This article has been updated and was originally published on May 11.
Leon Draisaitl‘s stunning five-point performance in Game 6 against the Anaheim Ducks and his team-leading 16-point performance through Edmonton’s playoff run made a compelling case for himself as the clock ran out on his entry-level contract.
Edmonton was one win away from a spot in the Western Conference Final and wouldn’t have been in that position without Draisaitl. Not only did he lead the team in scoring, but his reassignment to centre allowed the Oilers to finally counter Ryan Getzlaf. Draisaitl should be regarded as the club’s most valuable post-season asset.
This puts the third-year player in an optimal position as he negotiates a new contract.
It seems unlikely at this point that Edmonton will attempt to sign Draisaitl to a “bridge deal”, a short-term contract some restricted free agents get between entry-level salary restrictions and the big money of unrestricted free agency. Instead, the Oilers will probably opt for a longer-term contract.
For most young stars, the cap hit on this kind of deal is relatively easy to project, as it correlates closely to their scoring in the previous year. This is quickly illustrated by a look at forwards with platform years similar to Draisaitl’s 2016-17 season who signed extensions for five or more years:
With a few exceptions, there’s a clear linear relationship between regular season points-per-game and annual salary. Patrice Bergeron signed his post-entry-level deal early in the cap era, and so was underpaid relative to current stars. Jordan Eberle took longer to reach the NHL and was thus older than most of the players listed here, reducing his potential upside. Nicklas Backstrom got a 10-year term on his deal, back before the league negotiated an eight-year term limit during the 2012 lockout.
Backstrom deserves notice for an additional reason, however. He was the linemate of Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin during his entry-level deal, and there was a widespread perception that this partnership boosted his scoring totals. There’s little doubt this limited his ability to command maximum cap hit on his second NHL contract.
Draisaitl enjoyed a similar advantage this season, spending the majority of his time benefitting from the talents of generational centre Connor McDavid, his linemate at even-strength and collaborator on Edmonton’s first-unit power play.
If we set confounding factors aside for a moment, however, and look solely at that relationship between platform season and points-per-game, we find that Draisaitl’s 0.94 points-per-game this season generally corresponds with a cap hit of between $6 million and $6.5 million per season on a long-term extension.
However, that relationship fails to take into account escalation in pay as the salary cap rises. Two more recent signings provide helpful context.
Aleksander Barkov signed a six-year contract with the Florida Panthers midway through the 2015-16 season. Barkov, like Draisaitl, is a 6-foot-3 left-shooting centre. He had 30 points in 38 games (0.79 points-per-game) at the time of his contract extension, well behind Draisaitl’s numbers this year. Nevertheless, his new deal came with an average cap hit of $5.9 million, just outside the historic range for a player of Draisaitl’s caliber.
Johnny Gaudreau also signed a six-year deal in 2016, extending with the Calgary Flames in October. He had scored 78 points in 79 games (0.99 points-per-game) and was rewarded with a $6.75 million annual payment on his new deal, which would seem to fit with the established range for Draisaitl. However, Gaudreau is a 5-foot-9 winger, and both size and position work against him in comparisons to Draisaitl.
Those two data points suggest that our initial estimate may be too low for Draisaitl. His playoff work is also excluded from that estimate, and would tend to drive the price upward.
However, two other factors should work in Edmonton’s favour as the team negotiates a new deal.
The presence of McDavid, the NHL’s regular season scoring leader, cannot be ignored. He was on the ice for nearly two-thirds of Draisaitl’s even-strength points this year and virtually all of his power play scoring. That presence undeniably helped boost Draisaitl’s offensive totals.
There’s also a contractual oddity that needs to be considered, an artifact left over from Draisaitl’s first season. As a rookie, Draisaitl played 37 NHL games. That was enough to burn the first year of his entry-level deal, but not enough to count as an accrued year towards unrestricted free agency.
In other words, even though Draisaitl has played three seasons in the league, he still has five to go before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, rather than the usual four. Theoretically, that should work to lower his contract ask, since restricted free agents earn less than unrestricted free agents.
In practice, the drag seems to be minimal. Gaudreau had the same impediment and additionally didn’t meet the experience threshold for offer sheets (Draisaitl does) and still secured favourable terms on his recent contract.
Where does that leave Draisaitl and the Oilers? Anze Kopitar’s seven-year, $6.8 million AAV second contract looks like a reasonable benchmark. Kopitar’s size, position and point totals all match well. The cap was lower then, and the Kings were a worse team, years away from their future playoff success. However, Kopitar had a better multi-year track record and crucially didn’t have McDavid for a linemate.
Combine that sort of total with a new deal for McDavid, whose own entry-level contract expires in the summer of 2018 with an extension expected to be around $13.25 million AAV, and the Oilers will be adding a substantial cap commitment. If nothing else, that underscores how important it is for Edmonton to have success very soon, before McDavid’s new deal kicks in, and before financial realities force the team to make sacrifices elsewhere on the roster.