Along with the rest of the Kraken community, Sound Of Hockey was abuzz when the team announced that Jared McCann had signed a five-year extension worth $25 million last week. McCann is the team’s leading goal scorer and one of a small handful of players young enough and skilled enough to bridge the Kraken from the current roster to whatever comes next.
We had debated potential McCann contracts internally just days earlier after Ron Francis indicated the team would get something done with McCann one way or another. When the contract came down on March 8, we all agreed that this was a good deal for the team, but disagreed a bit on whether there was anything truly surprising about it. As recounted on the SOH podcast, Darren Brown appropriately took a victory lap for his close contract prediction. Good job, Darren. Andy Eide and John Barr indicated the deal was in the neighborhood of expected term and value for the player. But I thought the deal was incredibly team friendly.
My reaction was largely based on my projection of the value that Jared McCann brings to the team. Per TopDownHockey’s WAR statistic, McCann has been the 23rd most valuable skater in the NHL since the beginning of last season. (If you’re curious to read more about TopDownHockey’s WAR stat, dive in here.) Even if that metric is a bit optimistic on McCann, there is no denying his goal scoring touch is tremendous. And at 26 years old, he should have several productive years in front of him.
I also thought I understood McCann’s negotiating leverage. McCann was scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer, meaning that he was almost certain to return to Seattle on a new contract of some kind. He could only sign with a different team on an offer sheet, and offer sheets are exceedingly rare in hockey due to the draft pick compensation involved—and, you know, the collusion.
But McCann was due for unrestricted status in the summer of 2023, which in my mind should have given his camp significant clout to seek a long-term, big-money deal or a one- or two-year bridge deal that would have gotten him to UFA status quickly.
Given that McCann’s contract didn’t fit my expectations, I wanted to dig into the recent precedent for McCann’s deal by examining contracts signed by comparable players with one year left to unrestricted free agency. After analyzing these comparables, I will return to the question of whether this is a fair and expected deal, or the best contract the Kraken have signed, by far.
I gathered contract information from CapFriendly. At the time Jared McCann signed his contract, he had played in 403 games and amassed 188 points. Using CapFriendly’s contract comparable tool, I was able to compile a long list of contracts signed by players as restricted free agents with similar totals in games played and points at the time of signing.
From this long list I further filtered the results manually. Most importantly, I limited the results to only those contracts signed beginning with the player’s last RFA year. In other words, when the contract was signed, the player had only one more season left to unrestricted status.
Second, I included only contracts signed for the 2010-11 season to the present. I chose this limiting factor arbitrarily with the goal of limiting the sample to a reasonable recent time period in which point production is roughly similar.
Third, I calculated the points-per-game production of this list of players and further reduced the sample to only those players whose production matched Jared McCann’s scoring production with .1 points per game. Put differently, assuming a full season of games played, I limited the sample to players who had averaged approximately eight points per season more or less that McCann has averaged.
For each of these contracts, CapFriendly supplied not only the dollar average annual value (AAV) of the deal, but also the percentage of the salary cap the AAV represented at the time the deal was signed. Using this percentage, I was able to adjust these contracts into a present value by multiplying the percentage by the current NHL salary cap ($82 million). This facilitates a fairer, direct comparison to McCann’s deal. I refer to this figure as the “cap-adjusted AAV” below.
Reviewing the comparable contracts
The narrowing process described above yielded 13 comparable contracts.
A few trends and takeaways from this group of player contracts:
More than half of the comparable negotiations resulted in contracts of two years or shorter
Of the 13 comparable contracts, four were one-year deals, meaning that the team did not buy out any UFA years. Three were two-year deals, meaning that the team was able to secure only one UFA year.
The collective bargaining agreement limits a player to restricted free agency with his existing team through all of his early prime years. (See an explainer on the NHL’s free agency rules here.) This status depresses the player’s salary because he is not able to really shop his services to the entire league. Naturally, a player gains greater leverage to maximize his salary when he is unrestricted.
For a player like McCann heading into his final RFA year without an existing long-term deal, a short deal has the advantage of getting the player into unrestricted free agency when he’s still in his mid-to-late 20’s, the prime range for scoring the biggest free-agent payday. There was a strong preference in McCann’s comparable group for this short-term approach, likely because any longer terms offered weren’t enticing enough to forego the chance to become a UFA.
Teams needed to pay to increase the term
Due to the dynamic described above, players and teams were more willing to settle on a lower AAV on a short-term deal. Conversely, to secure a player long term, the team needed to commit to a higher AAV. This is because a longer-term deal would mean that the player could not become an unrestricted free agent until he was well north of 30 years old.
