And then there were two. After weeks of negotiations, and amid reports that talks were heading nowhere fast, Shea Theodore can be emphatically stricken from the list of three unsigned restricted free agents. Late Monday, the Vegas Golden Knights made a long-term commitment to the 23-year-old blueliner, inking him to a seven-year, $36.4-million contract that carries an annual average value of $5.2 million.
Theodore’s new pact is significant in a few ways. First, it bucks what has become convention in recent weeks, particularly when it comes to RFA blueliners who have signed new deals. Over the past two weeks, Darnell Nurse, Josh Morrissey and Jordan Schmaltz have signed two-year bridge deals with their respective teams to get back into the lineup. Theodore, however, has signed one of the longer RFA deals of the summer.
It’s not at though Theodore’s contract comes without comparables, mind you. Noah Hanifin and Brady Skjei each signed six-year pacts as RFAs this summer, and a parallel can be drawn between all three deals. Skjei’s deal with the New York Rangers pays the 24-year-old, who has nine goals, 64 points and .38 points per game across 169 outings, $5.25-million per season. The 21-year-old Hanifin, meanwhile, is set to earn $4.95-million annually after turning in an 18-goal, 83-point production across 239 games, good for .35 points per game. Theodore’s lands in the same range.
More intriguing about the deal, though, is that it makes it abundantly clear the Golden Knights see him as a top-pairing blueliner. Theodore’s projected role, and the expectations that will now be placed upon him, is cemented by the term and the cap hit his contract carries. The seven-year term puts him under Vegas control for longer than any other current roster player. The $5.2-million annual salary makes him the highest-paid defenseman now and quite possibly for the foreseeable future, while also putting him fifth in cap hit among all Golden Knights. And it’s evident that the bet here is that Theodore’s performance in his first full-time NHL campaign is an indication of what’s to come.
Though he started the 2017-18 season in the AHL, a situation that was necessitated by a logjam on the Vegas blueline, Theodore found his way to the big club a quarter-way through the campaign and made an immediate impact, especially with his flair for offense. In 61 games with the Golden Knights, Theodore notched six goals, 29 points and stood out as a power play quarterback with more than a quarter of his point total coming on the man advantage. It was Theodore’s post-season that solidified his position as one of the more capable and reliable rearguards Vegas has at their disposal, though. As the Golden Knights made an almost unthinkable run to the Stanley Cup final, Theodore paced the blueline with three goals and 10 points and his average ice time (21:48) was second only to Nate Schmidt.
It’s the upside that the Golden Knights are targeting on Theodore’s new deal, though. The belief, undoubtedly, is that Theodore has tremendous potential to become a top-tier first-unit defenseman. Offensively, given his 11 goals and 46 points across 114 career games, it would be hard to argue Theodore can’t reach those heights. But there’s still work for Theodore to do in order to round out his game if he’s going to earn his keep as a consistent top-minute guy on the back end.
Primarily, the concern has to be about his defensive coverage and ability to drive play. Last season, despite impressive base statistics, the underlying numbers were cause for some minor concern. Theodore had the second-highest slant of offensive zone starts of any Golden Knights defenseman last season, but his goals for percentage (49.4 percent), scoring chances for percentage (50.7 percent) and high-danger chances for percentage (44.1 percent) were either the worst or second-worst among Vegas’ six primary blueliners. Even his shot attempts for percentage (51.4 percent) ranked third despite a higher slant of offensive zone starts than all but Colin Miller. If coach Gerard Gallant is going to rely on Theodore for upwards of 21 minutes per night, about the going rate for a top-pairing blueliner, those aspects of his game are going to need to be tidied.
There’s a genuine possibility we see Theodore take that step as soon as this coming campaign, though. There’s an even greater chance that happens if he finds himself moved up the lineup and partnered with a better play driver. All due respect to Deryk Engelland, with whom Theodore skated all but 173 minutes during the regular season and 67 minutes during the playoffs, but the Golden Knights saw more positive possession and better underlying numbers from Theodore when he was paired with any of Colin Miller, Jon Merrill or Nate Schmidt.
Vegas can wait for that aspect of Theodore’s game to come along, too, without worrying all that much about the contract being one that they come to regret in a few seasons’ time. In fact, at his now $5.2-million cap hit, Theodore will in two or three years’ time become either an awfully cap friendly No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman for the Golden Knights or he’ll settle in as a well-paid second-pairing rearguard who can post stellar offensive numbers and act as a power play specialist. And while they won’t be lamenting the deal if he ends up becoming the latter, Vegas will keep their hopes high that Theodore is on the cusp of becoming the former.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick and at 5-on-5, unless otherwise noted.)