At this time last week, Edmonton Oilers faithful were celebrating an eight-year, $100-million extension for Connor McDavid, a contract that saw the franchise’s 20-year-old phenom leave money on the table only weeks after winning dual MVP honors and officially picking up his Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer.
At the same time that was happening, though, Sabres fans had to be asking themselves a big question: if McDavid, the first overall pick in 2015, is worth the largest cap hit of any player in the league, what’s it going to cost Buffalo to get Jack Eichel, who was taken one pick behind McDavid, under contract long-term?
First of all, it’s not going to take McDavid money, let’s make that much clear. McDavid was the league’s lone 100-point scorer this past season, an offensive force the likes of which the league hasn’t seen since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the league, and, as a sophomore, McDavid produced at a higher rate than any other player in the league. He’s a franchise player and a singular talent. He helped drag Edmonton out of the league’s basement, aided the Oilers in having the best year-over-year improvement of any franchise and end a playoff drought that dates back to before the league’s lost season. Oh, and he did it all while wearing the ‘C’ for the Oilers.
All of that is more than can be said for Eichel — or any other player in the league this past season, for that matter. No single player had the impact that McDavid did in 2016-17, so saying as much is far from a slight against the Sabres’ young standout. But with McDavid inking a deal of gargantuan proportions, it does make one wonder what Eichel’s next deal is going to look like.
It’s something the Sabres are asking themselves right now, too. On Tuesday, Sabres GM Jason Botterill said that contracts talks with Eichel are well underway and are set to continue throughout the summer, according to NHL.com’s Joe Yerdon. The discussions, said Botterill, “have gone extremely well,” and Eichel and his representatives are looking to get an extension in place before the start of the coming campaign.
When it comes to making that deal happen, however, the two sides are going to need to look at some deals besides McDavid’s to use as guidelines, and the best way to do that is to look at players of similar skill levels and importance to their respective franchises who have inked their second contracts in the salary cap era. To do so, it starts with looking at production.
Eichel has been a steady contributor since his rookie campaign, and over the past two years has accumulated 48 goals and 113 points in 142 games, good for .79 points per game. Not only that, but in a campaign that was abridged due to injury — he missed 21 games — Eichel still managed to set a career high with 57 points in 2016-17. While he may not be there yet, all signs point to Eichel breaking out as a point-per-game player anytime now. However, for the purposes of finding comparisons, it’s worth looking simply at players who’ve had a similar scoring rate across the first two years of their career. And once that’s done, you get an intriguing list of names, most of whom are franchise players in the same vein as Eichel.
The players who stand out most are Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, John Tavares, with Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene and Thomas Vanek as outliers. The latter three all started their careers strong, to be sure, putting up numbers similar to Eichel. However, it would be fair to say none had or have quite the ceiling of the 20-year-old Sabres’ standout. That said, at the time, all three were looking like incredibly productive NHLers and were paid as such coming out of their entry-level deals.
Of the eight players listed above, the highest paid on a second contract was Stamkos, who earned $7.5 million per year on a five-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Somewhat surprisingly, the lowest paid was Tavares, who earned (and continues to earn) a mere $5.5-million per season on a six-year pact. But what’s more important to look at than the dollar figure paid to each respective player is what percentage of the cap limit said player was set to earn. For instance, Toews and Kane signed twin deals worth 11.09 percent of the cap in 2009, which worked out to $6.3 million. If the pair were to have signed those deals today, there’s little doubt the dollar figure would be far higher, especially as the Chicago Blackhawks were coming off of a run to the Western Conference final. That’s why the percentage matters.
Thus, when looking at the eight comparable players, it’s worth finding a middleground in the percentage of cap space they earned. On the high end — and go ahead, look it up — was Thomas Vanek’s $7.143-million deal, signed in July 2007, which ate up a jaw-dropping 14.2 percent of the cap. At the bottom of the heap was Tavares’ deal, which was worth a mere 8.55 percent of the cap when signed in September 2011. Altogether, though, the eight players earned an average of 10.99 percent of the cap when signing their second contracts.
So, where would that put Eichel? Well, with a $75-million cap for the coming campaign, Eichel’s deal would be worth $8.25 million per season, which seems like a fitting starting point for a new contract for Eichel. He hasn’t yet earned his way into 16 percent-plus category that McDavid has now created, but, given his ceiling, Eichel is certainly worth more than the roughly $6 million per season that many young players, such as Filip Forsberg or Sean Monahan, are inking on their second deals.
But fitting into a category with past young stars, the ones who were already faces of their respective franchises two years into their careers, makes sense for Eichel. And a deal that pays him somewhere in the $8-million range sure seems to make sense for the Sabres, too.
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