Cap comparables: Why Auston Matthews could make more than Connor McDavid

Brian Burke and the Hockey Central panel weighed in on the William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs contract.

We know this summer’s crop of impending restricted free agents (RFAs) is loaded with high-end talent. But with the salary cap expected to rise to $83 million next season, any attempt to project how much each of these players might be seeking from their next contract must take the following into account.

Each year the cap rises, attempts to directly compare average annual values (AAVs) signed in prior seasons becomes less relevant. For example: how did William Nylander, a 60-point player, sign for a higher AAV than David Pastrnak, who scored 70 points in his contract year? Well, it’s simple: the cap went up and, as a result, Nylander’s $6.9 million AAV, while greater than Pastrnak’s $6.6 million, represents a smaller percentage against the cap at the time of signing.

This is why it’s important to look at ‘cap comparables’ from the perspective of what the percentage of an AAV is at the time of each signing.

With that in mind, and to help us potentially gauge what this epic crop of RFAs might be signing for, here’s a look at some recent big signings through the prism of their percentages against the cap, and which players from the 2019 RFA class might be seeking a similar slice of the $83 million pie.

To keep things as simple as possible, we’re only comparing players coming off their entry-level contracts (ELC) rather than also lumping in those who signed bridge deals first, with one key exception below. The only caveat is we can’t know which players are open to taking less to fit in, or who will get a bridge deal rather than locking in long-term. The teams, too, will surely rather compare to past AAVs.

Contract Comparable No. 1: Connor’s McDavid’s 16.6 cap percentage

Potential 2019 RFA comparables: Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
Connor McDavid 2017 16.7 $12.5 million $75 million
RFAs 2019 16.7 $13.9 million $83 million

Just two men are playing on a contract with an AAV more than 16 per cent of the cap at the time of the deal: Alex Ovechkin (16.8) and Connor McDavid (16.7). But given that Ovechkin’s 13-year contract term is no longer an option, McDavid is effectively the torch-bearer, and rightfully so. And since McDavid owns a pair of Art Rosses, Ted Lindsays and a Hart Trophy, let’s assume no one will sign a deal topping his percentage.

In terms of 2019 RFAs, if Auston Matthews doesn’t take a major discount, it’s likely he’ll come in at a higher cap percentage than Jack Eichel (13.3 per cent) but less than McDavid.

And this is where it gets interesting. Should Matthews sign for, say, a cap percentage of 15 per cent, that would give him an AAV of $12.5 million, the same as McDavid’s.

That is why it’s completely reasonable to suspect, if not expect, that Matthews could end up with the same cap hit — or possibly even a little bit more — than McDavid’s current league-high mark.

The only reason Laine is listed as a potential fit in this range is because of Ovechkin. Given his elite scoring abilities, Laine is a unique player without any other obvious comparable. Complicating matters is the fact that Laine is a winger, and wingers aren’t perceived to be as valuable as centres such as Matthews or McDavid.

Contract Comparable No. 2: Jack Eichel’s 13.3 cap percentage

Possible comparables: Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
Jack Eichel 2017 13.3 $10 million $75 million
RFAs 2019 13.3 $11 million $83 million

When it comes to Marner’s next deal, some have used Eichel’s $10 million AAV as a potential comparable. And perhaps Laine falls in this category too, though being the generational sniper he is, there is a strong argument to be made that he should earn more than Marner. And could this also be where Rantanen, the league’s leading scorer, lands as well?

This group is again headlined by a centre as the primary comparable. And while signing an extension in this range would make Brayden Point the highest-paid member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he is the second-best centre in this RFA class next to Matthews and is producing at a level that would put him in line for a major pay day. Point’s 21 goals are one off the league lead and 12 of them have come at even strength.

Will Point be willing to sign for a hometown discount like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov? That’s a very real factor here and it would knock his AAV down another tier.

A winger has yet to sign for anything in this range coming off their ELC so it will be fascinating to see if any of the high-level wingers listed above can break the mould this summer.

Since the start of last season, only five players own higher points per game averages than Rantanen’s 1.19: Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Claude Giroux and Evgeni Malkin. That’s it. Marner is averaging 0.98 points per game over that stretch, just behind Eichel’s 1.02.

Contract Comparable No. 3: Nikita Kucherov’s 11.95 cap percentage

Possible comparables: Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
Nikita Kucherov 2018 11.95 $9.5 million $79.5 million
RFAs 2019 11.95 $9.9 million $83 million

Throwing a wrench into all of this is Kucherov. He’s the only contract on this list that wasn’t signed off an ELC — the $9.5 million cap hit he’ll start next season with was signed coming off a three-year bridge deal. The reason we’re including him, however, is because it’s hard to make a case why any of these wingers should get more than someone with Kucherov’s resume.

With an 85-point season followed by a 100-point season and now challenging for the scoring lead again, Kucherov surely could have gotten more if he pressed the issue. Anyone signing for the same percentage Kucherov did the day he signed would be getting approximately $9.9 million against an $83 million cap.

Because Kucherov is a.) the first winger to appear here and b.) a top-three scorer in the league over the past two seasons, this may be the best upper-limit comparable for the top wingers in next summer’s RFA market. Rantanen certainly could be in this bracket if he challenges for the Art Ross — but then where do you rank Marner against Rantanen?

