Did a little research on player contracts yesterday for a piece over at Shnarped Hockey, in which it seems like young players who show early upside are getting biggish contracts a year or two sooner and a million or ten cheaper than the Real Big Contracts they would typically sign after teams have exhausted all of their entry-level and restricted free agent years.
Those years of team control used to be good as gold. Not any longer.
Blame a lot of things. The messy process of salary arbitration is one. A might-be stagnant salary cap is another. Throw in contract term limits, an annually less-impressive group of July 1 free agents and a league-wide envy of "deep" rosters like those in Chicago and Los Angeles, and now we're in the ballpark of why GMs might be loathe to let their young guys make themselves too valuable to stick around.
In the last six months, at least eight players aged 21-25 signed contracts north of $15 million (most were $20 million or more). These deals were worth significant years, while the players were coming off an entry-level contract (ELC) or were still months in advance of their ability to test restricted or unrestricted free agency.
The Penguins are a more veteran group than most teams, but a quick scan of the roster shows that at least one Penguin, defenseman Olli Maatta, is in line to receive such a deal.
Maatta's ELC will be over following the 2015-16 season, meaning he will be eligible to sign a contract extension next summer. No extensions can be signed more than a year before a player is eligible for free agency. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang all signed their most recent extensions in the summers before their FA eligibility.
If Maatta likes playing in Pittsburgh as much as those guys seem to, the ink on his next deal ought to be dry just as soon as the CBA calendar allows it.
What's different now, though, is that his first big contract should be much bigger than the traditional two-year bridge deals that are suddenly out of vogue.
The latest in the line of young players signing these deals in Montreal's Brendan Gallagher. Montreal, you'll remember, signed P.K. Subban to a two-year bridge contract when they weren't sure if their very-talented young defenseman was too great a risk to be signed to a more substantial contract.
Subban outplayed that deal (he won a Norris Trophy while making less than $3 million), and when it came time to get paid, he and the Habs went to arbitration. That's very bad. Subban got paid, but it's a lot out of Montreal's pocket and created a tension that didn't have to be there.
Not so with Gallagher, who gets his six and $22.5 million without much of a fuss. That cap hit of $3.75 million looks very reasonable, especially for a 22 year old.
Apparently, the rest of the league seems to think so, too. Montreal is one club with a number of young players graduating to the NHL and putting on a show right away. Minnesota is another. Between them, Montreal and Minnesota have already signed four players to these "super bridge" contracts, all of them aged 21-24 years old, all for five or more years and all at a cap hit between $3 and $5 million per season.
While this is a good tactic for any young player who is making an immediate impact, it apparently holds most true for young defensemen, who teams cannot sign fast enough.
We know what Maatta is worth to the team, and it's right in line with what those players bring. His possession numbers are positive across the board. He rarely makes mistakes. He's a capable body in all three phases of the game, and he's on pace to chip in 33 points as a defenseman this season (despite being the third or fourth defensive option on the team's top power play).
That's the kind of production you don't let go of. Not from a kid who's still too young to buy a drink.
Of those deals referenced in the Shnarped article, the richest went to young defensemen. Calgary's T.J. Brodie signed a five-year deal worth $4.65 million per. Jake Muzzin and Marco Scandella got five years and $20 million apiece. Minnesota's Jonas Brodin, just 21, earned a six-year, $25 million deal, the kind of term and total usually reserved for proven veterans cashing in on free agency.
This is the new market for your own defensemen, because signing one out of free agency is both risky (how will the player react in a new environment?) and expensive.
Pittsburgh's own former defensemen cashed in last summer. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland earned a combined 15 years and $76.5 million as UFA's last summer.
Is there any one of those players a GM would rather have on his roster than a Brodin or Maatta (especially given what those numbers mean to a deflating salary cap ceiling)?
Them's the numbers in the veteran FA market, and that's as big a reason to stay out of it as any. Why pay maybe as much as double for a veteran (whose work will decline with age) what you would a young player whose greatest risk is regression?
We know players slow down with age. A young player may not live up to early success. Veterans get no-trade clauses. These young kids rarely do. It's easy to trade a talented kid who's come on hard times. Bad veteran deals tend to stay put.
And of these things is much, much more expensive than the other.
The Penguins are in no shape to make a misstep when it comes to salary cap management, and Jason Botterill, Pittsburgh's Associate GM, is next in line to run this team because of his inside-and-out understanding of the salary cap.
However, it doesn't take more than a cursory look at the rest of the market to see where things are headed. If Maatta's steady play isn't reason enough to sign him right away (and it is), this trend should be all the push the Penguins need to sign him to an extensive contract as soon as possible.
In the meantime, they'll get another season and a half of top-pairing hockey out of a kid making just $894,000 against the cap.
That's worth every penny, and then some.
Tuesday Slew is a feature that runs Wednesdays throughout the season. Shower James with your praise and adulation on twitter, @SlewFooters.