Ray Shero has two players that should be signed sooner rather than later. Both are restricted free agents, both are defensemen, and both have filed for arbitration. Per Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, both have their hearing dates scheduled. One is Eric Gelinas, who has his arbitration hearing on July 21. The other is Adam Larsson, who has his arbitration hearing on July 29. I'd expect both to be signed before those dates. Still, it's as relevant as ever to ask the question: What should be their next contract? Last week, I asked that question for Gelinas. Today, it's all about Adam Larsson.
The Player in Question
Since the format I used for trying to answer that question for Gelinas worked fairly well, let's do it again. First, we must consider Larsson. Here are the basics. After being drafted fourth overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, Larsson played right away in the NHL. According to NHL.com, he's listed at 6'3", 205 pounds, and - most importantly - 22 years of age. He has since been in the NHL for four seasons and appeared in 192 regular season games and five playoff games. He's had some stints in the minors with Albany: 33 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and 33 games in the not-shortened 2013-14 season. In those 192 regular season games, Larsson has averaged just over a shot per game (approximately 1.09), scored six goals, and provided 45 assists for a total of 51 points.
The curious part about Larsson's career so far is his usage. Many have pointed out that he has been a healthy scratch more than just a handful of times under Peter DeBoer. Check out his ice time averages by situation and the number of shifts he was playing per game, all data from NHL.com.
I'm not sure there are many defensemen who can say they received the most even strength ice time per game in their first season in the NHL, much less defensemen under the age of twenty. When Larsson did play initially, he got significant minutes, got less in two shortened seasons, and saw a bump in his fourth season. The penalty killing ice time average is telling, as he went from spot duty to a rotation role to a featured role on the unit. The coaching change helped.
So did the fact that Larsson as a player performed better by sight. In his rookie season, Larsson was a defenseman who clearly had the tools to succeed but was hampered by other issues. He was too tentative at times and thought more than reacted at times. That would explain games where he could have an awesome breakout pass on one shift and then look lost on the next. As a result, he would get hit a lot and look more like a regular NHL player than a burgeoning young defender that many hoped. Larsson would figure it out, so to speak, in 2014-15 as he would be much quicker in everything that he did and while it wasn't necessarily perfect, his decisions were often good enough to function at the time. Combined with the fact he's 22, many fans are hopeful about Larsson's growth and would like him to stay for quite some time.
Do the analytics show that he's better? It's not clear. From a possession standpoint, according to War on Ice, Larsson was a positive possession player in his first three seasons before being hammered into a 46.93% CF last season. Of course, last season's Devils team was bad in possession; Larsson was average among the defenders from that squad. Even in that season, the play generally went a little more forward at evens when Larsson was on the ice given his positive relative Corsi percentage - except for that 2013 season where he had an ugly -7.54% relative CF%. Larsson hasn't been a driver of play, but he hasn't been an anchor, an albatross, or a black hole by any means.
Since Larsson's ice time changed in four seasons, looking at the time on ice of his competition and teammates may have some answers as to what went on. Larsson's TOI% of his competition has ranged from 17.25% to 17.63% in his four seasons. While that's not the toughest of the toughs, it is within the upper half among Devils defensemen in the last four seasons. Larsson has been facing good players, not necessarily the best, over the last four seasons. Curiously, Larsson's TOI% of his teammates has been fairly low, which means he's not being paired with guys who get used a lot. The 16.03% he had in 2013-14 is the lowest among defensemen who played at least two games in the last four seasons. The median among all Devils defensemen in the last four seasons is around 16.91%; Larsson matched it once in 2013 and exceeded it only once in 2011-12. So while Larsson spent a chunk of last season with Andy Greene, for the most part, Larsson hasn't been playing with top tier defenders that could've helped him along earlier. Then again, those shifts with Greene plus others led to a 38.33% offensive zone start percentage last season, which is not only a new low for Larsson but also makes his not-so-hot-looking CF% look better.
All of that - the competition, the teammates, the zone starts - partially explains why the possession numbers aren't jumping off the page and why he hasn't looked so good earlier in his career. I almost want to say he should've been sheltered to start rather than being thrown into the deep end of 18-minute games at evens, and then have him earn his way up the depth chart. What Larsson underwent is more than a bit confusing. I can agree he's a good player in there and I'm looking forward to what he does next season. It's just not so obvious from the numbers.
One more thing about Larsson that's important to know: his contract history. Let's look at it at General Fanager. Larsson's first three years in the NHL were on his entry level contract, a three-year, two-way deal that was worth $925,000 per season. After that, Larsson signed a one-year, one-way deal worth $900,000. That deal was for 2014-15, so he's now a restricted free agent. He was eligible for arbitration and so he elected to file for it in order to push the Devils to give him a new deal. Larsson will make much more than he did in 2014-15. John Moore, third pairing defenseman, got a three-year contract worth $5 million, or $1.6 million per season. For the sake of this post, I'm going to assume Larsson will get at least that. I think he should. How much more? Let's consider some points of reference for that.
Points of Reference
The good news is that, unless I'm mistaken, analytics aren't a part of an arbitration hearing. The bad news is that basic numbers do, and that Larsson's odd path in the NHL so far make finding comparables more difficult. Typically, defensemen under the age of 22 are either guys who get a lot of minutes early on because it's apparent they're great players or guys who get a little bit in a limited role. Larsson is somewhere in the middle. It's more common than a defenseman breaks into the NHL at 22, 23, or 24 and then plays his way up in his first four seasons. Larsson is younger than that, so it's reasonable to think the best is yet to come from him. Still, it doesn't make finding similar players any easier. So I'm going to throw out a lot of points of reference that don't totally fit, but should help put a picture together of what could be expected as "market value" for Larsson.
