The last major piece of business for the Philadelphia Flyers this offseason was the contract status of one Brayden Schenn. A breakout offensive season sent Schenn's value soaring just as he was about to hit restricted free agency, and the newfound surge in production was clearly complicating contract negotiations.
With arbitration rapidly approaching, the two sides struggled to come to an agreement. Finally, an hour after the hearing was originally scheduled to start, Schenn agreed to a four-year, $20.5 million extension, keeping the soon-to-be 25 year old under team control through the 2019-20 season. The deal bought out Schenn's two remaining restricted free agency years and two additional years of UFA status, and does not include a no-move or a no-trade clause.
The $5.125 million average annual value (AAV) of the deal was a bit higher than many fans hoped it would be. The deal's cap hit dwarfs the $4.33 million mark of teammate Sean Couturier, and far exceeds the AAVs of Nazem Kadri ($4.5 million) and Kyle Palmieri ($4.65 million), who were both viewed as potential comparables. Still, Schenn's AAV is within the range that we predicted days ago, if a bit on the high end.
When evaluating a contract, it's important to note that there are two distinct methods used to judge its quality. First, you ideally want the contract to be "fair," in that it does not overpay the player in comparison to peers with similar statistical profiles. This is the market value element of the deal -- whether the team signed the player in question to a contract in range of his comparables. For forwards, the main statistical criteria used in determining market value is raw scoring totals, specifically on a game-by-game basis. But raw goals, assists and points are far from the only stats that can be used to evaluate a player.
That leads us into the second way to judge a contract -- using advanced statistics to project his future performance over the length of the coming deal. A contract can be fair market value for what a player provided in the past, while being a serious risk for the future.
By the same token, some deals can work in reverse. For example, Chris Kreider's recent four-year, $18.5 million contract was probably an overpay based on raw point statistical comparables (Craig Smith was a strong one). But Kreider's stellar on-ice shot attempt differentials at 5-on-5 and his fantastic scoring rates after controlling for ice time imply that given a larger role, Kreider has a good chance of providing positive value via his future performance. It may have been a "market value" overpay, but by the advanced metrics, the contract still looks like a shrewd deal.
Schenn's contract is a bit different. While it's tough to argue that the extension was an overpay based on the market value of players who score on Schenn's point per game level, there is risk based on his underlying numbers. Still, due to the fact that Schenn is seemingly locked into favorable roles with the Flyers on the power play and on the team's top two lines, he has a solid point-scoring floor and likely won't prove to be too much of an albatross even in a worst-case scenario.
Is Schenn's deal fair?
First, we'll evaluate whether Brayden Schenn's four-year, $20.5 million extension is fair market value. Originally, I had projected that Schenn would receive a shade under $5 million per year on a contract between four and five seasons, so this extension does come in a bit above that. But the AAV of the deal remains in a reasonable range.
Twelve days ago, we looked at four possible comparables for Schenn -- Kyle Palmieri, Reilly Smith, Gustav Nyquist and Nazem Kadri. Now, Nyquist looks like the best apples-to-apples comparison. After all, both Nyquist and Schenn had two more years of RFA status left when they signed their deals, and both agreed to four-year terms.
Nyquist received a four-year, $19 million extension during the 2015 offseason with a $4.75 million AAV. But to make this a true apples-to-apples comparison, we should account for the slight increase in the league's salary cap ceiling for 2016-17 versus 2015-16. The ceiling jumped 2.24 percent in June, so let's increase Nyquist's deal by that same 2.24% in order to accurately compare the two contracts. Nyquist's contract value, had it taken up the same percentage of the cap in 2016 as it did in 2015, would be $19.43 million, with a $4.86 million AAV.
So we're looking at Schenn essentially receiving about $1 million more than Nyquist in adjusted salary over the same term, or an extra $265,000 per season in overall cap hit. Is that a fair way to describe Schenn, in that his market value is just a bit higher than that of Nyquist?
Nyquist's career point per game rate of 0.642 prior to signing the contract tops Schenn's 0.545, but Schenn was coming off a better season (0.737 PPG) than Nyquist was (0.658 PPG). In addition, Nyquist had played just 209 NHL games prior to agreeing to his extension, while Schenn had nearly double (378 games) at the highest level of hockey. That additional NHL experience makes his future career path easier to predict, and almost certainly increases his value in negotiations.
