Sunday, 29 October 2017

Could Nikita Kucherov get Connor McDavid Money?

Much has been made of the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning have forward Nikita Kucherov under contract at $4.77M per season for this year and next.  Bolts GM Steve Yzerman has been given ample credit for getting one of the game's brightest stars under contract for a fraction of his true market value.  Cornered into signing a bridge deal at the end of his entry-level contract, Kucherov had little negotiating leverage and was all but forced into signing what the team put in front of him.  The long and tense negotiation and resulting team-friendly deal almost certainly played a role in Kucherov changing agents earlier this year.

The trouble with signing Kucherov to a deal with such bountiful short-term benefits is the long-term cost.  What could have been a long-term deal with a $6-7M cap hit two summers ago is now going to be much, much worse for the Lightning.  Kucherov's continued meteoric rise to stardom means that he will be able to command a tremendous amount of wealth on his next contract.

Still, there seems to be some underlying theory in Tampa hockey circles that, because Steven Stamkos took less and signed for $8.5M per season on his deal, Kucherov will do the same and come in around that same number.  With each passing day, that idea sounds more and more ridiculous.  In a league where stars are being paid big dollars earlier and earlier in their careers, the notion that Kucherov will settle below $8.5M because someone else did seems far-fetched.  Especially after the way his last contract negotiation went.

The question, then, is this: Could Nikita Kucherov get Connor McDavid money?
I view the Edmonton Oilers as having some decent comparables for the situation in which the Lightning find themselves.  Both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl recently signed rich, long-term deals to stay with the club.  The hope, of course, is that Kucherov will do the same with the Lightning.

From the Tampa perspective, there's an obvious hope that Kucherov comes in closer to Draisaitl's $8.5M value than to McDavid's $12.5M.  The team already finds itself in a cap crunch, so every dollar saved on Kucherov's next deal will count towards ensuring that cup contention remains within the realm of possibility.

A common retort to the idea that Kucherov could get McDavid money is that "McDavid is way more important to the Oilers than Kucherov is to the Lightning."  Even a cursory look at the five-on-five data would suggest that that idea lacks merit:

As you can see above, Kucherov is as important to the Lightning from the perspective of driving possession and scoring/preventing goals as McDavid is to the Oilers.  Draisaitl and his $8.5M contract aren't even in the same conversation.

But, what about point production?  While National Hockey League teams are starting to embrace detailed data, much of the decision-making in front offices today with regards to skilled players still seems to stem from goal and assist totals.  Stepping away from the five-on-five data for a moment and considering all situations, the picture is striking:
The Lightning aren't faced with the proposition of negotiating a long-term deal with a 'good' player; they are faced with the proposition of negotiating a long-term deal with one of the league's best.  One of the league's best that they cornered into a "cheap" bridge deal the last time around.

However, arguably the biggest challenge for the Lightning is not that Kucherov was really, really good in 2016-17.  Instead, it's that he appears to be even better to start 2017-18.  If he has another season during which he pots goals and assists at a 95-ish point pace, the team could be in for one heck of a battle at the negotiating table.

The bottom line: Kucherov is as valuable to the Lightning as McDavid is to the Oilers, and their individual production mirrors each other's in many ways.  Using that as a narrative during negotiations would undoubtedly put Kucherov in a position to receive the same sort of compensation.

Now, none of this is to say that Kucherov is a better player than McDavid or that he is certainly going to sign a deal in the $12.5M range.  McDavid is the best player on the planet right now, and Kucherov might come down with a case of the warm-and-fuzzies that lets the Lightning ink him to a more affordable deal.  The point of this blog is just to illustrate that, when looking at two recent big-money deals for young players, Kucherov is much more in line with hockey's best player than he is with the guy who signed for $8.5M.  

With more leverage behind him, and perhaps a point to prove after being pushed around during negotiations last time, Kucherov is certainly in a position to at least ask for McDavid money should he so choose.  Let's hope he doesn't.

As always, thanks for reading.

(All statistics cited in this blog are courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, a premier source for hockey analytics.)

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