On June 26, Matty Beniers took the stage at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., to accept the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year. It was the culmination of a memorable first full pro season for the 20-year-old forward. Beniers scored more than any other rookie, totaling 24 goals and 33 assists in 80 regular-season games. He also played an impressive two-way game, checking difficult top-six forwards night in and night out.
Shortly after the awards ceremony, Kraken ownership and general manager Ron Francis met with Beniers and his agent Pat Brisson. The Kraken were in a busy period between the NHL Draft and free agency but made an appointment with Brisson to circle back on Beniers’s contract. “We said ‘let’s get through . . . a few days and then we’ll start talking,’” Francis recounted a few days later.
So, is the team interested in signing Beniers to a contract extension this summer? “We’d like to do that, for sure,” Francis said.
With Vince Dunn signed, Seattle’s focus may now be on Beniers. So, there is no better time to take a look at Beniers’s contract status, why the Kraken are interested in signing Beniers now, and what it might take to get pen to paper.
Beniers became eligible for a contract extension this summer
The 2023-24 season is the final year of Matty Beniers’s three-year entry-level contract (ELC). Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a team and player can negotiate and agree to an extension of any multi-year contract, including an ELC, only in the last year of that deal. July 1, 2023, was the first day of the 2023-24 league year, and, as of that date, Beniers became eligible for a contract extension for the first time.
This is an important inflection point when the team and player must grapple with the player’s demonstrated value. Highly drafted players like Beniers have leverage to negotiate for extra performance bonuses in an ELC, but the base compensation package is a fixed amount near the league minimum. In contrast, a contract extension is not limited to any particular structure, except that (1) the term may not go beyond an upper limit of 8 years, and (2) the average annual value (AAV) must fall between an upper limit (20 percent of the salary cap) and lower limit ($775,000).
Upon expiration of the ELC, Beniers is scheduled to be a restricted free agent without arbitration rights. (Need an explainer on anything related to restricted free agency? Check out the appendix to this post.) In theory, if Beniers is not re-signed before next summer, he could talk with other teams and solicit an “offer sheet.” For all intents and purposes, though, this is a contract negotiation between two parties, Beniers and the Kraken.
Beniers and Seattle could be motivated to deal
Can the team and player reach an agreement on a long-term extension? Both sides are likely open to the concept.
From the team’s perspective, there are many positives to a long-term deal. Beniers is an early prime player, still on the upward trajectory of his anticipated aging curve. Securing his services long term based on his performance to date may yield surplus contract value down the road. Furthermore, the salary cap is likely to start escalating at (or almost) five percent per season starting next summer. Locking Beniers in now could look even better in four years when the salary cap is $100 million.
Speaking of which, if the team’s true “window” to compete is in the mid-to-late 2020’s–as I argued in a post earlier this week–minimizing Beniers’s cap hit in that timeframe should be the team’s priority. Signing a long-term deal now is the best way to accomplish that.
On the other hand, the team’s downside on a long-term extension is limited by a CBA rule that allows clubs to buy out remaining years on the contract of a player 25 years old or younger at one third of the remaining contract value. Beniers will not be 26 until Nov., 2028. This means that even in a disastrous scenario, the Kraken would still have flexibility for the majority of the contract term to move on from Beniers with limited salary cap consequences.
For Beniers’s part, a long-term deal also makes sense. Even after the 2023-24 season, he will still be at least five years from unrestricted free agency. A long-term extension would provide him with some security against performance regression or injury. The latter consideration is surely a factor for the slight-framed center. As I will detail below, similar dynamics have led to a spate of long-term deals for similarly positioned young forwards over the last couple years.
Therefore, the key to a successful long-term agreement will be finding common ground on contract AAV. If the sides can’t do that, they may defer further negotiations to next summer or agree to a “bridge” extension at a lower rate. Bridge deals are shorter contracts, in the range of one-to-four years, that cover some but not all of a player’s restricted free agent years. These agreements set up another contract negotiation between the team and player closer to unrestricted free agency.
Bridge deals make sense for mid-roster players or players with high uncertainty in their projections. For example, Seattle and Vince Dunn agreed to a two-year bridge deal after the Expansion Draft. That two-year contract set up this summer’s negotiation. The Dunn example underscores the risk of a bridge deal from the team’s perspective. The team may get a lower AAV for the term of the bridge deal itself, but, oftentimes, the player’s leverage is higher after the bridge deal expires because he is closer to unrestricted free agency. This could cause the team to pay more for less productive, post-peak seasons in order to keep the player. Seattle seemingly avoided that with Dunn by signing him to a deal that ends when he will be 30 years old.
Comparable contracts could guide the negotiations
I gathered contract information from CapFriendly. Matty Beniers has played 90 games and scored 66 points (.733 points per game). Using CapFriendly’s contract comparable tool, I compiled a long list of contracts signed by players as restricted free agents, at a similar age, and with similar games played and points totals at the time of signing.