And there's one final element to Nyquist's contract that may have allowed the Detroit Red Wings to cut a few dollars off the total value of the deal. Nyquist was given a full no-trade clause in the final two years of his contract, once he hit the age when he would be eligible for those clauses to kick in. On the other hand, Schenn was given no such protection by Ron Hextall and the Flyers in the final two years of his deal.
Hextall has yet to give out even one limited no-trade clause since taking over as general manager of the Flyers, and that includes contracts given out to star forward Jakub Voracek and key two-way center Sean Couturier. Surely players would like to have the security of an NTC or an NMC, but so far, Hextall has not been willing to trade a lower cap hit for trade protection. Brayden Schenn's negotiation was no different.
After accounting for cap ceiling inflation, Schenn's longer NHL track record and the absence of a no-trade clause in Schenn's agreed-upon contract, the contracts of Nyquist and Schenn are close to identical in overall value.
Market value, indeed.
Is age an issue with the contract?
Brayden Schenn's new contract may be fair when looking at his past scoring production. But that does not necessarily make it a smart contract for the team to issue. To understand if that is the case, we'll look at a few factors, starting with NHL aging curves.
Age curves often make deals given to unrestricted free agents fall in the "fair market value, bad contract" category. The team may be compensating a player fairly for his past career performance, but the new contract begins after a player has concluded his statistical prime. As a result, his future performance isn't likely to match what they delivered in the past, making the contract a serious risk.
Luckily for the Flyers, Schenn's contract doesn't come with much of that risk.
Back in 2014, Eric Tulsky analyzed NHL scoring rates by age, and found that the steepest dropoff begins around age-30. Schenn's contract will take him from age-25 through age-28, and as the below chart from Tulsky shows, Schenn most likely will not see much of an age-related dropoff.
There could be a slight decline, but we shouldn't have the expectation that Schenn's performance will fall off a cliff. The four-year term of his deal mitigates that risk well.
Possible career "Schenn-arios"
[Ed. note: No, I'm not happy about that sub-head, either.]
We can assume that Schenn's true talent level will not get much worse over the course of the deal. But that brings us to the more difficult question -- how good of a player is Brayden Schenn right now?
It's a contentious question. A big reason why it took the two camps until the absolute last minute to agree to an extension is because Schenn's true talent level remains in question. Is he the player who was one of Philadelphia's most effective statistical forwards from January through April of 2016? Is he the 59-point player from the full 2015-16 season? Or he is closer to the player who delivered a disappointing year relative to expectations (especially at even strength) back in 2014-15?
What does make it easier to project different future scenarios for Schenn is the fact that his role on the team seems to be set in stone. Over the past three seasons, he's been given 1015:48, 1082:19, and 1047:18 total minutes at 5-on-5, mostly on the team's top two lines. And over the past two seasons, Schenn received 275:53 and 237:32 minutes during 5-on-4 situations, almost exclusively with the high-powered top unit. It's tough to envision either pattern changing for the foreseeable future.
Using that information, we can make educated guesses regarding Schenn's future ice time during those two key situations, and use his rate statistics (Points per 60 minutes) to estimate point totals in different true talent scenarios. Let's assume that Schenn plays 1048 minutes at 5-on-5 (average of his last three years) and 256 minutes at 5-on-4 (average of the past two years) in a full season. In addition, we'll give him four-to-five extra points per year scored in other situations (two-man advantages, empty net situations, etc), as that has been about his career average.
|True Talent Level Scenario||5v5 Points/60||Estimated 5v5 Raw Points per Season||5v4 Points/60||Estimated 5v4 Raw Points per Season||5v5 Corsi Relative to Teammates (adjusted for score and venue)||Projected Raw Point Range per Season|
|True Talent Level: 2016 calendar year Schenn||2.36||41||5.88||25||+1.65%||65-70|
|True Talent Level: 2015-16 season Schenn||1.97||34||4.56||19||-0.25%||55-60|
|True Talent Level: Schenn's last three years at 5v5, last two at 5v4||1.64||29||4.44||19||-0.78%||50-55|
|True Talent Level: 2014-15 season Schenn||1.40||24||4.30||18||+0.64%||42-48|
"2016 calendar year Schenn" is clearly the best-case scenario for the Flyers. Once the year turned from 2015 to 2016, Brayden Schenn clearly jumped to a new statistical level, scoring more at 5v5 and on the power play while staying solidly on the plus side of the even strength shot attempt battle relative to his teammates. His performance was stellar.
