Of all the news that was expected this summer, from free-agent pickups to long-term re-signings, it can safely be said that no one would have expected Coyotes center Christian Dvorak to put pen to paper on one of the richer contracts of the off-season. Yet, on Thursday, news came down that Arizona had inked the 22-year-old to a six-year deal worth $4.45 million per season that will see him paid him $26.7 million over the lifetime of the contract.
And if that already seems like a high price to pay to retain Dvorak, context doesn’t help matters. Based on total dollars, Dvorak has now inked the 18th-richest contract post-July 1. Next season, he’ll carry a cap hit higher than that of other off-season signings David Perron, Brock Nelson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Anthony Mantha. And when taking both term and value into account, only 11 other players have signed deals this off-season that span six or more seasons worth at least $4 million annually. That list includes the likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Elias Lindholm, Brady Skjei and Tom Wilson. Realistically, though, few would have put Dvorak, a 2014 second-round pick who has played 156 games and scored 30 goals and 70 points over the past two seasons, in the same category as any of the above-mentioned players.
So, why did Arizona ink a pivot who’s still one year away from finishing up his entry-level contract to a long-term deal? According to Coyotes GM John Chayka, it boils down to taking a calculated risk, gambling on a player they firmly believe will improve over the next several seasons and paying now in hopes of having a steal of a deal later.
“Obviously, there’s a few different ways you can go about working with a player coming out of his entry-level deal,” Chayka said. “You can let it play out the three years and make a determination from there, you can look to bridge him, you can look to do term. Our view is that this is a player that we want as part of our group for the long term. We could wait it out, make him play another year. In that regard, we just think he’s getting better and better, the market is going to continue to rise and we felt like this was a deal that made sense for both sides at this time.”
The idea, said Chayka, is to build a sustainable winner, and the expectation with Dvorak’s extension is that it will offer great value at a cut rate when it comes time for the Coyotes to retain other young, promising talents.
“The (Clayton) Kellers, the (Christian) Fischers, the (Jakob) Chychruns, the (Brendan) Perlinis, et cetera, they’re all going to be coming out of their entry-level deals here soon and we’ve got to be able to make things work and make things fit,” Chayka said. “The way (Dvorak’s extension) was structured and the way that this lines up for us in the future allows us a lot of benefit and a lot of reward to keep this group together, keep growing with it and allows us to supplement with some outside players as well.”
Dvorak’s deal does eat into what money would have been available to retain a few of those players, to be sure, but the outlook isn’t at all worrisome for Arizona. Next summer, Chychrun and Perlini, as well as Lawson Crouse, Nick Cousins and Josh Archibald, will enter restricted free agency, but Arizona projects to have upwards of $18 million in spending room if we’re to account for even a slight increase in the salary cap. When Keller, Fischer, Dylan Strome and Vinnie Hinostroza become RFAs in the off-season ahead of 2020-21, another $15 million-plus is set to open up, as well.
In some ways, the play here with Dvorak is somewhat akin to the strategy the Nashville Predators have employed en route to having the most cost-effective lineup in the NHL. It’s the type of deal the Predators have handed players such as Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Calle Jarnkrok in the past. In fact, using CapFriendly’s contract comparables tool, there’s a decent match for Dvorak’s contract in Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson, the speedy winger who inked a six-year, $29.75-million deal with just 142 games, 39 goals and 77 points under his belt last summer.
The difference, of course, is that Arvidsson was fresh off of a 31-goal, 61-point campaign when he inked that pact with the Predators. Dvorak hasn’t shown nearly the same offensive upside. That said, Chayka championed Dvorak’s ability to play the much-coveted 200-foot game and noted that he’s risen to the challenge at every turn.
“Coming in as a young player, we put a lot of responsibility on him,” Chayka said. “He’s played some real tough minutes for a young centerman, a tough position to play. He’s come in and done a good job, no complaint. We’ve used him all over the lineup, his versatility is an asset, and he’s just a really smart player that can play in all situations. And, again, his drive and determination to get better is a big part of what we’re doing here.”
Even so, there will be those who see Dvorak’s new pact as an unnecessary gamble, one that could have waited until next summer when he has played out his entry-level deal and Arizona has a better understanding of his potential to become a major contributor. There will also be those who look at Dvorak’s cap hit and statistical output and believe it to be an error by the generally cost-conscious Coyotes. Chayka understands the uncertainty, but he also has faith his gambit will pay off.
“There’s always a risk when you’re committing to a player that hasn’t yet done that, but this situation with this certain player and the fit with our group, we’re comfortable that he’s going to continue to get better and, yeah, we think the offense is just scratching the surface,” Chayka said. “A lot of things he’s doing, going up against top players and playing tough matchups with some D-zone starts, we just feel that those are some of the most difficult parts to learn and he’s proven to be a good offensive player and we think that will just continue to evolve at the NHL level.”
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