The data suggests that while the team and McCann may have been able to settle on a sub-$4 million, one-year contract, it should have required $6 million AAV or more to get the longest terms available under the CBA.
Only one comparable negotiation resulted in a deal longer than McCann’s five-year term
Of the six contracts longer than two years, five of the negotiations settled on a three-to-five-year term. Only one contract broke that mold. Las Vegas and William Karlsson agreed to an eight-year maximum-length deal starting in the 2019-20 season. That said, it may be fair to characterize that particular negotiation as an outlier. (More on Karlsson’s unique circumstances below.)
Jared McCann’s contract is below market value relative to the comparable group
Based on the precedent set by comparable players in comparable circumstances, McCann should have expected more than $5.5 million AAV on a five-year term contract. The data further suggests that, absent a deal in that neighborhood, McCann would have been well justified to reject any offers beyond a one-or-two-year term in order to test unrestricted free agency sooner.
The fact that the Kraken got a full five-year term on a below-expected AAV is fairly surprising. At the time of signing, McCann’s contract is projected to provide the most surplus contract value for the team versus market expectation of any player in this data set, narrowly edging Tyler Kennedy’s undervalued two-year contract. (More on Kennedy’s unique case below.)
Analyzing notable comparable contracts
While the above analysis fairly supports the conclusion that McCann’s contract is team friendly, the comparables did not follow a particularly tight correlation along the trend line (r squared ~ .62). So, I dug further into each of the comparable players to see what, if anything, could be learned. After all, not all players with similar point-per-game totals hold the same value, particularly when those players are spread across more than a decade of league play.
Jared McCann (403 games played; 188 points; 5 x $5 m AAV in 2022 at age 26)
McCann’s point totals have been trending up with increased playing time opportunity, and he has established himself over the last three years as a highly efficient goal scorer. With strong play driving analytics too, his total contributions to his team are understated by his raw point totals.
Brock Nelson (398 gp; 188 pts; 1 x $4.25 m AAV in 2018 at age 26; $4.387 m adj AAV)
Islanders forward Brock Nelson was McCann’s closest point production comparable. Nelson had logged an identical number of points as McCann (188) in five fewer games played when Nelson signed a contract in summer, 2018, before his final RFA year. But digging deeper into Nelson’s offensive, defensive, and special teams play-driving analytics, his other play doesn’t match McCann’s contributions.
Nelson submitted for arbitration and ultimately settled with the Islanders on a one-year, $4.25 million deal. The next year, without any significant uptick in play, Nelson was able to leverage his pending unrestricted status into a further six-year, $6 million AAV contract from the Islanders before free agency.
Since McCann is a better player, Nelson’s monetary result (a total of $40.25 million over seven years) was likely there for McCann had he pursued it. On the other hand, Nelson carried the risk of injury and performance decline in the 2018-19 season. There’s no guarantee McCann would have been so fortunate should he have opted for a short-term deal.
Andre Burakovsky (386 gp; 190 pts; 2 x $4.9 m AAV in 2020 at age 25; $4.928 adj AAV)
Burakovsky was McCann’s fifth closest comparable on a point production basis, but when digging into his analytics, Burakovsky has emerged for me as McCann’s most similar and interesting comp for several reasons.
Like McCann, his underlying play-driving and efficiency analytics are strong. Burakovsky mildly outperforms McCann as an offensive finisher but lags behind the Kraken forward as a defender. All told, his value and leverage at the negotiating table in 2020 was almost identical to McCann’s position in 2022.
Burakovsky wielded this leverage differently than McCann. He negotiated to a virtually identical AAV but on a two-year term. In other words, Burakovsky sold only one UFA year, whereas McCann sold four. Burkaovsky favored flexibility and upside; McCann opted for certainty.
Now Burakovsky is slated to be a sought-after free agent in the 2022 unrestricted free agent class at 27 years old. He is poised to strike with a big-value, long-term deal.
This was the precedent for McCann to “bet on himself” and recoup as much of his value as possible. Again, had McCann gone this way, he would have carried some risk of career-altering or career-ending injury. But, assuming he emerged relatively healthy, McCann was likely to find a taker that would match or surpass his current $5 million AAV—even if his play slipped some.
Consider the Kraken’s own Jaden Schwartz as an example. When Schwartz hit unrestricted status in 2021, he was already years removed from his performance peak. Even so, the Kraken signed the former Blues forward for 5 years at $5.5 million AAV.
By committing to the Kraken early instead of following the similar path set by Burakovsky, McCann put a lot of expected value in Seattle’s pocket. Just how much? We’ll get a better sense when we see Burakovsky’s 2022 free-agent deal.