There is a case to be made that this is the new normal for Schenn. After all, he did improve his neutral zone play starting in January, playing more assertive with the puck and driving offensive zone entries on his own far more often than in the early season. In addition, it's possible that Dave Hakstol's preferred aggressive forechecking system fits Schenn's physical playing style perfectly, and his statistical improvement was the result of the team's full adoption of that system. If these theories hold and Schenn can actually be a 65+ point NHL scorer over a full season, his $5.125 million cap hit looks like a massive bargain.
But there's also reason to believe that Schenn's second-half scoring surge isn't sustainable. During the three-and-a-half month run, Schenn and his linemates averaged a 9.51% on-ice shooting percentage during 5-on-5 play. That's a fairly elevated rate, especially on a team lacking for pure snipers. In fact, over the past three seasons, only 12.8% of forwards with at least 750 5-on-5 minutes posted an on-ice shooting percentage of 9.51% or above, and just 14 of those forwards over that time span posted multiple seasons above that rate. As a result, scenario no. 1 is probably unrealistic.
The real debate comes among the remaining three scenarios. Last season, Schenn's 5-on-5 rate scoring jumped to a career-high 1.97 Points/60. If he can sustain that level of production, he should stay in the 55-60 points per season bracket, clearly warranting an average annual value exceeding five million dollars.
However, Schenn is just one season removed from an underwhelming 1.40 Points/60 mark at 5-on-5, delivered back in 2014-15. If Schenn regresses to that level, he'll likely struggle to break 50 points per year, even in a full 82-game season.
But it's the scenario that uses Schenn's 5v5 performance over the last three seasons (and PP performance over the last two, when he played with the top unit) that seems to be the most likely outcome for his upcoming four-year contract. 50 points seems doable for a player who reached 47 even in a down 2014-15 season, and he wouldn't even need to retain all of his gains from his career season. Just by splitting the difference between 2015-16 and 2014-15 should put Schenn in a raw scoring bracket that keeps the upcoming contract from being a bad one.
In the end, it's Schenn's power play production that keeps his floor relatively high. The Flyers' top unit has been high-powered for years, driven by the playmaking of Claude Giroux, netfront presence of Wayne Simmonds, and now the dangerous point shot of Shayne Gostisbehere. Schenn has earned what seems to be a permanent role as the slot man in Philadelphia's 1-3-1 formation, and it's fair to project that as long as he keeps that role, we can expect around 20 power play points each year. That provides a solid base for his overall point production -- so much so that even a poor 1.40 Point/60 rate at 5-on-5 would still place him around 45 overall points scored.
That's not great value from a player with a $5.125 million cap hit, but it's not a total disaster, either. At the very least, it won't be enough to totally torpedo Schenn's leaguewide value if the Flyers chose to shop him in future trades. And that's his worst-case realistic scenario. It's far more likely that he'll end up regularly delivering around 50 points for the next four seasons so long as he keeps his role as a top-six forward with first unit power play time.
Is Schenn just a product of his minutes?
So far, every angle that we've used to evaluate the Brayden Schenn contract has come back relatively positive. It was a fair market deal considering his situation and his scoring history, proven by the comparison to the Gustav Nyquist contract. In addition, so long as Schenn's performance over the length of the deal falls in line with the average of his performance over the past three years, very few people will be disappointed in the raw production that he provides.
But let's add some skepticism to the table as well.
It's undeniable that Brayden Schenn has produced solid point totals so far in his NHL career, especially in recent seasons. Still, it's fair to wonder if Schenn's scoring is more the result of favorable situations rather than legitimate top-six forward talent.
As noted previously, Schenn's high floor from a future production standpoint is due to the fact that he has a stranglehold on a role as the slot man on the Flyers' top power play unit. But let's look at that unit for a second. Would it be fair to say that Schenn is probably the fourth or even fifth most important player on Philadelphia's PP1?
Giroux is clearly the MVP of the unit. Simmonds, with his ability to create screens and general havoc in front, probably ranks second. Shayne Gostisbehere has quickly jumped into the top-three, due to his mobility, offensive instincts, and blistering slapshot from the point. A case could be made for Jakub Voracek slotting above Schenn as well, but while Voracek is clearly the more skilled player, he took a backseat on the power play after an ice cold start to the 2015-16 season. So Schenn is probably fourth right now.
