Because the contract structure under the current NHL collective bargaining agreement, competitive teams with productive rookies are granted a bit of a “go for it” window while those young players are still on their entry-level deals.
Two prime examples of that landscape are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, undoubtedly the two most competitive Canadian franchises at the moment. They also both have pretty major contract extensions looming.
While the Maple Leafs have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs each of the past two seasons, and the Jets made it to the West finals in 2018, both clubs have benefited greatly from the salary cap flexibility they’ve had — in part — due to recently drafted players jumping into the lineup and becoming leading figures.
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Toronto has become the posterboys of this setup, with its three-headed monster of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The former two enter 2018-19 set to play the final season of their respective entry-level deals, while Nylander is currently a restricted free agent, the lone player at the NHL level with the Leafs last season in need of a new deal.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, the player taken right behind Matthews at No. 2 in the 2016 NHL Draft, Patrik Laine, has become one of the NHL’s best goal scorers in his teenage years, before turning 20 in April. Like Marner and Matthews, Laine enters this season with a year left on his entry contract, with only Alex Ovechkin having scored more goals than Laine (80) since 2016.
Besides Laine, Kyle Connor, the NHL’s only rookie to hit the 30-goal mark last season, and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting, is also set to play the final season of his rookie contract.
What will the Maple Leafs do with Matthews, Marner, and Nylander’s contracts?
It’s certainly a topic that has been talked about ad nauseam, especially after Toronto added a major salary eater to its books this summer, signing John Tavares to a max-term contract that carries an $11 million cap charge.
Going from the top down, it seems like Matthews has the easiest negotiation and most predictable contract coming. With bridge contracts for the NHL’s top-producing young players going by the wayside, it’s hard to envision the Maple Leafs not extending Matthews with a max-term (eight year) contract. James Mirtle at The Athletic broke down what that deal might look like, while also running through some other scenarios. But given that a shorter term deal could see the soon-to-be 21-year-old Matthews (September birthday) be 25 years old, in his prime, and hit free agency coming out of that type of contract, it runs another gigantic risk.
The money attached to such a deal should be immense. Matthews has been ultra-productive to the start of his NHL career, with 74 goals in 144 games. Since Matthews entered the NHL in 2016 (and in short order won rookie of the year honors), he has led the NHL in 5-on-5 goals (55) despite missing despite missing 20 games due to injury, and has scored them at a higher rate (1.58 per 60 minutes) than any of his peers.
Where the most intrigue probably lies is when the contract is physically signed. If Toronto elects to move to do so prior to the start of the 2018-19 season, then the Maple Leafs and Matthews representation will be operating under the current salary cap ceiling of $79.5 million.
But if Matthews plays out this final year without an extension, and waits until the following offseason, it’s likely the cap will go up, and whatever percentage of Toronto’s payroll he would have commanded this season will equal more dollars in that new cap climate.
It’s hard to see Matthews getting paid less than $10 million annually, and hard to see him getting much more than the $11 million Tavares will get. But he’s the future captain of this team, the face of the franchise, and a player Kyle Dubas and co. will want to secure his place in Toronto and leave it up to little doubt.
The fun really begins with Marner and Nylander. The former seems to attract more attention than the latter, perhaps because he doesn’t play on Matthews line, or perhaps because his elite skating and flashy puck skills lend themselves to more visibility. But statistically, the two forwards have been incredibly similar to start their respective careers. Nylander has recorded 122 points in 163 games over his first two, full seasons (0.73 points per-game) while Marner is on 130 in 159 (0.81). Over that stretch, Marner has recorded 2.04 points per-60, while Nylander is at 2.06. In many ways, their cases and portfolios when negotiating a new contract are incredibly similar.
A good starting point for those respective deals may be the Bruins David Pastrnak. While he was considerably more productive in the third year of his entry-level deal (his production jumped to 70 points after season of 26 and 27) Pastrank’s total points per-game over the life of that deal was 0.72. Like Nylander and Marner, he was a first-round draft pick, and his extension was signed in September 2017, just prior to this past season, where the cap $75 million, before increasing nearly $5 million this summer.
Pastrnak got a six-year, $40 million contract, an annual average value of $6.6 million. The Maple Leafs could attempt to bridge one or both of Nylander or Marner, but at 22 and 21 years old, respectively, they would need to be prepared for the player to be hitting his prime when that contract expires, instead of electing to go with term and buying some of those UFA years down the road. But if a bridge deal brings down the dollar value, it will leave the Maple Leafs with some cap flexibility because, again, it looks like Matthews and Tavares will soon eat up in excess of $20 million between them.
What will the Winnipeg Jets do with Laine and Connor’s contracts?
