap-hit share of 16.82 percent is the highest of the salary cap era, but we'd argue it's been well worth the investment for the Washington Capitals.

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Top 10 entry-level players of the salary cap era
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