It feels good to win a game every once in a while.
Last night’s win against the Arizona Coyotes, highlighted by Nikolaj Ehlers’ first-ever hat trick, was as cathartic for the struggling Jets as it was exciting for their fans. But as basement-dwellers in the Central Division, the Jets’ playoff hopes are vanishingly slim (10% according to hockeyviz.com, just 4% at sportsclubstats.com.)
So our attention has shifted to the future: who will be traded, who will be re-signed, and the rest. Amidst all the uncertainty about Winnipeg’s free agents, Mark Scheifele’s next contract has been largely ignored.
Unlike Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, Scheifele isn’t a pending UFA. And unlike Jacob Trouba, there have been no reports of exorbitant contract asks. But the former seventh-overall pick is one of the Jets’ best forwards, and is just hitting his prime. Let’s take a crack at projecting his next deal.
The Jets’ seventh overall pick from the 2011 entry draft is approaching the end of his first NHL deal, a standard three-year ELC. He’s taken huge strides forward in each season since cracking the NHL, and has asserted himself as a legitimate second-line centre.
As his frame has filled out since his rookie season, he’s been able to move the puck to the slot more effectively, where he generates so many of his chances. Last season a shooting percentage drop masked an improvement in generating more shots and a greater proportion of shots from in close.
This year, he’s generating still more chances, and has nearly equalled last year’s goal total in just 38 games. His two-way game has also improved; for the first time, he’s making a significant impact defensively for the Jets.
His development has been steady, and has seen him improve each year by almost all of the most predictive statistical categories we can use.
CA60 relTM (shot attempts against, relative to teammates) is shown with an inverted scale. Positive numbers = good.
Scheifele’s goal and assist rates for this season are comfortably first-line level. The other statistics shown – CF% relTM, CF60 relTM, and CA60 relTM – speak to Scheifele’s ability to drive shot rates and possession relative to his teammates.
Bettering his linemates’ shot attempt percentages by over four percent, as Scheifele has done this year, is monstrous: only two Jets (Dustin Byfuglien and Mathieu Perreault) are better on the year. Having a good 2C is all-but a requirement to be competitive in the West, and Scheifele’s emergence gives the Jets a top-six that can hold their own against almost anyone.
Really, the only hole you could poke in Scheifele’s case as a legit second-line pivot is the impressive quality of linemates he’s been surrounded with in Winnipeg.
forward linemates only
Playing with Blake Wheeler, Michael Frolik, Evander Kane, and Mathieu Perreault probably makes life a little easier in the NHL. But this year Scheifele is lining up with passengers, rather than play-drivers, in Nikolaj Ehlers and Drew Stafford.
In fairness, he’s spent the vast majority of his minutes with Mathieu Perreault, the West’s answer to Corsi King Justin Williams, but Scheifele is still being used in tougher situations this year, and is crushing those minutes. He’s a good second-line centre right now, and at just 22, could easily end up better than that.
Aleksander Barkov’s new deal was thrown out as a possible comparable for Scheifele the other day in a Jets Nation AirMail, and that’s probably fair – although Barkov, a top-three pick who jumped straight to the NHL, should be worth more than Scheifele.
What we’re going to try to do is pick players who are (relatively) comparable to Scheif, and look at their post-ELC deals.
The deals break pretty neatly into two categories: bridge contracts, of three seasons or fewer, or long-term contracts of five or more years.
The long-term deals fell between a 4 and 6 million dollar AAV with 6 or 7 year term, while the bridge deals came in between 1.75 and 2.9 AAV contracts for 2 or 3 seasons.
SCHEIFELE’S NEXT DEAL
Broadly speaking, the Jets have two choices ahead of them for Scheifele’s next deal. They can sign him to a bridge deal of three seasons or fewer to see how he continues to develop, and, whatacoincidence, keep his salary to an absolute minimum in the short term. Alternatively, they could decide he has shown enough to merit a long-term deal, and sign him beyond his four remaining RFA seasons.
Given that Scheifele doesn’t hit unrestricted free agency until 2020, a bridge deal could seem appealing to a financially-challenged club like the Jets.
It’s still almost certainly the wrong call, as teams like the Canadiens (PK Subban), the Avalanche (Ryan O’Reilly), and the Flyers (Claude Giroux) have shown. If you buy into Mark Scheifele being a good player – and he is – then a longer-term deal makes all the sense in the world. The economics of it aren’t complicated: in return for paying more than the club absolutely has to for Scheifele’s RFA seasons, the Jets could get a significant discount on some number of UFA years.
More importantly, signing Scheifele to a long-term deal this summer locks him up for the seasons you really want him in a Winnipeg Jets jersey. The aging curve for forward point-scoring is well-established: players peak between 22 and 26, retain most of their scoring until age 29, and begin to drop off steeply at age 30.
Given all this information, and given that the Jets are aiming to compete for a Stanley Cup at some point in the next eight years, why not sign him to a long-term deal now? A two-year bridge deal minimizes short-term costs, at a time when the Jets aren’t contenders, and maximizes the cost of his next deal, when they (hopefully) will be contending. Does that make any sense at all?
The Jets should be thrilled to have Barkov’s new deal with the Panthers to negotiate around; Barkov was a second-overall pick, and has asserted himself as a legit first-line centre in Florida this year. So Scheifele’s deal should come in south of the 5.9 and 6 million AAV given to Barkov and RNH; similarly, it should fall north of Nick Bjugstad’s 4.1 AAV deal. Something like 7 years at about 5 million sounds about right, based on comparables, and would be a great deal for the club.
A bridge deal would be more likely to come in around 3 million AAV for 2 or 3 seasons, like Nazem Kadri’s deal.
No matter what type of contract the Jets sign their young centre to, he is likely to provide great value to the team. His counting stats aren’t eye-popping – although a 49-point season in this era is nothing to sneeze at – but he has already developed into an excellent second-line piece for the Jets.
He drives possession well, keeping the puck in the other team’s end while he’s on the ice, and has a good nose for the back of the net. The defensive impact he has made this season is encouraging, and might suggest he is rounding into a two-way threat for the Jets.
At the end of the day, the issue is this: you can sign Mark Scheifele to a three-year bridge contract, keep costs down, and get great value out of him for three more seasons. But then if he impresses, you have to pay him like a top player in 2019, or lose him to free agency a year later.
Or you sign him long-term now. Anywhere between 6 and 8 years at a reasonable price tag, and you lock up your second-line centre – or better, if things go well – through the prime age of his career.