The NHL functions on a cap-based system when it comes to player salaries. Each year, the NHL sets a minimum and maximum spending cap in relation to overall league profits.
While the minimum salary is currently fixed at $700,000 USD, the maximum for any one player is tied to upper cap limit.
That is, a player’s salary cannot exceed 20% of the maximum limit, which was set to $81.5 million USD for the 2020-21 NHL season.
Therefore, the highest salary any individual player can make for this year is $16.3 million USD.
As a note, the league minimum is scheduled to rise to $750,000 USD in 2022-23 and to $775,000 USD the subsequent year. Below is a table depicting the yearly NHL Minimum Salary as set in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Minimum Salary (USD)
Given these set limits, we know that the average NHL player salary lies somewhere in between.
So, let’s answer the question you came here for…
What is the average NHL salary?
The average NHL player salary is $2,554,463 USD for the 2020-21 season. This value is based on 906 player signings, including all buried and two-way contracts. The highest paid player is Auston Matthews at $15,910,000 USD, while 161 players are paid the league minimum of $700,000 USD.
In addition, 520 players (57.4%) earn $1,000,000 USD or more, while 321 players (or 35.4%) make above the league average.
Keep in mind that these values are based on current season salaries, and not annual cap hits from player contracts. Moreover, the salaries are the calculated by adding each player’s base salaries along with their respective signing bonuses.
While Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) leads the pack for the NHL 2020-21 Season, he doesn’t own the record for the highest single-season salary. That honor goes to his teammate, Mitch Marner, who set the record the previous year at $16,000,000 USD.
Marner’s salary decreased this year to $15,000,000 USD, based on his contract agreement. So, why is that?
NHL Salary Structure
It’s actually common for players to sign multi-year NHL contracts with front-loaded salaries. Their first-year salary can exceed those in subsequent years of the contract, based on the NHL Collective Bargaining agreement (CBA).
However, there are some restrictions in place that salaries cannot vary too greatly from year-to-year.
It’s also possible for the annual salary to increase mid-contract or vary whichever way the player agent structures it within the CBA guidelines.
We’ll cover this in a future post about multi-year player contracts.
In the meantime, you should know that players can sign up to 8-year contracts as restricted free agents with their own team, or 7 years max as unrestricted free agents.
I refer to the CBA NHL-NHLPA statement found on page 285, rule 50.8, subsection (b) (iv):
An SPC (Standard Player Contract) with a term of greater than seven (7) years, provided, however, that a club may sign a player to an SPC with a term of up to eight (8) years if that player was on such club's reserve list as of and since the most recent trade deadline. With respect to potential unrestricted free agents only, the ability to re-sign a player to an SPC of eight (8) years expires when the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. With respect to a player who becomes a Group 2 restricted free agent, a club may sign such player to an SPC with a term of up to eight (8) years provided such player was on such club's reserve list and/or restricted free agent list as of and since the most recent trade deadline.
For those of you that are curious, I quickly explain here what two-way and buried contracts mean when calculating the average NHL salary.
Two-way NHL Contracts
When a player is signed to a two-way contract, they are not guaranteed the full NHL salary for the season. That’s because they are also signed to an AHL contract (minor affiliate team), which is significantly less.
Players are paid a prorated value of their NHL salary while at the NHL level. That is, they only make a portion of the salary for their time spent there.
If they are demoted back to the AHL, they return to the minor league contract.
While on the subject of AHL affiliate teams, it is possible for an NHL player with a one-way contract to be sent down to the minors.
Even though they’re not playing for an NHL roster, they continue to earn their NHL salary. This is known as a buried contract.
Now that we’ve explored all the possible types of NHL contracts and related it back to the average salary, let’s break down these averages by position.
Let’s see which who earns the most between goalies, forwards and defensemen.
Average Salary for an NHL Goaltender
Based on the 2020-21 season, the average salary for an NHL goaltender is $2,081,250 USD. There are 108 goaltenders under contract for the season. Both Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Sergei Bobrovsky (Florida Panthers) are tied for the highest salary for a goalie at $12,000,000 USD.
Both goalies are tied for the 5th highest salaries in the entire NHL this season.
Not too far behind is Carey Price, goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, listed at #20 with a $9,750,000 USD salary.
There are 51 goalies (47.2%) making $1.0 Million USD or more, while 32 goalies (29.6%) are making the league minimum of $700,000 USD.
Lastly, there are 40 (37.0%) goalies that are making more than the average NHL goaltender salary.
Average Salary for an NHL Defenseman
The average salary for an NHL defenseman is $2,520,890 USD in 2020-21. This is based on 285 contracts signed by defensemen on the season. Erik Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks is the top earner at $12,000,000 USD.
Karlsson is also tied for 5th in the overall salary rankings.
Other notable defensemen include Roman Josi (Nashville Predators) ranked at #11 with a $11,750,000 USD salary.
Not too far behind are Brent Burns (SJS), Drew Doughty (LAK) and Jacob Trouba (NYR) all tied at #13 with a $10,000,000 USD salary.
As you could see, NHL defensemen almost $500,000 USD more than the average goaltender.
So how does that stack up against NHL forwards?
Average Salary for an NHL Forward
The average salary in 2020-21 for an NHL forward is $2,672,738 USD. There are 513 forwards signed to NHL contracts for the season. Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) is the highest payed at $15,910,000 USD, as mentioned earlier.
The verdict is in.
NHL forwards are payed the most out of the three groups. The difference between forwards and defensemen amounted to an additional $150,000.
Now that we know which group is paid the most, let’s put our general manager’s hat on.
NHL Team Salary and Roster Obligations
How do general managers decide the amount to spend on each player?
Well, there are rules in place that teams must adhere to.
First off, each team can have up to 23 players on their Active Roster. These active players have their salaries count against the NHL salary cap.
If a player gets injured or sent back down to the minors, they can be replaced to fulfill their active roster limit.
As a result, you will see most teams pay more than just those 23 players throughout the season.
The actual number is closer to 30 players per team. (i.e. 906 players, 31 teams)
To learn more about the NHL player count over the last few years, check out my blog post here on How Many Players are in the NHL?
Getting back to our 30-player roster count, there is some simple math general managers must do. They need to make sure that the total salaries of any 23-player combination on their active roster falls within the cap limits.
For purists out there, it’s true that an individual player’s cap hit is is not necessarily equal to their salary. I mentioned before that a player’s cap is actually equal to their total contract divided by the number of years signed.
This number is either close or equal to their annual salary in question.
To recap, the salary structure and range for each NHL position can be summarized as follows:
As the league continues to grow in profits, it's certain that we'll see the average salary increase as well.
We already know that the base salary is increasing over the next few seasons.
I expect to see that minimum to be raised even further once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed for 2026-27 and beyond.
The other number to keep an eye on is the upper salary cap limit.
Because of COVID-19, we saw the limit carry over from the 2019-20 season to this one ($81.5mil USD). However, since being reintroduced in the 2005-06, the cap has undergone steady growth.
Once life goes back to normal and fans are allowed to return to the venues, expect to see the cap increase ever higher. As a result, the elite players will earn more, sign bigger contracts and drive up the NHL salary average even further.