The 2016-17 Canucks season was an ugly one, with few sources of positivity. One of those sources, however, was Troy Stecher. The young defenceman’s rookie season showed that he was ready to take on top-four minutes and potentially step into a major power play role.
That pleasant surprise was undercut by his sophomore season. While Stecher made good on his promise as a potential top-four defenceman, his offence took a step back and he never grabbed hold of a spot on the power play.
Now Stecher is a restricted free agent in need of a new contract. Last week, he filed for salary arbitration, which is one of the few pieces of leverage for a restricted free agent. It can be a difficult process for a player to go through, however, as they have to hear their team list all the reasons why they’re not good enough.
That’s one of several reasons why so few cases actually reach arbitration. Both players and teams generally prefer to sign a contract before it gets that far, even after a player files for arbitration.
Stecher’s hearing is scheduled for July 29th, giving the two sides a couple more weeks to agree on a contract.
So what does Stecher deserve for his new contract?
It’s a difficult question to answer. Yes, Stecher stepped up as a top-four defenceman, but on a team that struggled defensively and couldn’t create offence from the back end. It seems like he has the potential to put up more points, but he’s also already 24, in what should be the prime of his career, so it’s hard to know just how much room there is for improvement.
One way we can look at Stecher’s new contract is to look at comparable players and see the contracts they signed with their teams. That’s one of the key parts of the salary arbitration process, as both the team and the player’s agent come up with a list of comparable players, and the arbitrator is instructed to specifically name comparable players in his or her final decision.
The player’s side will look for similar players who received high-paying contracts, while the team’s side will look for those who received lower compensation. The final decision generally falls somewhere in the middle, unless one side does a significantly better job showing how similar their comparable players truly are.
Who are the players most comparable to Stecher?
Some might point to Ben Hutton, who put up a similar number of points in his rookie season and was re-signed by Jim Benning and the Canucks for two years and $2.8 million per year. Stecher’s case for being comparable to Hutton is hurt, however, by his 11 points last season. Hutton signed his extension directly after his 25-point rookie season; Stecher’s lower production in his sophomore season makes him less comparable to Hutton.
If we look specifically at players who signed new contracts as restricted free agents at the age of 24 with similar career numbers as Stecher, we should get some closer comparables. Some interesting names pop up: Chris Tanev, for example, had similar career points when he re-signed in 2014 for one year and $2 million.
On the lower end of the salary scale, there’s James Wisniewski, who re-signed for $900,000 on a two-year deal in 2008, or Kyle Cumiskey, whose career numbers were nearly identical to Stecher’s back in 2011, when he signed a one-year deal for $708,750.
On the higher end, there’s Markus Nutivaara, who just re-signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets for $2.7 million per year on a four-year deal. Or, getting a little crazier, Stecher’s numbers aren’t far off from those of Simon Despres back in 2014, when he signed a five-year deal worth $3.7 million per year.
Despres, incidentally, played last season in the KHL, but will join the Montreal Canadiens at training camp this year on a Professional Tryout. He shows the perils of a long-term deal for a still unproven defenceman.
The closest comparable for Stecher signed a much more reasonable contract, thankfully. He’s a player with whom Jim Benning should be very familiar: his nephew, Matthew Benning.
That comparison might come as a surprise, but the two players are remarkably similar. Both spent three seasons in the NCAA, where Stecher had 53 points in 119 games, while Benning had 56 points in 110 games. Both signed with Western Conference teams in the midst of rebuilds, Stecher in Vancouver and Benning in Edmonton.
So far in the NHL, they’ve put up nearly identical point totals. Stecher has 35 points in 139 games; Benning has 36 points in 135 games.
In terms of underlying numbers, Benning has the stronger corsi percentage, but when compared to their teams, they’re very similar. Stecher’s corsi relative to his teammates is 0.88; Benning’s is 1.38. Of the 133 defencemen who played 1000+ minutes last season, Benning is 41st in relative corsi, while Stecher is 52nd.
The biggest difference is ice time: Stecher has more firmly established himself as a top-four defenceman, averaging 19:24 per game over his career, while Benning has averaged 16:58 in his career. Benning did step into a larger role this past season, frequently skating on the Oilers’ second pairing.
Benning re-signed with the Oilers a month ago, getting a two-year deal worth an average annual value of $1.9 million. That seems like a pretty reasonable expectation for Stecher’s contract and is directly in line with the projections produced by Matt Cane, whose model is primarily based on past signings.
Cane’s model suggests a one-year deal worth $1,708,047, but also has a projection for a two-year deal: $1,869,242 per year.
If Stecher reaches arbitration, the contract will have to be a one or two-year deal. If Stecher and the Canucks can reach an agreement prior to July 29th, they could sign a longer contract.
What do you think? Is a two-year contract worth $1.9 million per year a fair deal for Stecher? Or should he get more or less, on a longer or shorter-term deal?