From this long list I further filtered the results manually, looking for the players that were most similar in point-per-game production and in Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) analytic, which accounts for gameplay contributions beyond point totals.
This process yielded a set of recent contracts with young forwards that will likely serve as a reference point for Beniers and the team. Beniers has less experience and total production than most of these comparables, which weighs against him, but his per-game point production and advanced analytics tend to be similar or better, which weighs in his favor.
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 ($83.5 million). This facilitates a fairer, direct comparison to a potential Beniers deal. I refer to this figure as the “cap-adjusted AAV” below.
Let’s dive in.
Reference player: Matty Beniers, Center
Statistics at (potential) signing: 90 games played | 66 points | 20 years old
Comparable no. 1: Joshua Norris, Center
Contract: 8 years, $7.95 million AAV ($8,049,000 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: July 14, 2022
Statistics at signing: 125 games played | 90 points | 23 years old
Contract comparable no. 2: Tim Stutzle, Center
Contract: 8 years, $8.35 million AAV ($8,450,200 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: September 7, 2022
Statistics at signing: 132 games played | 87 points | 21 years old
Contract comparable no. 3: Nick Suzuki, Center
Contract: 8 years, $7.875 million AAV ($8,066,100 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: October 12, 2021
Statistics at signing: 127 games played | 82 points | 22 years old
Contract comparable no. 4: Nico Hischier, Center
Contract: 7 years, $7.25 million AAV ($7,431,500 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: October 18, 2019
Statistics at signing: 156 games played | 101 points | 21 years old
Contract comparable no. 5: John Tavares, Center
Contract: 6 years, $5.50 million AAV ($7,139,250 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: September 14, 2011
Statistics at signing: 161 games played | 121 points | 20 years old
Contract comparable no. 6: Nazem Kadri, Center
Contract: 2 years, $2.90 million AAV ($3,765,850 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: September 10, 2013
Statistics at signing: 99 games played | 63 points | 22 years old
Contract comparable no. 7: Logan Couture, Center
Contract: 2 years, $2.875 million AAV ($3,732,450 cap-adjusted AAV)
Signing date: August 30, 2011
Statistics at signing: 104 games played | 65 points | 22 years old
The comparable contracts above reveal a pretty tight range for a long-term deal between the team and the Calder Trophy winner–an eight-year term at somewhere between $7.15 million and $8.45 million AAV. Failing agreement in that range, a bridge deal might look something like a two-year deal around $3.75 million AAV.
Projecting a contract for Matty Beniers
Based on the comparables above, I’ll project that the Kraken and Matty Beniers agree to an eight-year extension this summer (or early in the 2023-24 season) worth approximately $8 million AAV, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars. This would make Beniers the team’s highest-paid player when the extension kicks in, but keeps him close enough within range of Dunn’s recent $7.35 million AAV contract that he will not carry undue pressure as the team’s singular star player. Any issues in the room with making a 20-year-old the team’s highest-paid player would be mitigated somewhat by the fact that Beniers would still play this coming season under his existing ELC that calls for a base salary of just $897,500.
That said, there are a few reasons to be skeptical that this type of deal will get done. Francis has never signed a player to an eight-year contract. He has also never signed a player to a contract worth more than $37.1 million in total value (Jaccob Slavin was the highest total contract), $7.35 million AAV (Dunn was the highest AAV), or 8.8 percent of total cap hit (Dunn again). It will likely require new highs in each of these measures to sign Beniers long term.
Further, one of Beniers’s closer comparable contracts not included in the above list is Elias Lindholm’s 2015 deal with Francis’s Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes and a 20-year-old Lindholm agreed to a two-year bridge deal worth $2.7 million AAV ($3,156,300 AAV in cap-adjusted terms). Lindholm’s point production at that time (.43 points per game) pales in comparison with Beniers’s pace (.72 points per game), however.
Finally, it is reasonable to point out that Francis resisted giving defenseman Vince Dunn a long-term deal earlier this summer. While many saw an eight-year deal as a foregone conclusion, Francis eventually signed Dunn for just four years.
Beniers’s case is different than Dunn’s case in several material respects, though. First, Beniers is much younger than Dunn, and it is much easier to project him to sustain or improve his performance level to date.
Second, while Beniers’s track record is shorter than Dunn’s, he has not fallen below an above-average performance level at any point in his hockey career. Dunn’s record has been more volatile. As recently as the 2021-22 season, Dunn looked like a talented but mistake-prone, second-pair defenseman.
Third, Beniers has a rare profile. He is a second overall pick and a Calder Trophy winner who plays a premium position and displays leadership qualities on and off the ice. He’s the type of player any team would like to have as a cornerstone. While there are risks, particularly given that Beniers has only one full season of NHL experience, I think the team and player will find common ground on an extension that keeps the young forward in the Pacific Northwest long term.