Beyond the obvious chatter around the hockey world surrounding the opening night of the 2017-18 season, one of the biggest talking points Wednesday was Jack Eichel’s brand-new eight-year, $80-million extension with the Buffalo Sabres. It was a long-talked about extension and one that finally had definite terms, ones that put a firm stamp on the belief the measuring stick has moved when it comes to second contracts for star players. But in two NHL cities, Toronto and Winnipeg, Eichel’s new deal raised eyebrows for a different reason.
The reason being, as one can likely surmise, is that both the Maple Leafs and the Jets have their own Eichel, if you will, to worry about next summer. In Toronto, extraordinary young pivot Auston Matthews will be entering the final year of his entry-level deal in 2018-19, while Winnipeg’s focus will be on Finnish sniper Patrik Laine, likewise heading into Year 3 of his entry-level contract next season. And with Eichel set to earn $10 million per season — not to mention Connor McDavid checking in at $12.5 million per year and Leon Draisaitl at $8.5 million annually — Leafs and Jets fans have started to wonder what exactly it’s going to cost to retain their respective stars.
The obvious place to start for both players, Matthews and Laine, is a statistical comparison with those who’ve scored big coming out of their entry-level deals. While they’ve still got a full season to work with before we get a better picture of what either is capable of across multiple seasons, their respective rookie campaigns gave us a window into what we can expect – and the expectations for both players are almost assuredly as high as they’ve ever been. So, for the sake of argument, let's say neither player improves nor declines this season and simply holds fast with the same rate of production. In the case of Matthews, that would mean another 40-goal, 69-point season in which he scores 0.84 points per game. For Laine, let’s take that to mean he remains healthy all season — he missed nine games as a rookie — and scores at the same 0.88 points per game rate for a total of 40 goals and 72 points this season.
Both of those scoring rates fall in line with the three players – Eichel, Draisaitl and McDavid – who have changed the framework for second contracts. McDavid is undoubtedly the scoring king among the five aforementioned forwards, scoring at a rate of 1.16 points per game in the two seasons preceding his second contract. Draisaitl comes in second, notching 0.83 points per outing across his past two campaigns. And Eichel’s 0.80 points per game rounds out the trio.
Production, however, isn’t all that matters. We can glean that from the fact Eichel is earning $1.5 million more per campaign than Draisaitl despite scoring at a marginally lower rate over his first two seasons. So, what gives? The answer is twofold.
First, consider role. When Draisaitl signed his eight-year deal with an $8.5 million cap hit, he did so to be the second-line center behind McDavid, and that couldn’t be more clear. Yes, he’s started the season on McDavid’s wing again, but the goal is to shift him to a second-line role and have a 1-2 punch down the middle. As for Eichel, there’s no question he was drafted as, is primed to be and paid like a top-line center. That’s where the Sabres envision him and he could, and probably should, step into that role this season. He’s also a no-brainer future captain and set to be the team’s scoring leader for years to come. Thus, he was signed at $10 million for both the role he’ll play and his future potential, the latter being the second part of the equation that sees Eichel earn $10 million to Draisaitl’s $8.5 million.
The roles of both Matthews and Laine are vastly different, too. Matthews is a do-it-all — and do-it-all-right — center. He’s relied upon in all three zones, given power play time and asked to produce against and defend against the other team’s top line on a nightly basis. His two-way game is sound enough that he garnered some Selke Trophy attention last season. He’s a complete player and set to be a No. 1 center in the league for years to come. Laine, on the other hand, has all the tools to be an offensive weapon that leads the league in scoring at some point. He has a cannon of a shot, near unstoppable when he gets ahold of one, and has Rocket Richard Trophy written all over him. He’s not a slouch defensively, but his pure, natural offensive ability is what puts him head-and-shoulders above most young players.
Taking all of this into consideration, it’s probably fair to rule out either Matthews or Laine earning anything all that close to McDavid's $12.5 million per season. Though the argument could be made that the individual worth of Matthews or Laine to their respective franchises is similar, McDavid is the highest-paid player in hockey because he is arguably the best player in the world. Matthews or Laine won’t be able to take that throne so long as McDavid — and Sidney Crosby, for that matter — are still around.
Much more likely, then, is a salary in the range of either Draisaitl or Eichel, though one would have to assume both contracts lean more toward the latter than the former. As noted, Draisaitl isn’t the go-to guy on his team. In Buffalo, Eichel is, and that comes with a price. Matthews is undoubtedly the face of the Maple Leafs. Laine is, too, for the Jets, when it comes to offensive output.
There are a couple of wild cards in all of this, however, with production being the most notable. If Matthews were to eclipse 80 points this season and become a point-per-game player, chances are he’s going to see his earning power increase significantly. The same goes for Laine, as well, especially if he can put himself at the forefront of the goal-scoring race, which most certainly isn’t out of the question. But the other wild card is the salary cap. Eichel’s contract accounts for 13.33 percent of a $75-million cap and the percentage is something to watch. If the cap increases, say by $2 million, a similar percentage-based cap hit for Matthews or Laine would be $10.25 million.
That said, no matter how much the cap rises, consistent production would almost definitely put Matthews and Laine in line for something in the range of $10 million per season. And if, or when, they put pen to paper on deals that make them two of the highest-paid players in the game this early in their careers, they’ll have McDavid, Eichel and Draisaitl to thank.
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