He may rack up power play points, but how much of that is due to Giroux's perfect passes, or Simmonds creating space for Schenn to work in the slot by drawing attention down low? I don't think it's out of line to wonder if the first unit would really miss a beat with another left handed shot in the slot position of the 1-3-1, such as Scott Laughton or Sean Couturier, or if it would be about as effective even without Schenn.
Sure, it takes skill to play the PP role that Schenn fills. You need a strong shot, good instincts to find space while surrounded by checkers, and strong hand-eye coordination to help out on set deflection plays. But the Flyers' top unit already suffered the loss of one slot man (Scott Hartnell) on the top unit without losing much in the way of effectiveness. Maybe Schenn is a product of the talent around him more than a driver of results on the PP.
The same could be said for his play at even strength. After all, Schenn doesn't drive play very well -- despite his three most frequent linemates over the past three years being Simmonds, Giroux and Voracek, Brayden Schenn has posted a Corsi For percentage below 50 percent. Almost every one of his high-end linemates has driven play better away from Schenn than with him. That's not a good sign.
And his even strength scoring? His three-year average 1.64 5-on-5 Points/60 rate is far from terrible, but it would have ranked him 115th last year, 128th in 2014-15, and 123rd in 2013-14 among all NHL forwards with at least 750 minutes at 5-on-5. That's above-average second-liner territory. Combine that with the fact that he doesn't drive play well (though not a total liability there either), and it's fair to say that at even strength, Schenn scores like a second line forward and drives play like a third-liner. That's the classic profile of a middle-six forward, not a true top-six guy.
The reason why his raw scoring totals look like that of a no-brainer top-six forward is because he's given heavy 5v5 minutes (fourth among Flyers forwards over the past two years), which help him to overcome his merely-okay rate statistics. Then, he gets the big boost from his power play points that puts him over the edge.
Of course, the 1.97 5v5 Points/60 mark Schenn posted last season makes for a far stronger case for him to be considered a legitimate top-six forward at even strength, rather than a middle-sixer boosted by great power play results. And it seems like just yesterday when the latter description suited teammate Wayne Simmonds perfectly, but over the past two seasons, his metrics have steadily improved to the point where it no longer fits. Schenn could certainly follow the same trendline.
Still, if you remain skeptical of Brayden Schenn, you're not totally out of line. Especially if you think that he's more of a beneficiary of elite talent on the PP rather than a true driver of goals, his just-decent historical performance at even strength after accounting for ice time probably doesn't have you thinking that he's worthy of this contract.
From a market value standpoint and a raw points perspective, it's tough to argue against the contract that Brayden Schenn signed with the Flyers on Monday morning. The term (four years) ends just before the aging curve really takes an ugly turn and the average annual value is right in line with what the comparable Gustav Nyquist received, with a slight increase in cash essentially acting as a tradeoff for the absence of a no-trade clause in Schenn's deal.
In addition, Schenn's raw scoring production should justify the yearly cap hit. While expecting Schenn to average over 60 points for the next four years is closer to a pipedream than a reasonable expectation, the 55-60 point region is a fair optimistic projection and 50-55 points per year is more the realist's range. Both seem right in line with the raw production expected from a forward with a $5.125 million average annual value contract.
Still, it's fair to remain a bit skeptical regarding how good Schenn the player really is. He racks up a large portion of his points on a stacked power play unit, and aside from last season, has been more of a middle-six forward at even strength rather than a true first or second liner. On this Flyers team, he's a 50+ point player. On another squad with less elite power play talent and more skilled depth up front? That's debatable.
The good news for the Flyers is that it's hard to imagine Schenn's value around the league dropping too much as a result of this contract. Because his point production floor remains high so long as he stays in the same roles in Philadelphia, his contract will likely be viewed by other NHL teams as a fair market deal. That gives the Flyers flexibility in case young talent in the future (such as Travis Konecny or Oskar Lindblom) appear capable of taking over Schenn's role and minutes.
In the short term, Schenn provides much-needed depth scoring to a team lacking it. The best case scenario for the Flyers is that 2015-16 is the new normal for Schenn, and he earns a place as a permanent member of the team's core. Worst case? Schenn stagnates around the 50-point region, and Hextall retains the flexibility to trade him in the future if he chooses.
Either way, the Flyers' decision to extend Brayden Schenn on Monday was far from a bad decision.
All statistics courtesy of Corsica.Hockey and stats.hockeyanalysis.com.