On Wednesday, it was reported by Michael Russo of the Star Tribune that the Wild were hoping to avoid arbitration hearings next week with restricted free agent forwards Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. In the same report, Russo noted that both Granlund and Niederreiter, age 25 and 24 respectively, were looking for contracts over $6 million in AAV (average annual value), making them some of the highest paid players on the team.
Before the offseason had started, Granlund and Niederreiter asking for contracts above $6 million seemed to be a particularly high demand. Both forwards are coming off solid seasons. Granlund scored 69 points and Niederreiter tallied 57 -- both career-highs. Neither had previously gone above 44 points in a season, as they each had their ups and downs in the Minnesota lineup before this last year under head coach Bruce Boudreau.
But let's get back to that contract demand of $6 million per season.
First and foremost, the Wild currently sit with $15.79 million in cap space for the 2017-18 season. The only players left on the roster without a contract are RFAs Granlund, Niederreiter, and the recently acquired Marcus Foligno. So if you meet Granlund and Niederreiter's demands of $6M+, that is really going to put the Wild in a cap crunch (which would subsequently not allow for them to sign a depth forward or two).
As of this posting, there are currently 48 forwards in NHL making $6 million or more. As an aside, Nashville center Ryan Johansen, another restricted free agent this summer, is a slam dunk to be the 49th player once he signs a new contract. Granlund and Niederreiter would make that 51, should Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher give in and meet those demands. But are they worth that asking price?
But are they worth that asking price?
Let's find a few comparables who make close to $6 million annually and are similar in age at the time of signing that contract.
Derek Stepan (Center - Arizona Coyotes)
Current Contract: 6 years, $39 million ($6.5 million AAV)
Signed: July 27, 2015
Age at time of signing: 25 years old (currently 27 years old)
Coming off two consecutive 55+ point seasons (57 in 2013-14 and 55 in 2014-15) in which he played a huge role in getting the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final and Conference Final, Stepan looked to be the Rangers' No. 1 center for the long term. As a restricted free agent following that 2014-15 season, Stepan cashed in and got a six year, $39 million contract to be the Rangers top center. Since the deal, Stepan has not seen a point reduction per se, as he has scored 55 and 53 points in the two seasons that have followed, but his struggles and lack of increased production despite getting top line minutes during that time were a cause for concern and lead to his trade from New York to Arizona last month.
Brandon Saad (Left Wing/Right Wing - Chicago Blackhawks)
Current Contract: 6 years, $36 million ($6 million AAV)
Signed: July 3, 2015
Age at time of signing: 22 years old (currently 24 years old)
A casualty of the Chicago Blackhawks cap woes, Brandon Saad was a part of two Stanley Cup Championships in the Windy City before getting traded to Columbus as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015. In the two seasons leading up to his trade, Saad meshed well with star center Jonathan Toews and scored 47 and 52 points respectively, while adding 27 points in 42 playoff games. He was seen as a key cog in the Blackhawks machine, but due to the high cap hits of their star players, he had to be moved for salary cap relief.
In his two seasons since signing the deal with Columbus, Saad has scored 53 points each year and helped the Blue Jackets set a franchise mark for team points in a season (108). The Blackhawks, in dire need of a "shakeup", re-acquired Saad on June 23 in a trade that sent Artemi Panarin back to Columbus. Saad will figure to slot in on the wing next to Toews, who had a "down season" in 2016-17, to help jump start the center's production.
Jordan Eberle (Right Wing - New York Islanders)
Current Contract: 6 years, $36 million ($6 million AAV)
Signed: Aug. 30, 2012
Age at time of signing: 22 years old (currently 27 years old)
Coming off a season in which he scored 76 points, Eberle looked to be a top-line right wing in Edmonton for years to come. But since that season, and the six-year extension that followed, Eberle has yet to get back to that 70-point plateau, only getting as close as 65 points in 2013-14. The past two seasons, in which Edmonton has had superstar center Connor McDavid, Eberle has seen a sharp decline in points as he has only scored 47 and 51 points respectively. Eberle's final straw in Edmonton came in the postseason, where he tallied just a pair of assists in Edmonton's second round defeat to Anaheim. Eberle was traded to the New York Islanders on June 22 to get reunited with his old Team Canada linemate John Tavares.
After seeing those comparables sign for $6M+ annually, the thought starts to creep in your head that maybe Granlund and Niederreiter could be worth those kind of contracts. But as Russo also pointed out in his article, recent restricted free agent signees are going to very much factor into these negotiations. Players mentioned among others included:
Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay), who is averaging 0.72 points per game the last four years, signed a five year, $26.5 million deal ($5.3M AAV) two weeks ago.
Mika Zibanajad (New York Rangers), who has only surpassed 45 points in his career just two times, signed a 5 year, $26.75 million deal ($5.35M AAV) on Tuesday.
Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings), who has tallied 45 and 46 points each of the last two seasons and just signed a four year, $21.2 million ($5.3M AAV) last Friday.
After these recent deals, it's logical to assume that Niederreiter could very well fall right in this $5.3 million range when all is said and done. His production (not counting the advanced stats) falls more in line with the three players who just signed contracts, but perhaps his underlying numbers could push him a bit higher into the $5.5-5.7M range.
Granlund, coming off that 69 point season, could very well cash in and get a deal north of $6 million annually. While he never scored more than 45 points in a season before last year, his production since getting put on the wing permanently (during the short John Torchetti era of the Wild) has been real solid. If the Wild were looking to give him a shorter term deal (3-4 years), they will definitely have to go above the $6 million mark, but they could get him to come below that number if a longer term contract (5-7 years) was in their plans. Fletcher and co. have always been very high on Granlund and his abilities (or basically all their first round draft picks) so it is possible they could stretch a deal out a few more years to save a few bucks in the short term.
Niederreiter's arbitration hearing is scheduled for August 3, while Granlund's hearing is scheduled for August 4. The Wild are looking to lock down new contracts with both before they ever make it to the hearings, but according to the report from Russo, those deals most likely won't be reached until closer to those dates. The Wild will hope to avoid those hearings so a one year deal is not in the cards, as both would be RFA's again next summer. Minnesota will have Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba set for restricted free agency next summer, while Mikko Koivu will be in need of a new contract.
It will no doubt be in Fletcher's best interest to get Granlund and Niederreiter locked down, so he knows what he has to deal with for another crucial offseason.
Salary and cap figures in this post courtesy of CapFriendly