Hockey is a game of risk taking and gambles. Hockey analysis is a game of judging those decisions at our leisure using a whole different set of facts than the players had on hand when they made their move. Judging a contract signing is not very different.
There is a striking similarity between the frame by frame examination of a 15 second bit of video and the number crunching of a contract deal. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, but in both video forensics and forensic accounting, the view is obscured by all the things we don’t know. That doesn’t stop us coming to conclusions, of course.
Nikita Zaitsev signed a contract extension with the Leafs on Tuesday that is a very simple deal in one respect, it is 7 years at $4.5 million per year in cap hit and AAV.
I like the deal.
Is he worth it?
There are people who question if Zaitsev is really a top four defender because his single NHL season statistics are not always positive. The Leafs as a team had modestly good results in statistics like shot differentials, expected goal differentials and the component parts of those sorts of metrics. Zaitsev was not the best of the defence corps in any of them, and he was not the best of the three main members of that corps who are now under contract for term: Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner.
Neither he nor Morgan Rielly shone brightly by most measures this season, and yet, they played as the top pairing for most of the year. The Maple Leafs have committed to all three of these players, and this contract says that the Leafs wanted Zaitsev as a long-term member of the team in that role.
I think all three are good, but not star-quality defencemen, and none of them are paid like stars. This is not the time to delve deep into his performance metrics, but unless you are arguing that he is not a top four defender, then his AAV is right in the normal range.
Erik Karlsson makes $6.5 million. Drew Doughty makes $7 million. Kevin Shattenkirk is likely going to sign for $7 million.
The next tier down makes less. Good top four defenders make around $4-5 million.
And those are only the players signed as RFAs. There are a host of UFAs close in age to Zaitsev, who turns 26 this October, who got similar deals to play as a top four defender.
It’s the term
I understand why long term contracts make fans nervous. They are risky, just like a backhand shot that might fool the goalie is risky. They are glorious when they work, but they can seem foolish when they fail. Ask James van Riemsdyk about that between the legs trick he likes so much.
I don’t think the Leafs had a choice on the term. I don’t believe that teams get to dictate those kind of contract terms to players at this level. This isn’t a backup goaltender or a depth centre they just signed. The one year show-me deal is done, now is the time for the real money.
The contract the Leafs agreed to paid for a lot of things: the low price Zaitsev came over at on his show-me deal; the fact that he won’t get to play in the Olympics, which he would have if he had gone back to the KHL for a year and then tried again in the NHL as a free agent. They bought his arbitration rights, which he had this year and could have used to get a short term deal which would have allowed him to test the open market as a UFA after one or two years. They bought his UFA rights for six years. All of these things cost.
And some of the currency a team uses when they buy all of that is term. It is the stagnant salary cap that makes term deals necessary, as well as other things teams give in lieu of money like no-trade clauses and lockout protection and trade proofing.
That term though
I compared our big three defenders on their salary amounts and terms in a different way from the usual. I set it up to show the salary by age (at the start of the season, so bear in mind Zaitsev’s is understated a bit with his October birthday):
Maple Leafs Defenders' AAV by Age
What do you think we should fill in for Gardiner after he becomes a UFA? And how much term will he get? What about Rielly? He’ll be even younger than Gardiner since he entered the NHL so young. What will he get, and do you expect it to be less than seven years?
I’ll need a lot more columns to the right to fill in their deals when their current ones run out. The NHL wanted five-year limits on contracts, and they negotiated that up to seven because that’s how it works, you buy one thing you want with another thing you’d rather not spend, but you have to.
Term is the coin the Leafs had. Some players do take five-year deals at around Zaitsev’s age. Gardiner did. Jake Muzzin did, Christopher Tanev did. But none of them could simply hop back to one of the top three teams in the KHL, make very good money in their hometown, and then sign as UFAs. This negotiation was different.
Term is also not as scary as it’s portrayed. If I’m being flip I’d say this:
What an ageing graph looks like vs what people think it looks like. pic.twitter.com/5OzXpAJAcX— Katya Knappe (@KatyaKnappe) May 2, 2017
The reality is that on average the decline from a 25 year old player to a 32 year old player is a gentle slope. But there is a decline, let’s not kid ourselves. However, unless you think you can find a sure-fire endless supply of 23 year old players who you know will be excellent (even though they have no track record to go on) that you can rotate in every two or three years, you have to pay free-agent-sized salaries to the free agents.
It’s fine if you don’t want to. If that risk of the longer term scares you, and you think it should not be done, then don’t do it. But who exactly are you playing on your team then? Not Zaitsev. Unless you want me to seriously consider that the Leafs just gave this term away like candy for nothing in return?
Lou on Nikita Zaitsev: "It's a fair contact, but also cap friendly."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) May 2, 2017
The tight cap and the term limit is the system that exists. And the NHL chose to game it in the teams’ favour with ELCs. The Leafs don’t have a top four defender on an ELC. Few teams do.
A contract has many parts
Zaitsev’s deal has a few other interesting quirks. It’s not as simple as x dollars over y years. They never are.
He has a signing bonus structure that does not give him any lockout protection. That is, in the two years where the next lockout is most likely to occur, he has no signing bonuses. He does in all the other years, substantial ones.
That means if there is a lockout, the Leafs pay him nothing. That’s a concession a player gives to get what he wants, which is the term.
Those signing bonuses are $3 million in the first three years and $2 million in the last two years. They look like buyout protection on the surface. A buyout only reduces the base salary a team pays the bought out player, not the signing bonus. And they are that, that’s another bargaining chip, but signing bonuses are a double edged blade.
As we saw in the Jonathan Bernier deal, when a team values cap space more than actual money, trading a player after you’ve paid his signing bonus can help you move him if you’ve overpaid him or his value has declined. In other words, at 31 (Tyler Bozak’s age), after he’s been paid his signing bonus, and with two years left on his contract, Zaitsev can be traded to a team that only has to have $2.5 million in space for him on the year.
So even if you chose to expect the worst in age-related decline, the idea that this contract is somehow unmovable just doesn’t pass the laugh test.
This contract does have a limited no-trade clause that kicks in for the third year, but that makes a trade harder, not impossible.
The truth is, for all his KHL bargaining chips, Zaitsev really does want to be a Maple Leafs player for life.
After one season, Nikita Zaitsev and family think of Toronto as "second home." Played big role in return. Wife is pregnant with baby No. 2.— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) May 2, 2017
This deal was the hometown discount he wouldn’t have given Moscow CSKA if he’d been forced to go back to the KHL.
But the Leafs should have done a five year deal, you’re still saying.
And every draft pick should score 40 goals his first year, too.