If it’s tough to swallow either of those wingers making as much as Kucherov relative to the salary cap, the lowest they may fall is to the next tier.

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Contract Comparable No. 4: Taylor Hall’s 10.0 cap percentage

Possible comparables: Brock Boeser, Sebastian Aho, Kyle Connor, Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
Taylor Hall 2012 10 $6 million $60 million
RFAs 2019 10 $8.3 million $83 million

Outside of Ovechkin and his 13-year deal, Taylor Hall is the high-water mark for left wingers coming off an entry-level contract. For right wingers, the pace-setter coming off an ELC is Vladimir Tarasenko, who signed for 10.3 per cent against the cap in 2015.

Could this be where Connor and Aho fall in? Consider that after Hall and Tarasenko’s first three seasons, they averaged 0.84 and 0.75 points per game, respectively. As for goal rates, Hall averaged 0.38 per game while Tarasenko sat at 0.37.

Connor (0.7) and Aho (0.74) both have lower point rates than those two, but their goal rates compare much better. Connor has scored 0.35 goals per game to this point in his career and is on track for his second 30-goal season, which neither Hall nor Tarasenko pulled off before their ELCs expired. Meanwhile, Aho averages 0.32 goals per game and was one away from 30 last season.

The best fit here could be Boeser. Clouding this comp, however, is the fact he played just nine games in his first season, was limited to 62 games by injury last season, and has missed a fair amount of time to injury again this season.

But Boeser’s 0.85 points per game compares well to what Hall and Tarasenko had accomplished to a similar point, while Boeser’s 0.46 goals per game tops everyone else in this group.

Contract Comparable No. 5: Johnny Gaudreau’s 9.2 cap percentage

Possible comparables: Kyle Connor, Sebastian Aho

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
Taylor Hall 2012 9.2 $6.75 million $73 million
RFAs 2019 9.2 $7.7 million $83 million

Further to the points above, Gaudreau signed more recently than Tarasenko and Hall for a smaller cap percentage, despite owning a better points per game mark than the other two at the time of signing (0.89). It seems most likely that Connor and Aho would fall somewhere between 9.2 per cent and 10.3 per cent on their next deals. But performance the rest of this season will still factor in heavily on what both can get — they are still playing for these contracts.

Contract Comparable No. 6: David Pastrnak’s 8.89 cap percentage

Possible comparables: Matthew Tkachuk

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
David Pastrnak 2017 8.89 $6.66 million $75 million
RFAs 2019 8.89 $7.4 million $83 million

Pastrnak is an interesting case because most forget he racked up just 53 combined points over his first two NHL seasons. He then broke out in his contract year with 34 goals and 74 points to earn his big deal. Could this be the high end of where Tkachuk ends up?

Here’s your argument for why the Flames’ productive shift disturber could be the team’s highest paid player both next season and even, perhaps, in franchise history. On pace for another season of year-over-year production growth and seemingly destined to be a future captain, Tkachuk is currently producing at a level close to both Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

Compare Tkachuk’s production to Pastrnak’s prior to his deal, and the Flames’ winger has both higher points- and goals-per-game totals in his first two years and is on pace to eclipse what Pastrnak did in his breakout, contract year.

Today, Gaudreau has the highest AAV of all Flames forwards at $6.75 million. If Tkachuk were to sign for that same AAV it would represent 8.13 per cent against an $83 million cap, a comparable percentage to what other left wingers such as Filip Forsberg (8.2), Artemi Panarin (8.2), Brandon Saad (8.2), Jonathan Huberdeau (8.1) and Nikolaj Ehlers (8.0) earned off their entry-level deals. And before you jump to the conclusion that second-liner Tkachuk doesn’t belong in that group, consider that his 0.74 career points per game is higher than all of them but Panarin at the conclusion of their ELCs.

So at the bare minimum, Tkachuk should be able to get at least the same AAV as Gaudreau on a long-term deal, but depending on how the rest of Tkachuk’s season plays out, Pastrnak’s deal and a $7.4 million AAV could still be in play.

Contract Comparable No. 7: Seth Jones’ 7.4 cap percentage

Possible comparables: Zach Werenski, Ivan Provorov

Player Year Cap % AAV Total Cap
Seth Jones 2016 7.4 $5.4 million $73 million
RFAs 2019 7.4 $6.2 million $83 million

Likely because defencemen typically take longer to blossom at the NHL level, they more often than not sign bridge deals before a long-term extension. Aaron Ekblad is the standard for blueliners coming off their ELCs, signing for 10.27 per cent against the cap. But with that deal now appearing to be an outlier, Seth Jones’ next-best rate at 7.4 per cent is looking like a better comp for this year’s class of defencemen RFAs.

Jones’ teammate Werenski is a natural comparison, though his game leans more on offence than does Jones’ and he plays roughly four minutes less per game than Jones. As a result, if Werenski signs long-term he may end up coming in under this 7.4 per cent.

Provorov, however, could more easily make the case for Jones’ dollars. He’s heavily relied upon in Philadelphia’s penalty kill, is used on the second power play unit and averages 24:46 per game (13th highest at the position league-wide). He’s also coming off a 17-goal season that tied for the league lead among blueliners. Granted his offence has stagnated this year, but this is a hibernating monster who will have more than a few years of Norris contention in his career.

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