The Jets have already locked down key roster players on the other end of those ELC’s, phasing them into a different tier on their payroll. Right before Nikolaj Ehlers was set to play out the final season on his entry-level, Winnipeg handed him a seven-year, $42 million deal (an interesting example to keep in mind). Though the circumstances were slightly different, the Jets bridged goaltender Connor Hellebuyck on a one-year, $2.25 million contract, one that he excelled under this past season, winning 44 games. It culminated in Winnipeg again going with term, making Hellebuyck one of the highest-paid players at his position with a six-year, $37 million deal.
If they set a precedent with Ehlers, than at the very least Laine’s deal should be expected to come sooner than later. He’s scored goals at an unseen pace for players who have recently entered the league, flying up the ranks of the NHL’s teenage scorers. Yes, 29 of those goals have come on the power play (Laine led the NHL with 20 of those goals this past season) but it’s hard to really argue with the overall body of work. Laine’s underlying numbers and defensive game still have room for improvement, but this is a league where you pay for production, and Laine has proven himself to be elite in that category.
So where does this leave Laine? Since 2000, only Ovechkin has scored more goals in his first two seasons of NHL service in an age 23 or younger season. Ovechkin signed that massive 13-year, $124 million contract coming off his entry level, carrying a cap hit of a little over $9.5 million.
It’s tough to really use that as a benchmark for a Laine contract for a few reasons. The term goes far beyond what’s currently allowable under the NHL’s CBA, and the salary cap when Ovechkin signed the deal was $56.7 million, meaning Ovechkin’s deal was nearly 17-percent of that. For Laine to truly sign an equivalent contract, his AAV would be over $13 million, and there’s no chance in hell he gets that kind of money.
Another interesting comparable is Steven Stamkos. After a 23-goal rookie season, Stamkos exploded for 51 in his sophomore campaign, and then 45 the following year. The reward at the end of the tunnel was a five-year, $35.5 million contract, an AAV of $7.5 million. Taking the value of an NHL dollar when that deal was signed (2011, with a $64.3 million cap) and converting it to the modern day, it would be worth $9.26 million, right around the money Ovechkin got.
That seems like it might be a logical neighborhood for Laine, with the term notwithstanding. Like the Maple Leafs, the Jets are also somewhat cap tied, now with $41 million committed to nine players for 2019-20. But Jacob Trouba has an arbitration hearing coming, and Blake Wheeler is scheduled for unrestricted free agency next summer, and could command more money than Laine. Even if Laine takes a “hometown discount” a la Connor McDavid (and certainly something that will be talked about for Matthews) it’s still going to be a big number. But it feels like based on the pace Laine has scored goals at, $9 million could be the ballpark.
Connor in some regards might create a more interesting negotiation. The past 10 seasons, there has been 31 instances of a player scoring 30 or more goals in a single season in his age-21 season or younger. What you’ll notice about the list is it’s riddled with talented players, with a wide range of contracts coming off entry-level deals. Filip Forsberg, for example, scored 33 goals in the final year of his entry-level deal, after scoring 26 in the second (it’s entirely possible Connor’s goal-scoring production looks incredibly similar to Forsberg). The Predators got Forsberg in on a six-year, $36 million extension, which looks like a steal now, but was signed after he put in pretty similar numbers to Connor. Jeff Skinner scored 31 in his rookie season (just like Connor) before putting up 20, and then 13 goals in a lockout shortened season. He came out of that ELC with a six-year, $34.35 million extension, but he also is a center on a team not pushing the cap ceiling, relevant criteria in differentiating the two.
Would the Jets benefit from bridging Connor? On the one hand, if he hypothetically signed a two-year contract he’d come out of the other side of it at 23, having possibly put up a really big three seasons playing with some very talented linemates. And with the cap having gone up at that point, probably to at least $85 million, the UFA years you’re buying might be a bit more expensive.
If it’s not a bridge, term will certainly be another big question for Connor. Winnipeg gave Ehlers a six-year deal, and that was coming off a second seasons of NHL service in which he scored 25 goals and 64 points. Connor had five more goals but seven fewer points.
He’s always had a plus-shot, dating back to his college days at Michigan, and between him and Laine this might be the contract to wait to get done until after the upcoming season. He scored on 16.1 percent of his shots in that 31 goal season; of the 32 players who scored at least 30 goals a season ago that shooting percentage ranked as the 11th highest. If it regresses a bit and the goal total comes down, Connor would still certainly be a top-six type forward, but maybe not one worth as much as he is right now. Even if the dollar amount goes slightly up because of a cap shift, it may not cost Winnipeg the same percentage.
All statistics via Corsica.Hockey and all salary cap information via Cap Friendly unless otherwise stated.