John Carlson’s new eight-year, $64-million contract will see him become the second-highest paid defenseman in the NHL next season. So, what does that mean for the two big-name rearguards set to hit the UFA market ahead of the 2019-20 campaign?
In the wake of John Carlson signing a new eight-year, $64-million contract with the Washington Capitals, here’s something we didn’t think we’d be wondering: did he actually leave some money on the table? And beyond the obvious absurdity of asking if anyone paid $8 million on an annual basis isn’t getting paid enough, though, there is actually some merit to the question.
It was less than two weeks ago that we dove into the subject of Carlson’s pending free agency and what he could be worth on the open market following Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s reported handshake deal on an eight-year, $66-million extension with the Arizona Coyotes. The conclusion from these parts was that Carlson had to have a toothy grin and dollar signs in his eyes after ‘OEL’ came to terms on that soon-to-be-official deal, in large part because the two had comparable numbers over the past few seasons with Carlson coming off of a post-season in which he had a big hand in helping the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The suggestion was that Ekman-Larsson at $8.25 million per season meant Carlson was going to earn at least that much when he put pen to paper on a new pact. In fact, it didn’t seem all that far-fetched to propose Carlson was in line to earn more than the Coyotes top blueliner, potentially taking the annual average value of his deal up into the $8.5-million or even $9-million range if he had such a desire.
Now, it turns out that wasn’t the case. And whether it be because of concessions made in negotiations — for instance, Carlson could have given up a higher AAV to be paid $13 million in signing bonuses in each of the next two seasons and an additional $5 million bonus ahead of 2021-22 — or other factors such as a wish to stay put in Washington on the heels of a title run, we’ll likely never know. But the reality is when Carlson signed on the dotted line, the contract wasn’t worth more than Ekman-Larsson’s, nor did it seemingly set an even higher standard for what No. 1 defensemen are worth.
However, that Carlson potentially left some money on the table raises another question entirely: what does his deal mean for Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson, who are themselves little more than one year away from being able to hit the open market?
Well, if we’re to consider the fact it seems the Los Angeles Kings are dead set on keeping Doughty in town while the Ottawa Senators appear likely to trade Karlsson at some point before he becomes a free agent, chances are Carlson’s contract plays a greater role in Doughty’s discussions going forward than it does in Karlsson. There are two reasons for that.
First, the fact the Kings and Doughty have reportedly been engaged in talk of an extension dating back a month or more and that Los Angeles GM Rob Blake has been openly optimistic about re-signing the rearguard would indicate that if a deal isn’t done on July 1, it could come shortly thereafter or at some point in the late summer or early into the 2018-19 campaign. And given the two contract signings, Carlson and Doughty, stand to come near each other naturally means one can have some influence on the other. The other reason is that while Washington was able to free up some spending room to sign Carlson without much concern, Los Angeles, should they ink Doughty to an extension, is going to have cap concerns almost instantly.
Chances are, though, that Carlson’s contract will have little impact on the overall value of Doughty’s contract. He’s going to be a $10-million player on his next contract, of that there’s little doubt. But maybe the idea in Los Angeles, where Anze Kopitar is currently the team’s highest-paid player at $10 million per season, will be to pattern an extension after Carlson’s in that bonuses paid up front can help limit the overall cap hit. If done in a way that’s agreeable by both sides, Doughty could then sign a deal similar to Kopitar’s eight-year, $80-million deal — even an eight-year, $84-million contract — that would give the Kings slightly more flexibility at a time when the cap crunch is imminent. At present, a deal identical to Kopitar’s would give Los Angeles a projected $6.3 million in cap space ahead of the 2019-20 season, according to CapFriendly, with extensions needed for soon-to-be restricted free agents Adrian Kempe and Alex Iafallo.
It’s not beyond reason to believe Doughty would be open to that kind of structure, either, potentially finding a workaround that allows him to get his payday while also keeping the cap-strapped Kings’ options open. He went on the record with THN’s Matt Larkin saying he wants to “win Cups, and that’s the bottom line.” If that’s the case, ensuring some extra cash is freed up for Los Angeles to spend on bringing additional talent to town can’t hurt the cause.
But what then of Karlsson? His situation is not all that similar to Doughty’s in that the Senators captain seems all the more destined for free agency or at the very least a trade that predates any extension. And if that’s the case, there’s little reason to believe Karlsson won’t be the defenseman’s answer to the Connor McDavid contract. The Edmonton Oilers phenom signed an eight-year, $100-million contract, and McDavid’s $12.5-million AAV was the veritable rising tide that has raised a fair number of boats. Karlsson could do that for blueliners, particularly as his situation seems destined to continue after Doughty has signed an extension.
Tangentially speaking, it is possible for Carlson’s contract can have an impact on Karlsson’s next deal by way of Doughty. That is to say if Doughty signs a Carlson-esque bonus-laden deal in order to keep his cap hit in a range that’s more manageable for the Kings, Karlsson’s biggest and best comparable when it comes time for his payday could be destined to follow the same pattern. Truthfully, though, if anyone can set his own terms, it’s likely to be Karlsson.
The fact of the matter is that while Doughty and Karlsson are connected in their perennial Norris contention, heavy ice time and — while some with an old-school mentality may bristle at the suggestion — impact at both ends of the ice, Karlsson has a game-changing quality that’s singular among current NHL defensemen. His 0.93 points per game are the most of any rearguard over the past three seasons and nearly a third of a point per game more than Doughty, while the two have skated similar minutes.
So, if Karlsson wants to eschew all comparables and set the new high-water mark for rearguards by matching McDavid’s deal or earning somewhere in the $12-million range, it seems likely he’ll do so. He has the numbers, both base and underlying, to back it up, and his lack of ties to wherever he lands next, that his next home could build their entire franchise around him or the fact Ottawa may have to pay through the nose to keep him means he’s going to be paid oh-so-handsomely.
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