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Comparing William Nylander’s situation to Nikita Kucherov’s two years ago

One of the biggest storylines as the NHL season opened up was the fact that talented Toronto Maple Leafs winger William Nylander had not signed a new contract. His situation is eerily similar to what the Tampa Bay Lightning went through two years ago when Nikita Kucherov remaining unsigned through training camp and the pre-season.

Kucherov and Steve Yzerman finally got a deal done with a three-year bridge contract that paid him $4,766,667 per year. Kucherov’s gamble on himself, instead of insisting on a longer term deal, has paid off, and he signed an eight-year, $9.5 million extension this summer.

When looking at Nylander’s situation compared to what the Lightning went through with Kucherov, there are a lot of similarities both in the teams and in the players.

Kucherov was 23 years old entering his RFA season while Nylander is 22. They both play right wing. They’re both European (not that that means a whole lot). And their production in the NHL is also strikingly similar.

Kucherov debuted in the NHL in 2013-14 as a 20 year old and scored 18 points in 52 games. After being drafted, he spent another year in Russia and a year in the QMJHL. Nylander split his first year after draft between the Swedish SHL and the AHL. He made his debut in 2015-16 scoring 13 points in 22 games. So Nylander certainly had a better performance in a shorter time period in their first seasons.

Kucherov’s second and third seasons saw him scoring 29 and 30 goals and 65 and 66 points. Nylander by contract scored 22 and 20 goals and hit the 61 point mark in his second and third seasons. Kucherov is more of a shooter than Nylander, but Nylander exhibits some great qualities as a playmaker, much as Kucherov has shown more of in the past two seasons.

When you look at Nylander, you also can’t help but see a player that could take a big step forward and certainly has the potential to produce like Kucherov going forward. In this stalemate, it seems like that is what Nylander is projecting for himself, and he wants to be paid now like he’s going to produce at that level.

There’s one slight problem with that, though. I started pulling together a lot of contract and statistical information to confirm or refute a general guideline I’ve kicked around for a while. My mental guideline when thinking of contracts is to assign forwards about $1 million per 10 points of production. I’ve also always given my idea the caveat that this equation breaks down once a player gets up into the 75+ point range, and it also can be a bit different for players scoring 25 points or less.

In going through the preliminary data for the past few years of NHL contracts, I found that for players who score from 35 points to 65 points, this theory holds pretty close to true. There are always some outliers and some players that get paid more or less, but it averages out based on the previous three seasons of performance as well as the previous season. The previous season’s performance was also often more important for a young player than it was for a veteran getting to unrestricted free agency.

Even without trying to hash out my mental guideline, there are a lot of contracts for players that are very similar to William Nylander. Many of them are the same contracts I referenced two years ago when trying to figure out what Kucherov would sign for. These were young players coming off of their entry level contract that scored in the 60-65 point range, like Kucherov and Nylander prior to signing new contracts. Below are just a few examples and the scoring the player did in the few seasons prior to signing their contracts.

  • Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, $6.75 million for six years – 30-48-78 in 15-16; 24-40-64 in 14-15.
  • David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins, $6.666 million for six years – 34-36-70 in 16-17; 15-11-26 in 15-16
  • Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators, $6 million for six years – 33-31-64 in 15-16; 26-37-63 in 14-15
  • Brandon Saad, Columbus Blue Jackets, $6 million for six years – 23-29-53 in 15-16; 23-29-52 in 14-15; 19-28-47 in 13-14
  • Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames $6.375 million for seven years – 27-36-63 in 15-16; 31-31-62 in 14-15; 22-12-43 in 13-14
  • Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, $6.3 million for seven years – 21-31-52 in 15-16; 14-24-38 in 14-15; 24-39-63 in 13-14/

There are even more contracts besides that that are in that same $6-$6.75 million range. Many of them wingers, including all of the players listed above. All of them signed when the player was 20-22 years old. There is a lot of contract history here to suggest what Nylander should be signed for.

There have been plenty of rumors out there that he’s asking for a Leon Draisaitl type of deal of $8.5 million for eight years. One key difference is that Draisaitl reached 77 points in the year prior to signing his long term deal. Nylander doesn’t have the same argument, and Draisaitl has the extra positional value of being a center.

The other option is for Nylander to gamble on himself with a bridge contract like Kucherov did. He could sign a three-year contract for around $5 million. It gives the Maple Leafs some flexibility as they attempt to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner sometime in the next 12 months. It also gives Nylander the opportunity to push his production further, like Kucherov did, and be in a position at the end of his contract to demand a very high salary on a long-term deal. He’d also have the benefit of leverage from salary arbitration that he doesn’t have now.

[Hear that, William Nylander?]

Something has to break though for the Toronto Maple Leafs to get Nylander signed and back to playing hockey. They’re a good team without him, but they’re an elite team with him. If he’s reaching for the stars, and can’t be convinced to lower his expectations, then maybe it is best for Toronto to seek out a trade. Or to continue to hold the line until he’s willing to sign a reasonable contract. The Maple Leafs have more leverage in an RFA situation, but they certainly need to get him signed.

Every game Nylander remains un-signed though is a plus for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Anything that weakens a divisional rival through the first couple months of the season gives Tampa more of an edge in building a lead in the division that they can maintain all the way through the regular season and into home ice advantage in the playoffs.

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