Looking at the Canucks’ roster, it’s clear that Jim Benning and his management team have some big decisions ahead of them. Benning has talked about finding top-six help for his young core at forward, as well as upgrading their defence, neither of which will be an easy task in free agency.
Before they look outside their roster for help, however, they have some work to do within their roster. Specifically, they have 22 players in the organization that are pending free agents, both restricted and unrestricted. That includes one of the most important players for their franchise’s future: Brock Boeser, whose entry-level contract is coming to an end and will be a restricted free agent.
This is a key contract for the Canucks, who have to decide on the right term and cap hit for the 22-year-old sniper. Should they try to sign Boeser to a 2-3 year bridge contract that leaves him as a restricted free agent by the end of the deal? Would Boeser argue for a 4-5 year contract that sees him angling for a big payday as a young unrestricted free agent? Do the Canucks want to lock up Boeser long-term to extract as much value as possible?
A bridge deal seems unlikely. That’s the realm of the “show me” contract that asks a young prospect to prove they’re the real deal. The problem for teams is that if the player does prove themselves, they end up having to pay more for the player on their next contract, leading to a higher cap hit that makes the salary cap more difficult to deal with in the future.
Essentially, a bridge deal gives a team more time to observe a player before locking them up long term, but at the expense of their leverage. In general, the NHL has seen fewer bridge deals for good players over the past several years, as teams are starting to lock them up for longer at a younger age.
When it comes to Boeser, the Canucks can be pretty confident about who he is as a player, as well as his potential. Boeser is a first-line forward, who has fallen short of 30 goals in his first two seasons, but could possibly hit 40 goals in his prime. A bridge deal could be costly if he reaches those heights in the next couple years.
Boeser and his agent could argue for a mid-term contract that makes him an unrestricted free agent at 26 or 27, similar to the five-year extension Auston Matthews recently signed. Matthews will be 26 and a UFA when his contract expires, which could lead to a massive payday as he’ll be right in his prime.
The shorter term likely saved the Leafs a little money, even as Matthews is one of the highest paid players in the league, but they only bought up one year of unrestricted free agency. Normally, the more UFA years included in a contract, the higher the cap hit. The Leafs have a serious cap crunch coming this off-season with Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Jake Gardiner all needing new contracts, so keeping Matthews’ cap hit a little lower had to be a serious consideration.
That’s less of a concern for the Canucks, who don’t have an immediate cap crunch to worry about. As much as Boeser and his agent would likely love that kind of deal, it’s one the Canucks can and should avoid.
That leaves a long-term deal, in the range of 6-8 years. A long-term contract would give Boeser security and give the Canucks cost certainty. That’s the type of contract Benning gave Bo Horvat after his entry-level contract expired: he signed for six years at an average annual value of $5.5 million.
Boeser will command a bit more money than that. How much more? Let’s turn to a contract prediction model to get a better idea.
The twins behind Evolving Hockey have put together a model that predicts free agent contracts using a variety of factors, such as goals, assists, age, and position. According to Josh and Luke Younggren, there are 18 different factors in their model.
Here are our initial contract projections for the 2019 NHL free agent class! https://t.co/gVZYSBFJHB— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) April 19, 2019
According to this contract model, the most likely result for Brock Boeser’s next contract is a 7-year deal with an average annual value of $7,412,931.
That’s in line with what some others have suggested for Boeser and it would immediately make him the highest-paid player on the Canucks. At least, it will until Elias Pettersson needs a new contract in two years.
What about the Canucks’ other free agents? The other big one is Alex Edler, who will be an unrestricted free agent, but there are also RFAs, like Ben Hutton, Josh Leivo, and Nikolay Goldobin. What does the Evolving Hockey model project for the other free agents for the Canucks?
Keep in mind, this model only takes into account objective factors, like statistics, and not subjective factors, such as “Oh hell no, Derrick Pouliot is not getting a three-year contract.”
The model projects a four-year contract for Edler, worth a little over $6.2 million per year. The Canucks might be better served trying to sign Edler to a two-year contract with a higher cap hit, both to avoid a cap crunch in the future and to hedge their bets in case the aging defenceman declines over the next couple years.
Hutton is an interesting one. The Canucks have some young left-side defencemen in the system that might make them hesitant to commit to Hutton for four years. For what it’s worth, the model has a two-year deal as just 0.4% less likely than a four-year deal.
Meanwhile, Pouliot might not get a qualifying offer from the Canucks, making him an unrestricted free agent, and Goldobin seems more likely to get a one-year deal to prove himself.
At the lower end of the chart, the Canucks need to decide whether to re-sign Gaunce and Boucher, who each played almost the entire season with the Utica Comets. Cheap two-year deals for college signees Rafferty and Teves seem about right as well.
Then there’s Schenn, who the Canucks seem likely to re-sign after he made a strong impression in his 18-game audition to end the season. He’s coming off a one-year deal worth $800,000; the exact same contract seems like good value for the Canucks, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Canucks will offer him a little more on a two-year deal. We’ll see.
The other contract projections are intriguing as well. Some fans are eager to see the Canucks pursue Artemi Panarin, but the model projects an eight-year contract worth $11.25 million per year for him. Is that too much bread for The Bread Man?
Similarly, the top UFA defenceman is Erik Karlsson, for whom the model projects a seven-year, $9 million contract. Is Karlsson worth the risk, given his injury troubles and that he’s turning 29 in a little over a month? It’s also worth considering that this model undersells how much Karlsson will cost: many are suggesting he’ll come in at over $10 million, perhaps even at or above Drew Doughty’s $11 million-per-year contract.
Does that make sense for the Canucks?
The more money the Canucks can save on re-signing their pending free agents, the more money they’ll have in the future to sign impact players.