Top 10 Highest-Paid NHL Players of the Pre-Salary Cap Era

Today we will be going back in time and look at some of the craziest and most absurd contracts from before the salary cap came into play in the NHL. This article will specifically look at the highest salary numbers these players made on a per-season basis. The top deals you will see in this list involve crazy offer sheets to restricted free agents such as Sergei Fedorov and Joe Sakic, leaving their respective teams no choice but to match these outrageous deals in order to keep their superstars on board. Although no goalies made this top 10 list, the great Dominik Hasek came close, making a cool $8 million in 3 different seasons and net minder Patrick Roy, who made $8.5 million in 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons. Other surprising omissions to this list are, Wayne Gretzky who made $6.545 million in the 1995-96 season, the most in his career, Teemu Selanne who made $9.5 million in 2001-02, and the always entertaining Theo Fleury who cashed in at $8.5 million in the 1999-00 season. There are also some fairly random names that came close to making this top 10 list, such as Bobby Holik who was given a ridiculous $9.6 million in the 2002-03 season, and Jason Allison who cashed in at $8 million in 2003-04.

Now let us take a look at the players who made this list in the pre-salary cap era, the numbers from this list range from $9.68 million all the way up to a ridiculous $28 million a season, which holds the record to this day for the largest single season salary in NHL history. Let us now begin this list with one of the greatest American defensemen of all time, Brian Leetch.

10 Brian Leetch - New York Rangers: $9.68 million in 2002-03

This Hall of Fame defensemen was regarded as not only arguably the best American-born d-man to ever play the game, but also one of the greatest defensemen of all time. Brian Leetch, in his absolute prime, was known for his offensive instincts with his tremendous puck moving abilities, skating, and all around vision from the point. Leetch was also the first ever American-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy in the Rangers’ cup run in 1994. To this day Leetch is regarded as the greatest player to ever wear the Rangers jersey in the team’s history. Leetch is one of only 2 defensemen to crack this list of high priced players in the pre-salary cap era of hockey.

9 T7. Chris Gratton - Philadelphia Flyers: $10 million in 1997-98

Yes folks, Chris Gratton made $10 million in the 1997-98 season with the Flyers coming off his first and only 30-goal season. Gratton was bounced around from team to team following his trip back to Tampa Bay where he started, and then was shipped to 5 different teams; the Sabres, Coyotes, Avalanche, Panthers and Blue Jackets. Gratton failed to find any type of consistency following this deal, being constantly moved and not scoring more than 20 goals in any of his future seasons. Despite falling off the map with his lack of production, Chris cashed in big time with this one deal.

8 T7. Pavel Bure - Florida Panthers: $10 million from 2001-02 to 2003-04

The Russian Rocket made an impressive and consistent $10 million for three straight seasons, and man oh man, this guy was worth every penny to watch on the ice. Bure recorded four incredible seasons, two with the Canucks (92-93 and 93-94) in which he recorded 60 goals in each season. Later in his career with the Panthers, Bure would score 58 goals in both the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons. Bure holds both the Canucks and Panthers franchise records for most goals scored in a single season, a record that surely doesn’t look to be broken anytime soon. Injuries cut Bure’s career short, but despite an early retirement, no one will ever forget the entertainment value the Russian Rocket brought to every game.

7 T7. Paul Kariya - Anaheim Mighty Ducks: $10 million from 1999-00 to 2002-03

Coming on the heels of Kariya’s career year with 101 points, he was rewarded with a 4-year, $40 million contract, making $10 million per season. This was the biggest contract in Kariya’s entire NHL career. After his contract expired, the Ducks had to pay the speedy winger a minimum of $10 million for a qualifying offer. Former GM Bryan Murray was in a time of rebuilding and not willing to pay Kariya this large amount, forcing him to look elsewhere. Kariya and Selanne explored free agency together, both agreeing on a deal with the Avalanche. Kariya agreed to a one-year, $1.2 million deal, which became the biggest decrease in compensation for an NHL player in history. Kariya figured this would probably be his best chance to win a cup, but unfortunately for him, the Avalanche were eliminated in 6 by the Sharks in the second round. Although Kariya never ended up winning a cup and went through his share of injuries, he will forever be remembered as one of the greatest left-wingers of the 90s.

