For the better part of the past two seasons, New York Islanders star center John Tavares has consistently been getting ink. Reason being is that barring a new deal with the Islanders, Tavares, one of the league’s most brilliant offensive players, is due to hit free agency in July 2018, and when a talent of his calibre is eligible to hit the open market, everyone pays attention.
The thing is, though, we’ve been through this situation before. It was two seasons ago that Steven Stamkos, captain of the Lightning, found himself at the end of his own deal with Tampa Bay and eligible to see what was out there. He donned the cover of The Hockey News’ 2016 Free Agency preview, where his situation was called the “most important free agent decision ever.” It was at the time, too — he was, and is, an exceptional talent with the ability to go wherever he so pleased for seemingly whatever he felt he was worth. Of course, the situation came and went with Stamkos remaining with the Lightning, inking an eight-year, $68-million deal.
But in both situations, in the cases of Stamkos and Tavares, they were and could be the lone big fish, legitimate all-stars with Hart Trophy potential that would have no shortage of suitors willing to pay a king’s ransom for them to sign on the dotted line. As they headed and head towards free agency, Stamkos and Tavares were and are the only free agents in their class capable of carrying the franchise-player tag. And they were also alone — or, when it comes to Tavares, are alone — in having to determine what they’re worth as free agency approached.
And that’s why the upcoming situation with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and Ottawa Senators blueliner Erik Karlsson could be unlike anything we’ve seen in the era of the eight-figure contract.
Over the past few days, Doughty and Karlsson, both of whom are set to become free agents ahead of the 2019-20 season, have made headlines with comments about hitting the market. First, Doughty spoke with The Athletic’s Craig Custance, acknowledging that he has thought about free agency and explaining that he’d definitely speak with Karlsson to “kind of see what money he’s looking for.” And if Karlsson’s comments on Thursday are to be believed, he’s looking for top dollar. “I’m going to get what I’m worth, and it’s going to be no less, no matter where I’m going,” Karlsson said, according to the Ottawa Sun’s Ken Warren.
The multi-million dollar question, though, is what exactly will it take to land — or retain, in the case of the Kings and Senators — a perennially contending and Norris Trophy-winning franchise-cornerstone defenseman.
Well, Doughty gave us some parameters, at the very least. When speaking with Custance, Doughty acknowledged the current high-water mark set for defenseman, P.K. Subban’s eight-year, $72-million contract, a deal that paid the Nashville Predators rearguard a whopping $11-million during last season and the current campaign. It’s a contract Subban signed back in August 2014 while still a member of the Montreal Canadiens, and it’s a deal that’s value hasn’t been surpassed by a rearguard since. Others have come close, as Brent Burns, Victor Hedman and Dustin Byfuglien will all earn upwards of $7.5-million per season on recently inked contracts, but Subban's contract remains king among blueliners. That will likely change when Doughty and Karlsson are eligible for new deals, though, given Doughty’s comment that he thinks he and Karlsson “deserve quite a bit more.”
That is certainly an argument worth making, too. While Doughty hasn’t put up the offensive totals that either Karlsson or Subban have, he has consistently put up some of the strongest possession of the three rearguards and, over the course of the past five-plus seasons, has the highest actual goals for percentage and best expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 of any of the three. That means when Doughty is on ice, not only are the Kings getting the run of play, but they’re regularly outscoring their opponents. Doughty is also an absolute workhorse, logging massive minutes almost every night, and won the 2015-16 Norris, an accolade that won’t go unmentioned in contract talks.
As for Karlsson, there’s not much to be said beyond the fact he’s one of the two or three best defenseman in the world. There’s barely a statistic that says otherwise. His improved defensive play last season made him not just the Norris runner up, but a true Hart candidate. He’s twice won the Norris, too, with two second-place finishes and is one of the few legitimate game-changing defensemen in the league. His offensive totals are above and beyond either Subban or Doughty and his play in the past post-season was nothing short of amazing, which feels as though it’s almost an understatement.
But, still, what does “quite a bit more” than a $9-million annual salary actually look like?
In the case of Doughty, chances are it’s not some astronomical figure that makes him the highest paid player in the league. A true-blue No. 1 blueline, he is, but out-earning Connor McDavid? Not likely. A contract that pays Doughty somewhere in the $10-million range is not out of the question, though, particularly when one considers the $80-million salary cap projections for next season. Such a rise would likely mean the cap is at or near $80-million in 2019-20, as well, and strictly using percentages paid to players on recent deals, that could make Doughty a $10-million man. In fact, using Subban’s contract as a guideline, a pact which paid Subban 13.04 percent of the cap’s upper limit at the time it was signed, Doughty could be in line for an annual cap hit of about $10.5-million.
Karlsson’s contract is harder to get a handle on, however, because there’s no rearguard who has produced results quite like him. Subban provides us with a guideline, sure, but few would suggest Subban is the superior defenseman, just as few would suggest Doughty outshines Karlsson on a nightly basis. Truthfully, it’s not hard to fathom a scenario in which Karlsson is paid more like McDavid, Jack Eichel or Carey Price. And given the contracts for those three, each of which kick in next season, were worth an average of 14.67 percent of this season’s upper limit, a similar deal for Karlsson under an $80-million cap would pay him about $11.75-million annually.
We get it, though. Those numbers may seem far-fetched. But here’s something you have to remember about Subban’s deal: he signed it while still a restricted free agent. He had no leverage, no power to walk and no real negotiations other than those with the Canadiens. Karlsson and Doughty, though, will have an abundance of leverage. It’s not beyond reason to suggest there are teams who would consider altering their rosters and salary structures greatly to land either defender, making for several serious suitors. The Kings and Senators no doubt understand that, as do Doughty and Karlsson. And the fact they're going to be working together, or at least sharing notes, when it comes to getting what they're after could help drive the price up further.
So, earning more than Subban? You can almost guarantee it. The better question might be how much higher than $10 million per season Doughty and Karlsson can go.
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