Looking ahead to next summer the two significant expiring contracts are those of Pekka Rinne and Ryan Ellis. Contract negotiations or lack thereof between Rinne and the team will be more straight forward than they will be with Ellis. The bearded blue-liner will turn 28 in January and will be playing out the last year of his very team friendly 5 year $12.5 million dollar deal. After a player’s RFA years have been exhausted contract leverage finally changes hands. This will likely be the last chance Ellis will get to hit a significant payday as an NHL player. The decision to sign this summer or play out his contract and hit the open market is ultimately his.
Just like the real estate market, one of the things both the team and the players’ agent will do is pull a list of comparable contracts. Unless you are negotiating with Peter Chairelli, there usually aren’t significant deviations from market comparables adjusted for the cap. There will always be players that set a new market rate, but unless we are talking about a new contract for Connor McDavid or Erik Karlsson, everyone else basically falls in line.
Currently in the NHL there are 21 right handed defensemen earning $5.5M or more per season.There’s more of a premium on right shots than left shots, due to scarcity. At the trade deadline, in free agency, or at the draft table, there is always a preoccupation with acquiring capable right shot defensemen. Good ones are hard to come by and each team would like three if they can find them. As a comparison, there are only 12 left shot d-men earning $5.5M or more.
Based on his production, it would be foolish to think Ellis will come in under $5.5, regardless of how much he loves Nashville. It simply wouldn’t be indicative of his impact and value to the franchise. Since the season concluded, he’s said all the right things that we usually hear from players closing in on the end of their contract—he loves the team, loves the city and wants to retire here. I don’t see a reason not to believe him, but I think the list of players willing to take awfully team friendly deals for the local team is always lower than the local team’s fans believe it is. Therefore, $5.5 million would be the absolute baseline for a new deal.
Ranking His Production
Assessing production or making contract decisions off of a single season of data is foolish, so let’s take a look at how Ryan Ellis compares to his peers over the last three years. Using Corsica Hockey I sorted all defenders who’ve played more than 2,000 minutes at even strength since 2015. In total we have 169 players that meet that criteria. Here is where Ellis ranks in some significant areas at even strength:
- Points/60 - 10th
- Primary Points/60 - 13th
- Corsi For/60 - 20th
- Corsi For% - 21st
- Expected Goals For% - 14th
- Goals For% - 7th
His power-play numbers aren’t as glowing, but that’s due to not being the primary option on the power-play. Riding shotgun to P.K. Subban and Roman Josi [not to mention Shea Weber before that] isn’t a bad thing, but the Ellis camp wont be able to hang their hat on his 5-on-4 production as a leverage point. An advantage he does have is the ability to both walk the blue line and play in the left circle, both of which would be appealing to potential suitors.
Ellis’ relative numbers won’t help his case either, one of the drawbacks of playing on a strong team. If the rest of your team is also pretty damn good, even great numbers won’t stand out.
His possession numbers cant be understated however. He’s produced consistent first pairing results over the last three seasons. Ellis’ size makes you question if he’s effective in his own end, but in reality his size hasn’t affected his defensive abilities. I’m sure a good agent will drive this point home.
Upcoming Free Agent Class
As usual, the upcoming free agent crop is pretty brutal, maybe more than normal this year. Other than the potential John Tavares sweepstakes there just isn’t much there. This is especially true for defensemen. When the most lucrative prize beyond John Carlson is Mike Green, you know something is very wrong. The truth is not many quality players make it to free agency unlike the MLB or NBA. Maybe it’s a hockey culture thing, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the free agency period is full of landmines and regrets, not a time where franchises turn for the better on a dime.
No matter how it plays out, John Carlson is going to get paid handsomely. I cant imagine a scenario where he returns to the Capitals unless they ship some contracts out, but they resigned T.J. Oshie last year so who knows. Maybe this years deep playoff run will convince the Caps brass to bring the band back together one more time. Future be damned.
If we use Carlson as a primer for what the free agent market currently looks like, he’s projected to receive a contract somewhere in the $7.8M range. Carlson is also a year older than Ellis, much larger and more productive on the power-play.
Recall that there is alot of danger in making player assumptions on a one year sample, more so in the case of Ryan Ellis because he missed the first half of the season. He returned to the lineup after Christmas, fresher than the rest of the team or his opponents, not already worn down by half a season worth of games. Comparing John Carlson’s current season to Ellis reflects nicely on Ellis in pretty much every facet. His half season of production trumps Carlson across the board.
