Johnston: Kadri contract could be tough for Leafs

April 9, 2013, 2:35 PM

TORONTO — When the Toronto Maple Leafs sit down to talk about a new contract with Nazem Kadri this summer, there will be no perfect comparable for either side to point to in negotiations.

In fact, the circumstances surrounding this particular set of talks promise to be pretty much unprecedented.

Kadri is currently playing out the final year of his entry-level deal and entered play Tuesday in a tie for 10th in NHL scoring with 40 points. Since the introduction of the salary cap in 2005, only a handful of players have finished that high on the scoring list while playing on their first pro deal and most hockey fans could name them off the top of their head.

But, of course, this isn’t just any season.

If Kadri manages to maintain his current position in the scoring race over Toronto’s final nine games, he will have achieved the feat in a compacted 48-game schedule — a number which amounts to slightly less than 60 per cent of a typical season.

More than anything, sample size will be a key factor in helping determine Kadri’s value.

After spending most of the last two seasons in the American Hockey League, his body of work in the NHL is much smaller than all of the players who earned big-money extensions coming out of their entry-level deals in recent years.

Here is a list of those players, which includes their points per game average in the regular season at the time the extension was announced:

Player Signed GP AAV Years PPG(Career) PPG(Best season)
Taylor Hall 8/22/’12 126 $6M 7 0.75 0.87
Jordan Eberle 8/30/’12 147 $6M 6 0.81 0.97
Tyler Seguin 9/11/’12 155 $5.75M 6 0.57 0.83
Jeff Skinner 8/8/’12 146 $5.725M 6 0.73 0.77
Evander Kane 9/15/’12 213 $5.25M 6 0.59 0.77
Jamie Benn 1/24/’13 222 $5.25M 5 0.72 0.89
Bobby Ryan 9/14/’10 168 $5.1M 5 0.78 0.89
John Tavares 9/14/’11 161 $5M 6 0.75 0.85
Ryan O’Reilly 3/1/’13 236 $5M 2 0.45 0.68
Nazem Kadri TBD 90 TBD TBD 0.66 1.03

As you can see, Kadri currently boasts a better production level than Tyler Seguin and Evander Kane did at the time of their extensions. He is slightly below that of Jamie Benn and Jeff Skinner.

But are the Leafs ready to give him the type of long-term commitment each of those four players received after such a short time performing at that level?

Negotiations aren’t expected to begin on the next Kadri contract until after the season, according to GM Dave Nonis, and that seems just fine with the player himself.

However, during a recent chat with sportsnet.ca, Kadri made it clear that it would be his preference to look at a long-term deal when the time comes to talk dollars and cents.

“I’m just thinking straight hockey right now, trying to worry about my play,” said Kadri. “But I’d like to set myself up well for next year because I want to be in a Maple Leafs jersey for a long, long time. Whether they feel the same way is up to them.”

From all indications, the Leafs have been pleasantly surprised with his breakout year.

One thing the NHL team will do before opening negotiations for any player is to search through the contracts of others around the league with comparable statistics — everything from goals and points to hits and blocked shots. Basically anything that they believe is relevant to measuring value.

That will often help lead them to a starting point for talks, both in terms of potential cap hit and a suitable length of contract.

Asked last week about how he views Kadri’s production in light of it being a shortened season, Nonis was extremely complimentary of the 22-year-old centre.

“All you can say is where he is today,” said Nonis. “He’s done a very good job, he’s competed. He still has some parts of his game that you’re probably never going to get out but that’s because of his creativity.

“(There’s still) the odd turnover that you cringe, but you can’t suck that out of a guy like Naz either because he needs that to put up points and to be the best player he can be.”

An important part of any general manager’s job is being able to project where a player’s career is heading. As much as a contract might be negotiated based on past production, its ramifications will be felt in the future – particularly in the NHL’s salary cap world.

Nonis isn’t ready to proclaim that Kadri’s current level of production is something he’ll be able to maintain over the long term.

“His body of work is very small and I think we all have to recognize that,” said Nonis. “If he does have a setback — and hopefully he doesn’t — we’re still dealing with a young player that’s learning a lot about the game. But you can’t do anything but give him credit for what he’s done so far.”

From the Leafs perspective, the best-case scenario might be negotiating a short-term bridge deal similar to what Colorado did with Matt Duchene last summer and Montreal gave P.K. Subban following his short holdout in January.

Here’s a breakdown of how those deals look (note that the comparison to Subban, a defenceman, isn’t exactly apples to apples):

Player Signed GP AAV Years PPG(Career) PPG(Best season)
Matt Duchene 6/23/’12 219 $3.5M 2 0.68 0.84
P.K. Subban 1/28/’13 160 $2.875M 2 0.48 0.49
Nazem Kadri TBD 90 TBD TBD 0.66 1.03

That certainly offers some food for thought, particularly with Duchene’s point production being so similar to Kadri’s.

Second contracts have proven to be tricky for a number of NHL teams because players don’t hold any arbitration rights but are often looking for big deals. That was certainly the case recently with Subban and Ryan O’Reilly, who ended up signing an offer sheet with Calgary that was matched by Colorado.

The Leafs are believed to be more than happy to pay Kadri fair value — assuming both sides measure value the same way.

It certainly doesn’t sound like the team is prepared to take a hard line with a player who is starting to become a fan favourite in Toronto.

“He’s earned a lot of what he’s getting right now,” said Nonis. “This town, they love to support players like Naz, and he’s done it. You can’t take that away from the kid.”

A strong finish and good performance in the playoffs would certainly give Kadri a little more leverage at the bargaining table. Despite his impending status as a restricted free agent, he has shown no signs of being distracted by his contractual situation.

“Obviously it’s in the back of my head, but I’m just worried about every single two points we can get right now and trying to make the playoffs this year,” said Kadri. “We’re really having ourselves a big year as far as the whole team goes.

“Nothing’s been said to me as of yet (about the contract), but I’m sure we’ll talk in the summertime.”
It is setting up to be an interesting conversation.

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