6 T6. Nicklas Lidstrom - Detroit Red Wings: $10.5 million in 2002-03

Nick was rewarded handsomely in the 2002-03 season with a career high $10.5 million salary for that respective season. It was obvious from the season before why Nick got this great amount of money from the organization. Lidstrom came off a year where he not only led his team to a Stanley Cup championship, but additionally won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the MVP of the post season, making him the first ever European-born player to receive this honour. To top this achievement off, Lidstrom also won 1 of his 7 Norris Trophies that season. These truly remarkable achievements make it easy to see why Nick made $10.5 million in the 2002-03 season. He is rightly one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game.

5 T4. Peter Forsberg - Colorado Avalanche: $11 million from 2001-02 to 2003-04

It was a weird season for Peter Forsberg in his 2001-2002 campaign, as he made $11 million despite not playing a single regular season game. His contract was warranted because of his massive part in the Avs’ Stanley Cup run the previous year. Forsberg made up for this massive contract in the playoffs, plotting 27 points in 20 games, a career best for the Swedish icon. The Avalanche were a game away from the finals before being eliminated in game 7 by their long time rivals the Detroit Red Wings. Forsberg first received a tremendous pay upgrade to $9 million per season before in 1999 after putting up career numbers in points with 116, 86, 91 and 97 from 1995-96 to 1998-99. Despite having to end his career short due to frequent injuries, Forsberg will forever be remembered as a crucial part of Colorado’s dominance in the 90s.

4 T4. Jaromir Jagr - Washington Capitals: $11 million from 2002-03 to 2003-04

3 Mario Lemieux - Pittsburgh Penguins: $11.321 million in 1996-1997

After an injury-filled year for Lemieux in 93-94, in which he only played 22 games, Mario responded the following season with an incredible 69 goals and 92 assist for a total of 161 points in 70 games. Lemieux’s performance that season earned him the scoring title, along with the Hart Memorial Trophy. Most importantly, Lemieux earned an incredible $11.321 million contract the following year, the largest in NHL history at the time, andmore than double his previous salary of $4.5 million. Following his extraordinary $11 million deal, Lemieux unfortunately only played one season, being forced to retire due to injury. Mario would return to the game a couple of years later in the 2000-01 season, only to add to his historic legacy as one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the ice.

2 Joe Sakic - Colorado Avalanche: $17 million in 1997-98

In the 97-98 season, the Avalanche were forced to pay one of the greatest leaders in history of the game $17 million, making him the highest-paid player for a single season in NHL history at the time. However, there was some drama attached to this massive deal. Sakic hit free agency and signed an offer sheet with the New York Rangers in a deal worth $21 million for 3 years. After pondering the contract, the Avalanche agreed to match The Rangers’ deal and retain Sakic. This contract set a trend throughout the league, which resulted in a raise amongst many NHL players. Sakic made a ton of money throughout his career and this deal was a major part of his career earnings. Sakic currently sits in the number 4 spot of all-time career earnings, and is the highest-paid center in NHL history, having earned $96.38 million in total.

1 Sergei Fedorov - Detroit Red WIngs: $28 million in 1997-98

Yes folks, Sergei Fedorov made $25 million in the 97-98 season, an NHL record as the largest single season amount paid to an NHL player in history and one that may never be broken. Fedorov held out for the majority of the season in 97-98 as a restricted free agent. Finally, during the season the Carolina Hurricanes gave Fedorov an offer sheet worth up to $38 million with bonuses. The Red Wings finally decided to match this offer in late February, ending the holdout between the team and the player. The contract ultimately resulted in $14 million for signing, $2 million for 21 regular season games, and $12 million if the team reached the conference finals. So basically to sum it up, Fedorov got paid $28 million for playing in 43 games. On the positive side of the deal, Sergei did lead the postseason in goals with 10 and also led the Wings to their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. This is certainly one of those crazy deals we may never see again in the salary cap era the NHL is currently in.

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