If we look at their ability to drive play and expand the data set to include the last two seasons (or what’s been manually tracked at least) Carlson and Ellis are similar in shot contributions as well as zone entry and exit numbers. The only difference is in their ability to break up plays at the blue line; but that’s a task that has never been asked of Ellis, making the direct comparison a bit more crude.
Drew Doughty made headlines this fall by saying both he and Erik Karlsson should be making more than P.K. Subban when they become free agents after next season. It’s not an unreasonable claim for two perennial Norris Trophy candidates. Like Ellis, both Doughty and Karlsson are free to re-sign with their current teams on July 1st. That scenario is much more likely for Doughty than Karlsson. Both players will be 29 when their current contracts expire. If they set the new market for defensemen, what will it be? Is $11M for either an outlandish number? If the top of the market moves from the current $9M per year to $11M per year, the next layer in the hierarchy under that top tier will command more dollars. If Doughty signs in July for $9.5M or $10M that will suppress the demands of next lower tier of players. Ideally for the team the parameters of a new deal are already in place and ready to sign on July 1st. For the Ellis camp, they may want to wait to see when/if Doughty signs to see where the new market lies.
The other variable is the salary cap. If the cap rises from it’s current number of $75M to a number closer to $80M, player salaries will inevitably rise. Expansion into Vegas has been a success and expansion to Seattle is a foregone conclusion come the June Board of Governors meeting. League revenues continue to climb, projected at over $4.5 billion this season. It’s only natural then for a proportional share of those league revenues to end up in the hands of players, thus pushing the market ceiling and median price for talent that much higher.
If you want to dig into NHL aging curves I’d start here or here, both are tremendous resources. I wont go into much depth on that point other than simply showing this graph, where you see that NHL defensemen really start to bottom out at age 32.
This past season only 18 defensemen aged 34 or older appeared in a game this season, and only two, Mark Giordano and Duncan Keith breached 30 points. Much of the rest of the list played at replacement level or worse. The risk of signing a defenseman to play into his mid 30’s is significant. We’ve yet to really see any smallish defenseman make it to that point in their careers. Ellis’ game is built on mobility, the ability to move the puck and hockey IQ. The latter skill won’t diminish much over time, but at some point the brain wants to make plays the body simply cannot. How much worth will Ellis have once his mobility and puck skills decline? Maybe he’s an outlier, maybe he can maintain his skills into his mid 30’s but in the long-view, time is undefeated. It comes for us all eventually. There is an inherent danger in committing considerable dollar amounts to veteran players. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings.
A Probable Deal
So what would a probable deal look like? An advantage built into the current CBA is that only the team the player is currently on can sign an 8-year extension. If he hits the market, he can only sign a 7-year deal in another city. Signing Ellis to an 8-year extension though wouldn’t make much sense to the team. The only value would be to really drive down the AAV on a longer team deal, but I’d be willing to bet the team won’t want to be paying a 36 year old Ryan Ellis.
A more reasonable contract length would be six years. This would keep Ellis in Nashville until he’s 34. The positive for the player is that if he’s still productive by the end of the contract he’d have the ability to earn another either in Nashville or elsewhere. A shorter 6-year deal would command a higher AAV than a longer 8-year deal; giving Ellis more potential earning power throughout his career. The advantage for the team is that it would allow them to walk away from the contract at age 34 if his play deteriorates due to age or injury.
Now to the dollar amount. As mentioned earlier, $5.5M should be the absolute baseline, and a number between $6.0M and $6.5M is very reasonable for all parties. That also seems to be the sort of wheelhouse that David Poile is comfortable with, recently signing Filip Forsberg and Kyle Turris to identical “6x6” deals. Not including the pending John Carlson deal, or an extension for Erik Karlsson, even at $6.5M, Ellis would only be the 10th highest paid right shot defenseman in the league. With some salary inflation in comparison to the cap increase, the upper end of that range at $6.5M is fair.
The Nashville market is a healthy one in NHL terms, giving them the ability to act as a team that spends to the cap. Management doesn’t have the need to suppress salaries for internal reasons other than wanting to keep the assembled talent in Nashville. If Ellis truly wants to remain a Predator long term expect the contract to be in the $6.0M-$6.5M range. If he’s asking for a number north of $6.5M expect some more lengthy negotiations to take place. If he signs for anything under $6.0M, he just gave up some salary to give management the ability to spend it elsewhere to remain competitive.