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Should the Nashville Predators extend Roman Josi?

I know—most of you are probably reading this headline and thinking, Of course the Nashville Predators should extend Roman Josi! What is wrong with you?

Folks, I wish I knew.

But more seriously, yes, at this point I think it’s a valid question. While we shouldn’t necessarily panic about the fact that Josi has yet to sign his extension—Pekka Rinne didn’t sign his until his birthday, in November, and Mattias Ekholm’s incredibly team-friendly contract was a late-October deal—we should wonder what the delay implies about the differences between what Josi’s camp and David Poile want.

On getting paid a lot of money to chase a piece of rubber around the ice

One thing I do need to clarify before we go any further: a NHL player wanting to get paid isn’t a bad thing. I don’t buy into the claims that it’s inherently selfish. To some extent, all of these players are risking their long-term health for our entertainment, and very few of them have any clear backup plan for after their careers end even if they’re healthy.

A lot of NHL players don’t complete college, and some go straight into a pro career without even starting college—if you’re lucky enough not to have had to job-hunt without a college degree, take it from me that it’s no fun. There are only so many jobs available in sports broadcasting or coaching/management. The NHL provides little to no career counseling or any other support for players reaching the end of their time in the league, and with its sharp focus on “the logo on the front, not the number on the back” most players don’t have much of a personal brand to leverage.

And, again, that’s for the healthy ones.

Some players damage their bodies severely by playing through minor injuries until those injuries become major injuries, or, if it’s the playoffs, by playing through major injuries until those injuries become life-threatening—like Patrice Bergeron’s punctured lung in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, which was probably punctured either by his broken ribs or by the needle administering a nerve block for torn cartilage.

This self-endangering nonsense is praised by sports media and internalized by the players themselves—they don’t see any way around playing while injured, and they don’t see injury as an excuse for poor performance. Pain is difficult to work through, and it’s not a moral weakness to be slowed down by it, but hockey culture doesn’t recognize that. There are athletes who end up abusing prescription drugs, or turning to non-prescription ones, to help them manage the damage they’re doing to their bodies while playing hurt. That kind of thing doesn’t magically end once they retire.

And then, too, there is what we know about concussions and what the NHL steadfastly refuses to recognize: they’re real, they’re bad, and their effects can ruin or end lives. There’s no scientific formula for how many concussions is too many, and no way to know for sure that you can avoid one on the ice.

The NHL isn’t willing to ban all head contact, but even if it did that today it wouldn’t be a guarantee that no concussion-causing injuries would occur. Hockey is a contact sport played at extremely high speeds—whiplash from a body-to-body check, falling after a collision, or accidentally taking a puck to the head are all things that have caused traumatic brain injuries in recent League history. Anyone’s next concussion might be the one that ends their career and leaves them with long-term health problems, even if it’s their first.

So yeah, I say any NHLer who wants a paycheck should get one. It’s in the team’s best interest to get as many good players as possible below the salary cap, but the team is an abstract concept, and the GM isn’t the one risking his future on the ice every night so we can cheer and yell about which net a piece of rubber went into more often and how it got there.

On Roman Josi, specifically, getting paid by the Predators

First, the elephant in the room: in January 2017, Roman Josi told a Swiss-language newspaper that the concussion he’d just experienced was his seventh. Everything I just said about concussions in the previous section and the risk that players are facing? That gets emphasized, a lot, when it’s seven previous concussions instead of zero. If he wants to keep playing hockey, pay the man.

The problem is, who should be the one paying the man?

Ryan Ellis took what was generally considered to be a team-friendly deal last year when he signed for eight years and an AAV of $6.25M. Ekholm has just passed the halfway point on a six-year contract with an absurd AAV of $3.75M, which is honestly highway robbery—he signed that deal in October 2015, when we all knew he was good.

To step away from the defense corps for a moment, the rumors before Matt Duchene signed in Nashville were that he would be looking at an AAV of at least $9M, probably $9.5 or even higher. He ultimately signed for $8M, which was a surprise given Duchene’s leverage and the UFA market of the past offseason. That, too, was a team-friendly signing.

