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Could any of the big three RFA defensemen sign for 10% of the salary cap?

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A couple of big contracts may be signed in the near future.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Back in September of 2012, the current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA was signed and put into effect. Since then, 11 NHL defensemen have signed a contract with an average annual value north of ten percent of the salary cap at the time of the signing. Jacob Trouba recently fell short of joining them, but there are still three big name defenders not currently under contract that may make the jump. Let’s explore whether any, or all of them, have the statistical profile to garner such a raise.

First of all, we need to learn what makes a ten percent defenseman. And while we’re at it, if you’re wondering why ten percent was the chosen cutoff, it’s entirely arbitrary. It’s quite simply just a lot of money to pay one player and leads us to an interesting group of defenders. With that being said, there are a few things that all eleven defenders had in common at the time of their contracts being signed: they had all averaged over 21 minutes of ice time per game, had positive even strength shot metrics relative to their team, and scored close to a point every other game. They almost all also scored at or above a rate of .8 points per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play, with the lone exception being Drew Doughty.

Career Stats at the Time of Their Signings

Player ATOI CF% RelTM xGF%RelTM Points per game 5v5 Points per 60 CapHit %
Player ATOI CF% RelTM xGF%RelTM Points per game 5v5 Points per 60 CapHit %
Aaron Ekblad 21.44 2.55 1.83 0.47 0.97 10.3
Brent Burns 23.16 2.9 3.53 0.70 1.01 11
John Carlson 23.00 0.04 0.42 0.55 0.98 10.1
Erik Karlsson 25.51 4.52 2.16 0.83 1.3 14.5
Drew Doughty 26.16 2.96 2.11 0.55 0.71 13.8
Kris Letang 22.04 3.72 3.24 0.54 1.09 11.3
P.K. Subban 23.39 4.56 2.08 0.59 0.81 13
Victor Hedman 22.11 3.68 2.26 0.49 1.15 10.8
Dustin Byfuglien 23.46 3.73 2.88 0.69 1.14 10.4
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 23.39 2.27 2.81 0.50 0.81 10.4
Alex Pietrangelo 23.14 2.72 2.08 0.54 0.92 10.1
Games in which Burns or Byfuglien are listed as forwards have been removed from the data set.

That’s a lot of numbers, so let’s start taking away a few outliers. Erik Karlsson is one of the best defensemen to ever play the game, and his eight year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $11,500,000 accounts for 14.5% of the San Jose Sharks’ cap space this season. That’s tied for the 7th highest percentage among active players, and the highest among all defensemen; he’s not comparable.

The other two defensemen that we’re going to drop here are Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien. They, along with Karlsson, scored at a much higher per-game rate than the rest of the pack, and they also signed their deals after their 30th birthdays. The three players that we’ll be taking a closer look at are in their early twenties, making their situations much different.

The new blood

Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov. Each have played massive roles for their teams through the beginning of their young careers, and are set to sign their first non-entry level contracts. These deals will not be insignificant and will have a lasting impact one way or another on both the player and the team. Of the eight defensemen above, only Alex Pietrangelo didn’t sign an eight year contract — he signed one for seven. So, if our three were to sign eight year deals, Evolving-Wild’s contract projections have Werenski’s most likely cap hit being $7,855,162, McAvoy’s being $7,640,834, and Provorov’s being $6,915,825. Now, their projections don’t see an eight year contract for any of them as the most likely outcome, but if the AAV climbs as high as ten percent of the salary cap, history tells us that the term is likely to climb as well.

So, with projections all below eight million per year, let’s piece together whether any of them have a strong enough case to get them above it. While points really aren’t a great way to evaluate defensemen — nor forwards, but that’s besides the point — they still drive contract values, so let’s start there.

Scoring Stats

Player Games Played ATOI Points Points per game 5v5 Points per 60
Player Games Played ATOI Points Points per game 5v5 Points per 60
Ivan Provorov 246 23:45 97 0.39 0.86
Charlie McAvoy 117 22:09 60 0.51 1.16
Zach Werenski 237 22:02 128 0.54 0.94

As far as 5-on-5 production goes, all three are well within range of their ten percent peers. But on a per game level, Provorov falls short of the point every other game commonality. McAvoy and Werenski, on the other hand, clear both bars. One thing that Provorov has done that the others haven’t is finish a season tied for the league lead in goals by a defenseman. He did so in his 2017-2018 campaign when he, Dougie Hamilton, and Victor Hedman all finished tied for the top spot with 17 goals a piece. Werenski fell just one goal short of joining them.