Tomas Tatar (345 gp; 194 pts; 4 x $5.3 m in 2017 at age 26; $5.797 adj AAV)
Superficially, Tomas Tatar was the weakest comparable for McCann in the group, having recorded more points than McCann in approximately 60 fewer games played. But Tatar’s weaker underlying play-driving analytics indicate a player of similar overall value to McCann.
Also like McCann, Tatar opted for medium-term deal, signing for four years. But Tatar landed a much stronger deal, returning only slightly less total cash than McCann over four years rather than McCann’s five.
Tyler Kennedy (372 gp; 168 pts; 2 x $2.35 m in 2013 at age 26; $2.993 adj AAV)
Kennedy was McCann’s third closest point production comparable when he signed. When Kennedy was entering his final RFA year in 2013 at age 26, he had a 20-goal season under his belt, and his underlying analytics were solid, even if trending downwards over the previous two years.
Pittsburgh traded Kennedy to San Jose in June 2013, and Kennedy signed perhaps the weakest deal among the comparable group: a two-year, $2.35 million AAV contract (approximately $3 million AAV on a cap-adjusted basis). And while the deal was cheap and “team friendly,” Kennedy’s on ice performance cratered. He would sign just one more minimum contract in 2015 before exiting the league entirely at 29 years old.
The case of Tyler Kennedy is certainly an outlier in McCann’s comparable group. But it is also a cautionary tale for a player choosing to “bet on himself” in his mid-20’s at the end of restricted free agency. Sometimes these bets pay off, as with Brock Nelson and others. But without the long-term guarantee, those bets can go bust. Kennedy busted and unfortunately never truly monetized the value he delivered to the Penguins in his early 20’s.
William Karlsson (347 gp; 184 pts; 8 x $5.9 m in 2019 at age 26; $5.937 m adj AAV)
Moving from one extreme to the other, we arrive at the well-documented case of William Karlsson. A middling player in Columbus, Karlsson improbably broke out into superstardom after being selected in the Expansion Draft by the Vegas Golden Knights. Karlsson scored 43 goals in the 2017-18 season after amassing just 18 total across his first three seasons in the league. After he followed that up with a solid 24-goal performance in 2018-19, Karlsson approached the negotiating table in the summer of 2019 just one year from unrestricted free agency with significant bargaining power. He maximized that leverage to obtain an eight-year, maximum-term deal, carrying a $5.9 million AAV.
Karlsson’s late blooming goal production is unique. He no doubt leveraged his 40-goal campaign and his 67 total goals over two years to achieve a result that McCann could not. I’m confident that the Kraken would have bristled if McCann’s camp raised Karlsson’s contract as a comparable. But when checking below the hood, McCann in 2022 is not far off from the player Karlsson was in 2019.
Visualization by JFreshHockey
An eight-year term was unrealistic for McCann. No other comparable player had achieved more than a five-year term. But there is a reasonable argument that McCann had the second strongest overall value profile in this sample behind Karlsson. For that reason, I do not think it would have been unreasonable for McCann to insist on a six-or-seven-year term at a comparable cap-adjusted AAV to Karlsson’s deal.
Cap-adjusted five-year earnings for McCann’s comparables
One other way to look at McCann’s contract is to consider what comparable players earned, in cap-adjusted terms, over the same five-year term to which McCann just committed.
Of the thirteen comparable contract situations, three (Burkavosky, Tierney, and Athanasiou) are scheduled for unrestricted free agency this offseason and have not yet signed new deals. Thus, it is still uncertain what these players will earn over a full five-year term.
Of the ten other contracts, six returned slightly more cap-adjusted value to the player than McCann’s five-year, $25 million deal. Three players earned slightly less cap-adjusted value than McCann. And, one player, Tyler Kennedy, was out of the league three years after his RFA contract and earned significantly less than McCann.
Refocusing on Jared McCann’s contract
After working through these comparable contracts, it’s fair to say I had set my sights too high for McCann when I argued to John, Darren, and Andy a few days before McCann’s signing that the Kraken forward shouldn’t accept any offer below $6 million AAV or any offer in the three-to-five-year term range. Players in his point production range do not regularly secure such premium contracts before unrestricted free agency. Based on his significant skillset beyond his point production, McCann and his team could have argued for a two-year $6 million AAV short-term deal or a six-year $6.5 million AAV long-term deal. But the historical precedent was not there.
That said, we can be confident in the conclusion that Jared McCann’s contract is quite team friendly relative to his contract comparables, both in term and AAV. The Kraken did well to secure a building block player who wanted to stay in Seattle on a very favorable contract for the club. The McCann deal is the best contract the team has ever signed.