The Predators save their player-friendly contracts for bottom-six forwards, which probably doesn’t actually save them much money in the long run, but keeps the comparables for their best players lower. What that means is that a top-six/top-four player looking to get paid something closer to market value—as it sounds like Josi does—is going to be wildly out of line with his teammates.

Josi reportedly wants to stay in Nashville, but it could get awkward if he also wants that $9M+ AAV that he’s also been reported to, when his defense partner took a hometown discount and his fellow left-handed defender took a huge hometown discount. I don’t think Ellis and Ekholm, and even Duchene, necessarily took their team-friendly deals so that Josi could get market value.

On Roman Josi getting paid, in general

There is also the question of whether Josi is actually worth the kind of money his agent is rumored to be looking for. Again, I don’t mean this to say he shouldn’t get paid at all, but it is important to question whether $9M+ for Josi for eight years is the best use of the Predators’ cap space, specifically, or whether it might be better for some other team to make that commitment.

According to CapFriendly, as of right now defenders with an AAV of at least $9M for the 2020-21 season are Erik Karlsson ($11.5M), Drew Doughty ($11M), and P.K. Subban ($9M). Oliver Ekman-Larsson, with his $8.25M for the Arizona Coyotes in recognition of the many years he was their only useful skater, is the only other defender to crack the $8M plateau. There are 257 defenders currently under contract for 2020-21.

A team that pays Josi $9M+ would be paying him as if he is the third- or fourth-best defender in the league, at least when he starts that contract. He will be 30 for the 2020-21 season, and 38 when an eight-year deal that starts then expires.

Josi is off to a stupendous start to the current season, playing like a man who wants to earn the contract he’s asking for.

Over the four games the Preds have played so far, he leads the team in share of every on-ice metric at 5v5 (shots, unblocked shots, shots on goal, scoring chances, and expected goals per Natural Stat Trick’s model). Depending on xG model, he’s either been the best (Natural Stat Trick, excluding Daniel Carr’s ten minutes) or third-best (Evolving-Hockey, behind Mikael Granlund and Matt Duchene) at limiting expected goals per hour, again at 5v5.

And his four points—two goals and two assists—over these first four games aren’t as splashy as Duchene’s eight or Filip Forsberg’s six (including four goals), but with the team off to a slower start offensively they’d look very good indeed. He’s been an impressive player offensively, as has always been his forte, and he’s helped drive the team’s production from one end of the ice to the other.

The question is, how long will he be able to keep that up? Josi has never been noted for being particularly good defensively; his partners—first Shea Weber, now Ryan Ellis—have done a lot of work in their own end so that Josi is free to create in the offensive zone. He’s very good there: he’s a fantastic skater with great creative vision. If you believe that the future of hockey is positionless, like Ryan Stimson and OTF’s own Eric Dunay do, it’s a very attractive skillset. I’m not completely sold.

And, again, a max length contract—which seems very reasonable for Josi to want—would end only after he’s turned 38. I very sincerely hope he’s still healthy then, but his injury history is concerning.

In conclusion

I do think someone should pay Roman Josi. I think someone probably will pay Roman Josi. Up until every game turned into an argument about which members of the Preds’ defense corps were better, I liked watching Josi play more than anyone else on the team, and I’d like to get that back someday. It’d be easier, and more fun, to do that if he were in Nashville.

But I don’t think he can keep up the way he’s playing all season (please prove me wrong), let alone for the next eight years (seriously, please prove me wrong). I think the contract that he’s perfectly justified in asking for will prove to be a bad bargain in the end for his team, and so it might be better if that team isn’t the one I both cheer for and cover.

If Josi decides that, in the end, he’d rather stay in Nashville and play for the Predators, I’d like to watch him do it—but I don’t feel right saying he should walk down his ask just for my entertainment.

The OTF Slack channel had a lively debate about the question of Josi’s contract status—views here are not representative of the whole writing staff’s.

Thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz.com for background, as well as the included career isolate. Statistics were gathered from naturalstattrick.com and evolving-hockey.com. Salary information is from capfriendly.com.

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