The other thing that stands out here is the amount of regular season games that McAvoy has played — 117. That’s well below the amount of games played by any of the defesemen on the ten percent list. Aaron Ekblad had the lowest amount with 159 games played, and Alex Pietrangelo had the second-lowest amount with 224. Unlike Provorov and Werenski however, McAvoy has already played in over 40 playoff games and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

Moving on to on-ice stats, these have way less of an impact on a player’s salary than tangible offensive production does, but can at the very least supply us with added context. As we said earlier, players that have signed a contract with an AAV worth ten percent of the salary cap all had positive shot metrics relative to their team.

5v5 Stats

Player CF% CF% RelTM xGF% xGF% RelTM
Player CF% CF% RelTM xGF% xGF% RelTM
Ivan Provorov 48.65 -1.23 49.13 -0.99
Charlie McAvoy 55.39 2.87 54.87 3.14
Zach Werenski 52.47 2.29 49.61 -1.07

Here’s where McAvoy really jumps off the page. Yes, he’s played on a Bruins team that for the last few years has almost always graded out strongly by shot metrics, but they’ve out-shot and out-chanced their opponents at even better rate while he was on the ice. Werenski has one positive and one negative, while Provorov has a negative in each. We have to also assume that some, probably many teams still value goal results as well, and while Provorov is the only one to have a negative goal differential at 5-on-5, Werenski is the only one who has a negative goals for percent relative to his team.

Again, how a player fares via shot metrics doesn’t matter much — or at least hasn’t mattered much in the past — when it comes to contract values. Points and ice time still reign supreme. And while it’s also important to note that the three have less leverage than the majority of the defenders that we’re comparing them to, both Pietrangelo and Ekblad were in the same situation; they didn’t have arbitration rights either, but still left with big paydays.

The verdict

Based on recent history it seems unlikely that any of the three wind up signing a contract with an AAV at or above $8,150,000, but Werenski has the strongest case among them. His offensive production is on par with what Pietrangelo had been supplying at the time, and the only real blip in his statistical profile is his negative expected goals for percent relative to his team. Given their cap situation — the Blue Jackets have close to 16 million dollars in cap space currently, and don’t have a lot of money tied up beyond the 2020-21 season — it’s an affordable deal both in the short term, and in the long term. Combine that with his stats pointing towards him being worth that figure, and Werenski is the best bet out of the three to sign such a contract.

The second most likely candidate is Provorov. His situation is a bit unique in that he doesn’t have the offensive production, nor the shot impacts, to support his case. Yet at the same time there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the situations he was forced to play through made it ridiculously tough for him to truly excel. While Provorov has most commonly played alongside Andrew MacDonald, Werenski has played an overwhelming majority of his minutes with Seth Jones, and the same can be said of McAvoy with Zdeno Chara. Provorov has also faced some of the toughest usage in the league. But what doesn’t help him is that he’s coming off the worst of his first three seasons in the league, and that the Flyers have just over thirteen million dollars in cap space with Travis Konecny also in need of a new deal. A Provorov contract with an AAV north of eight million would be a tight fit in the short term.

And finally, there’s McAvoy. Here’s the thing: he has missed a significant amount of time in his first two full seasons in the NHL and because of this has only appeared in 117 regular season games — way less than any defender that we’ve compared him too. Now add in his 41 playoff games and you’re up to 158 games, just seven less than Ekblad had played in at the time of his extension. Still, Ekblad had the “first overall pick” tag that McAvoy doesn’t, and that undoubtedly helped raise his salary. Something that is in McAvoy’s favor is the fact that he has the strongest case in terms of on-ice impacts and 5-on-5 production, but in the end a bridge deal still seems to make the most sense here. While we can’t rule out a ten percent contract entirely, it would be the biggest surprise of three.

Data courtesy of and HockeyDB, contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.