The Minnesota Wild have to go bargain hunting with the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyout penalties looming over the next three years. They did it in free agency last year, scooping up discounted defensemen. They're going to have to be selective about retaining their current talent, keeping only players willing to take below-market deals.
Ryan Hartman is the gold standard of what the Wild need. Hartman committed to Minnesota for three years at a dirt-cheap rate last spring. According to Evolving Hockey, the Wild got a steal in the early going of the deal, with Hartman already providing three Standings Points Above Replacement. Since a standings point is worth about $2.3 million, Hartman is already producing surplus value on his entire 3-year, $5.1 million contract.
The players who will stay in Minnesota are the ones who will take those bargain deals. Today the Wild announced that Jon Merrill would be the latest player to do so, announcing a three-year contract with a cap hit of $1.2 million per season.
Speaking of surplus value, Merrill's vastly outperformed his 1-year, $850K deal. He's 42nd among defensemen with 1.5 SPAR, which also leads Minnesota. Merrill is producing points at a career-high rate of 0.33 per game. He forms a strong third-pairing with Dmitry Kulikov, which controls 54.4% of the expected goal share at 5-on-5.
It's easy to see Wild general manager Bill Guerin's logic here. He's got a player he likes who is outperforming a bargain contract and who fits in well here. Why not keep him around?
The problem with that thinking is that just because Merrill is a bargain now doesn't mean he'll be one in the future, especially if that bargain comes with a three-year term and a nearly 50% raise.
The reasons Merrill was such a smart pickup were twofold. He was a solid defenseman, averaging 1.3 SPAR over the past three seasons. Two, his lack of offense pushed his value down near the league minimum. Given his history and cost, it was a reasonable expectation to out-produce the deal. There was some upside there, and if it didn't work out, the Wild could easily break ties.
Instead, the Wild have him locked up for three years. He may continue to out-produce that contract. All he has to do is provide about a standing point per season, and the Wild have their money back.
That's far from a guarantee, though. Looking at players historically similar to Merrill, four match his profile statistically and in terms of age -- Matt Greene, Greg Pateryn, Marc Methot, and Zbynek Michalek.
Here's their career SPAR per season, with a red line denoting them entering their age-30 season:
The exact progression is similar, but the theme is consistent and clear: Defensive defensemen have a shelf life, and it doesn't extend much past their early 30s. Even in Michalek's case — the best outcome of the four — the sharp decline came, just a couple of years later than the rest of this field. And as for career peaks, Merrill is much closer to Greene/Pateryn than Michalek/Methot.
This dynamic is especially relevant when comparing Merrill's contract to Hartman because Hartman signed his deal entering his age-26 year. Merrill will be 30 next year, meaning it's only a matter of time when the collapse comes. Why did the Wild lock themselves into three years of waiting for that shoe to drop? Especially when you can find Jon Merrills anywhere.
It's not very hard at all to find defensive defensemen at value. The Wild do this all the time. Last year, Guerin traded for Ian Cole, which cost him nothing but Greg Pateryn's contract. Before him, they developed Carson Soucy, a former fifth-round pick. Before him, they got Nate Prosser, a college free agent who the Wild once put on waivers, then reacquired via waivers shortly after.
Another excellent example of Minnesota finding a Merrill-type player for (almost) nothing: Merrill himself. He came off a solid season and had a decent track record. But while the market went crazy for average defensemen like Jake McCabe, Jamie Oleksiak, Cody Ceci, and Tucker Poolman, Merrill was left without a chair before signing with Minnesota.
So why give an aging player, one whose role perhaps ages worse than any other in hockey, three years? The Wild could just as easily go year-to-year with another player very similar to him next year. And that's if none of the Wild's up-and-coming defense prospects like Carson Lambos, Ryan O'Rourke, or Daemon Hunt are ready next year.
They could even have probably gone year-to-year with Merrill had they waited. No one said Guerin had to negotiate with Merrill after 33 solid games, the height of his value. If Merrill wanted to stay in Minnesota, Guerin could've made that happen in June. And if he didn't, that's fine. Say thank you very much, as he did with Ian Cole, and find someone who will play for a cheap year.
Granted, there's not a lot of risk in the move. They can bury him in the AHL at any time and have him count at only $75K against the cap. But given the Wild's flexibility and resources over the next three years, they can't settle for low-risk, low-reward long-term deals. The reason Hartman worked out wasn't that he didn't cost very much. It's that Minnesota's low-cost bet on a younger player with upside worked out. The cap situation means they need to get bang for their buck on even their smallest signings, and letting it ride on a 30-something defensive defenseman rarely accomplishes that.
Merrill is playing well this year and may even be a decent bet to play well next year. But the upside just isn't there, especially in years two and three, which is especially frustrating because there was no pressing reason to commit to that now. Guerin was wise to bring on a solid role player for minimal money and term. Doubling down on Merrill suggests that Guerin forgot entirely what made acquiring him savvy in the first place.
All data is from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise stated.