July 23 2013 04:41AM
Photo by clydeorama
Hooray! The first of the Big 3 RFAs has been signed! Twenty-five year old two-way centre Bryan Little agreed to a 5 year, $23.5M contract yesterday, narrowly avoiding his July 24th arbitration hearing. Little enjoyed a career year with the Jets in the lockout shortened 2013, scoring on pace for 55 points in 82 games while centering the top line against the opposition's best players. The cap hit of $4.7M represents the high end of what was expected for the six year veteran, and certainly the Jets paid in full for the services of the former 12th overall pick. Nevertheless, Little is an anchor in all three disciplines for the Jets, playing nearly a third of every hockey game - usually the third the Jets don't lose.
Below we'll cover the contract and the player separately.
Typically we'd cover the contract first, but with Little, let's start with the player.
- EVTOI: 15:42 (3rd among forwards with 20GP)
- PPTOI: 2:32 (3rd)
- SHTOI: 1:32 (2nd)
- Boxcars: 48GP 7-25-32, +8 (on a team that was -4)
- (Pace: 82GP: 12-43-55) (4th)
- RelCorsi Qual Comp: 1.209 (1st)
- RelCorsi: 0 (8th)
- Offensive ZoneStart: 44.7% (3rd hardest)
- Offensive ZoneFinish: 53.5% (T-4th best)
- PDO: 1022 (2nd)
Lots of numbers, but they add up to one thing: Bryan Little played in the toughest situations Claude Noel could find for him and posted the best season of his career. His puck luck was a tad high, but his personal shooting % was only 8.3%, a full third short of his career shooting %. In other words, regression is unlikely for Little so long as he continues to play with Ladd, Wheeler, and the Jets best defencemen.
League wide, Little has struggled to earn respect as a top line centre. This past year, his 32 points tied him for 27th in scoring among centres, while his 19:47 minutes per game put him at 15th on the same list. He's being used as a top 30 centre, and this past season he scored as a top 30 centre while playing power-vs-power. Bryan Little is the not Sidney Crosby, but is a quality option for the top line and a critical part of any success we can imagine for the Jets in the next five years.
Photo by clydeorama
Despite the obvious desirability and success of Little in his roll, the cap hit of $4.7M for the six year veteran remains unexpectedly high - a full million higher than Illegal Curve suggested in their preview of the RFA contracts. When we reviewed his probably salary here at Jets Nation, I suggested the deal would look similar to team captain and points leader Andrew Ladd at 5 years, $22M ($4.4M avg cap hit). Both deals purchase 3 UFA years and take the players to their 30th birthdays. Ladd has both more pedigree and more team success at the NHL level, but the deal came after his 59 point breakout year in Atlanta with some remaining question marks about him as a top line player. The similarities abound, and yet Bryan Little got Ladd's contract plus inflation. The cap is 8% higher, and Little's deal is 7% more.
The contract can't be considered a bad one. Sam Gagner, who has scored 258 NHL points to Little's 227 in just over 400 games each wrangled $4.8M out of the Oilers with a limted term no movement clause and the chance to go UFA at just 27. Stephen Weiss - a very similar player to Little only older - signed for $4.9M for 5 years. Filppula somehow managed to land $25M/5 years after a 17 point season at 29 years of age. These 1a, 1b type centres have found their market value in the $4.5M-$5M range. We can say, however, that the Jets paid full value for Little's services. Faced with arbitration, the Jets left themselves very little room to negotiate.
The Bottom Line
The deal for Little is a welcomed one. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff avoided a messy situation in arbitration and brought back a key player in the Jets rebuilding lineup. He's a young veteran who looks poised to continue his role as a top line, two-way, minute-munching centre that can shelter the (hopeful) influx of skilled forwards. That the Jets paid full value for his services is not in the least regrettable provided the cap continues to climb in time to sign Scheifele, Trouba, and Lowry.
One concerning aspect of the Little contract is where it leaves Wheeler (hearing date: July 29th) and Bogosian (August 2nd). Little is widely considered to be the cheapest of the Big 3 RFA deals to be signed. Wheeler blew Little's scoring out of the water this past year, collecting 41 points in 48 games (70 point pace), showing steady improvement over last year's 64 point breakout campaign, and playing in a similar set of up-hill circumstances. I have already stated that the deal would require the team go over $5M, but in light of Little's deal, we should be prepared for Wheeler's contract to be around $5.5M given that the Jets have left themselves less than a week to get ink on paper. Worse, Bogosian is at the cusp of relative stardom (in the Marc Staal vein) and a complicated contract given his up-and-down career to date. Illegal Curve suggested $33M / 6 years ($5.5M avg cap hit) and I agreed. I can't imagine that contract going higher (the centre market has little affect, of course), but it's doubtful it goes lower either given the mess Cheveldayoff has made for himself and how he's been solving it so far - giving the players full dollar for their services.
We can be happy Cheveldayoff is successfully avoiding arbitration at this stage, but I think it's reasonable to wonder whether these deals could have been completed for less money 6 or even 3 months ago.