With the calendar now reading July, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is unfortunately in the final year of his entry level contract, and that means he and the Oilers can now officially sign the team's first line centre to a contract extension. This is what they did with Taylor Hall last summer. And then Jordan Eberle shortly after. So they should then do the same thing with Nugent-Hopkins, right? Well, maybe not. At least not if you're thinking a deal similar to what Hall and Eberle got.
I understand the desire to lock-up Nugent-Hopkins long term. He looks like a good bet to be a star in this league, and if we can get his name on a contract now, for say eight years, the Oilers would be able to hold onto him until at least age 29, through what are likely to be some of the most productive years of his career. And if you can get that achieved now, before he really breaks out then you're likely getting a better deal in the long run. It sounds like a decent enough idea, but it comes with a measure of risk, and it's a risk that shouldn't be ignored and that the Oilers don't have to take.
For all the good things Nugent-Hopkins has done during his first two years as a pro it's important to remember that he's a) played only 102 games in the league, and b) is going to be returning from shoulder surgery this fall. Personally, I think Nugent-Hopkins is going to be a hell of a hockey player, and if he comes back from this surgery the way Hall did this season is going to be a lot of fun to watch. But if we're talking a Hall-like contract in terms of money and length I don't think it's wise to ignore the possibility that those things might not happen. As I see it there are three scenarios for Nugent-Hopkins next season: about the same as last season, comparable to his rookie season, or a big step forward. Let's break down each scenario and see how it might affect his next contract.
Let's start with the about the same scenario. This is, in my opinion, the least likely scenario, but it could happen. Last season Nugent-Hopkins scored four goals to go along with 20 assists in 40 games. Coming on the heels of 18-34-52 boxcars in 62 (
64 correction courtesy of LadiesloveSmid) games played as a rookie it wasn't the kind of season that most fans, and likely the Oilers, expected. Big drops in individual and on-ice shooting percentages played a part in the drop off though, and it's likely that these numbers will rebound somewhat next season. But for arguments sake let's say they don't. Maybe he struggles with more injuries, or maybe he's forgotten how to player hockey entirely. Either way, the Oilers would clearly be better off taking a wait and see approach when it comes to Nugent-Hopkins' next contract in this scenario. Even if you think he'll eventually return to the form that made him a first overall pick he won't have yet earned the set-for-life contract that he would get if he were signed this summer.
But what if his season is comparable to his rookie campaign? I'd classify this as somewhere around 0.8 points per game, or 65ish points. I wouldn't be disappointed with a season like this from a third year NHLer. But with the data available would you be happy with a contract paying a player who hasn't established himself as a 70 point player a guaranteed $6M per season for six, seven, or eight years? I wouldn't be. If a team is signing a deal that long they need to be confident that they are going to get value from that deal, or they risk seriously limiting their flexibility under the salary cap. The Oilers are potentially already doing this with Eberle, and realistically can't afford to repeat that mistake. Waiting one year in a scenario like this doesn't cost the team anything and also allows the team to pick-up another data point with both Eberle and Nail Yakupov as they plot the long term course of this franchise. No real risk, obvious reward.
And lastly, the big step forward scenario. This is what we're all hoping for, and what the "extend him now" theory tries to protect against. In this scenario I think the Oilers have an advantage that most teams looking at a second contract for a budding start don't have, and that's the Taylor Hall contract. Unless Nugent-Hopkins blows away what Hall did in his third season - 1.11 points per game or 91 over 82 games - I can't see a situation where he would demand a contract worth more annually than Hall's. Since 05/06 only 31 players have scored 90 points in a season. Could Nugent-Hopkins add his name to that list? Of course he could, but Hall's 2013 season was very, very good, and expecting Nugent-Hopkins to dramatically exceed it, not to mention protecting against it, is probably a bad bet.
For arguments sake though, let's say Nugent-Hopkins gets 100 points this coming season. Great for him and for the Oilers. And if I'm MacTavish I would still use the Hall contract as the benchmark. The worst case scenario here is that the length of the deal simply gets shortened from the maximum of eight years to seven or even six years, which buys fewer free agent years and results in the same annual value. In this case the Oilers take on a little risk, but retain a reasonable window of control with Nugent-Hopkins even in the worst case scenario. And this is about as likely a scenario as Nugent-Hopkins repeating his 2013 season. It's really not much of a risk.
Regardless of what you think might lay ahead for Nugent-Hopkins there is little reward in the Oilers taking a chance on a long-term, big dollar contract right now. This isn't to say that I wouldn't want MacTavish to sit down and talk about an extension with Nugent-Hopkins this summer. He should, it's important to talk your players and get a feel for what they're thinking. That applies to very other player in the final year of their contract as well. What I wouldn't want him to do is be worried about reaching an agreement on an extension just for the sake of getting a deal done. If it's the right deal, you get it done. If not, then MacTavish needs to use the time and flexibility awarded to him in the CBA to get the a better deal (either in terms of dollars or based on more information) at some point down the road.
As the Oilers hopefully transition from a basement dweller to contender flexibility under the salary cap is going to be important. This isn't about Nugent-Hopkins; it's about ensuring that the rebuild ends up being as successful as possible. Managing the salary cap efficiently is going to be important for that happen. I don't see any harm in MacTavish and the Oilers taking the stance that this is a new management team, and what happened in the past won't dictate what happens in the future. In other words, he's not guaranteed Hall-like money, which is what he would almost certainly be asking for. If he wants that he needs to have a good season. If he wants the security of a long-term contract right now he'll have to settle for less money. It's nothing personal, it's just business. Nugent-Hopkins is a big boy; I think he'll understand that.