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by Brian Duff / Buffalo Sabres

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a bargain hunter. I don’t mind spending the money, but I (like the majority of us I presume) just happen to love getting great value. And with only a handful of teams remaining in the Stanley Cup tournament, and a summer of inevitable change fast approaching for all teams, it’s hard not to look at who’s doing what for who’s left and for how much, and how that will affect teams thinking once free agency rolls around in July.

The average NHL salary for the 2011-12 season was reported to be about $2.4 million. A quick glance of the playoff scoring leaders and you see a lot of the high-end guys doing their thing.

In fact, among the top 20 point-getters, only Philadelphia’s Jake Voracek was below the average salary - and just barely. So clearly, the guys who are paid to produce have done so, at least statistically.

But the playoffs often make you think that there are a lot of unsung, or in this case, underpaid (by average salary standards) players grabbing the spotlight. And to a certain extent that is true.

In the always unpredictable first round, 21 of the 48 game winning goal scorers (or 44%) were making below the average salary. In round two, just five of the 20 game winning snipes (or 25%) have come from that group.

We’ll see how it goes from here on out, but regardless of who’s scoring the game winners, there has been no shortage of players providing great value to the General Managers that signed them.

Top 5 Bargains (from the 5 teams remaining) in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs

5. David Clarkson – New Jersey

Showing a points-per-game improvement in each of his first three seasons, the rugged Clarkson netted a three-year contract extension worth $8M that kicked in at that start of 2010-11. For Clarkson, and just about every other Devil, that season proved to be a disaster. But in 2011-12, the former Kitchener Ranger (coached then and now by Peter DeBoer) broke out for 30 goals in the regular season and had two game winners versus the Flyers in round two. At a cap hit of $2.66M for one more season, Clarkson is the only one in this top 5 making more than the league’s average salary.

4. Brian Boyle – Rangers

In 2010-11, Boyle was a huge bargain, scoring 21 goals while making $525,000. The result was a three-year contract extension worth $5.1 million. Boyle struggled through much of the regular season, and only a late surge got him to 11 goals and 26 points. But the surge was not short-lived. His playoff has been good, and has produced two game winners. His size and presence are very much in evidence on the nights the Rangers have won and at a cap hit of $1.7M for two more years, Boyle should have no trouble remaining as a good bargain on Broadway.

3. Matt Hendricks – Washington

Just a month removed from his 31st birthday, Hendricks just completed his third full season in the NHL. In 2010-11, his energy and dedication was apparent all season long, and on display for all to see during HBO’s “24/7 Road to the Winter Classic.” In the end - 77 games played, nine goals, 25 points and 110 penalty minutes and a two- year contract extension. Had he been just a little bit younger, or with another season or two under his belt at the NHL level, he may have landed more than the $1.65M total over two years. Regardless, the first year of the deal saw his offense drop (4-5-9 in 78 games) but perhaps now, his value has risen. His “paralyzer” move in shootouts was a huge reason the Capitals even made the playoffs. And in the post-season he leads the team in hits (57), is their best faceoff man at 57.4%, and is playing more than 16 minutes per game (well above the 12 minutes he averaged during the regular season). At $825,000 for one more year, Hendricks is definitely the best bargain among all remaining skaters this playoff.

2. Mike Smith – Phoenix

Coming off a contract worth $4.4M over two years, Smith, as an unrestricted free agent, actually took less on his new deal with the Coyotes. Making $2M this season and next, but looking for that opportunity -- perhaps his last opportunity to be a legitimate number one netminder in the NHL -- the 30-year-old signed on and then delivered the season of his life. Career bests across the board in games played (67), wins (38), GAA (2.21), save % (.930) and shutouts (8). Among goalies who played in 50 games or more, only Smith and Henrik Lundqvist were in the top 4 in each of the major goaltending categories. Yet despite all that, and a division title with the Coyotes, Smith failed to emerge as a finalist for this year’s Vezina Trophy. Undeterred, Smith has actually improved his numbers this spring going 8-3 through 11 games with a 1.77 GAA and .948 save% through the first two rounds. Maybe he’ll settle for the Conn Smythe instead of the Vezina.

1. Jonathan Quick – Los Angeles

In 2009-10, Jonny Quick wrapped up his second season as the Kings number one goalie, but still (as he is now) with highly touted Jonathan Bernier as his backup. It was hard to tell then exactly how it might play out because of Bernier’s presence, but that’s what made the Kings signing of Quick to a three-year extension a wise one. The deal was worth $5.4M, a cap hit of $1.8M per. Certainly not problematic to move if Bernier became “the guy,” but easily manageable from a total dollars standpoint that the team was spending annually on its two young goalies. The 2010-11 season was a terrific one for Quick, lowering his GAA to 2.24 (from 2.54) and boosting his save percentage to .918 (from .907). But 2011-12 was even better. A third straight season of 30+ wins (35) and a miniscule 1.95 GAA over 69 games. Not to mention a .929 sv% and a league best 10 shutouts. Unlike Smith, Quick is a finalist for the Vezina along with Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne being the other. But just like Smith, his incredible regular season has spilled over to the playoffs. After two subpar postseasons, Quick’s third has been one of legend. A record of 8-1 so far, a 1.55 average and .949 sv%. And to think, he’ll make $1.8M again next season.

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