As with Gelinas, I used Hockey-Reference's Player Season Finder to sort out players who might be similar to Larsson. I set 2005-06 as my starting point - the first season the NHL had a salary cap - and bounded it to defensemen who played in their first four seasons. Since Larsson played over 3,800 minutes in 192 games in his first four seasons, I added a criteria of at least 150 games played and 3,000 minutes. This way I get defenders who played a bit less than Larsson as well as those who played much more. Lastly, since Larsson isn't a particularly prolific shooter, I'm adding criteria for a shots per game of less than 1.25 per game. That would include a few who've fired a few more pucks, but mostly less.
Here's the search I used at Hockey-Reference, which identified 58 defensemen who fit the criteria. After sorting by minutes and looking around, here's who I identified as some points of reference. They don't perfectly match with Larsson in terms of style, situation, or results; but they are similar in some regard.
1. Jason Demers - Demers hit the NHL in 2009-10 and put up a good number of points for someone averaging less than 16 minutes per game. His average ice time rose to 19:30 in second season and his last on his ELC. Demers then got a two year deal worth $2.5 million. However, Demers' production and minutes would drop in 2011-12 and he only managed to get into 22 games in 2013. Demers' third contract ended up being a one-year "show me"-style contract at $1.5 million. Demers would go on to set a career high in points while his average ice time returned to the 19:30 range. The then pending RFA got a two-year deal at $6.8 million, or an average of $3.4 million per year. As Demers would put up a decent amount of production, he's known more for his defensive play. Based on raw numbers, I'd say Larsson's closer to Demers than we may think otherwise. So this is a good point of reference.
2. T.J. Brodie - Brodie put up only a handful more minutes than Larsson did in his first four NHL seasons. Only Brodie's path has had an upward trajectory. He went from a cup of coffee in his first season to limited ice time in his second, to twenty-minutes-per-game in his third, to a break out season in his fourth with 31 points and an average of 24 minutes per game. It's the sort of path one wished Larsson had instead of the one he did. Brodie didn't do a lot in his second season in 2011-12, but the Flames saw something him - enough to give him a two-year deal worth $4.25 million afterwards. After that big breakout season in 2013-14, Brodie did even more in 2014-15, and so he got a lucrative five-year deal worth $23.252 million. Not bad for someone who just turned 25 last month. You could consider Brodie as a "best-case scenario."
3. Karl Alzner - Alzner played a lot more than Larsson did in his first four seasons. In fact, the last time Alzner missed a game, it was in his second season in 2009-10. Since then, he's appeared in every game for Washington with an average of 19-20 minutes per game. Alzner is all about the defense since he doesn't provide much in the way of points or even shots (only one season where he averaged over a shot per game). Alzner played out his ELC with Washington and got a two-year bridge deal worth $2.57 million ahead of the 2011-12 season. As he became a solid part of the Caps' top-four, Alzner inked a four-year deal worth $11.2 million before the 2013-14 season. Should Larsson's offense not really develop and is just a solid top-four defender, Alzner's $2.8 million per year may be a good reference point for his near future.
4. Nicklas Hjalmarsson - Hjalmarsson hit the NHL for 13 games in the first year of his ELC. In the second year, he only appeared in 21 games and averaged less than 15 minutes per game; however, he did became a regular third-pairing defender in the 2009 playoffs. In the final year of his ELC, Hjalmarsson got top-four caliber minutes in the regular season and in their 2010 Stanley Cup run. The eight playoff points - still a high for him - plus the increase in minutes led him to a big raise. A four-year deal worth $14 million. Hjalmarsson has since earned every bit of that $3.5 million per year salary as he has received increasing average ice time in the last five seasons and big minutes in the playoffs. Like Alzner, Hjalmarsson isn't a productive or offensive player. He received a massive raise due to breaking out at the right time and I'd say Chicago paid partially on potential in the summer of 2010. It worked out for them; in the case of Larsson, I'd say it's closer to an idealized scenario.
5. Matt Greene - While Andy Greene's first four years weren't that far off from Larsson's, he did turn UFA. The other Greene's past is closer to Larsson: Matt Greene. After a sophmore season that saw Greene take a larger role on Edmonton, he got a two-year deal worth $2.3 million. After a setback in 2007-08, a trade to Los Angeles in June 2008 led to Greene taking another step forward in minutes and play in 2008-09. Los Angeles rewarded that improvement with a five-year deal worth $14.75 million. Like Chicago and Hjalmarsson, I think Los Angeles was paying partially for potential. As it turned out, Greene's ice time and usefulness declined. He's still with the Kings and did sign a four-year deal worth $10 million two summers ago, but he's not really a top-four defender. If what happened to Hjalmarsson is closer to an ideal, what happened to Greene should be seen as more or less a cautionary tale.
6. Nicklas Grossmann - While he played in more games in his first four years, Grossmann played only 45 more minutes than Larsson in his first four seasons. Grossmann would see his ice time and his role increase over those four seasons; it's just that he started off so limited. Similar to Brodie, only without the big jump in points or (ever) averaging over twenty minutes per game. Still, Grossmann was a top-four defenseman by the time he turned 25. From a contract standpoint, Grossmann's ELC ended after his second season and got a two-year bridge deal worth $1.95 million in the summer of 2010. Grossmann rose to be that top-four defenseman previously mentioned in the those two seasons. His reward was a two-year deal worth $3.25 million that took him to UFA at age 27. Grossmann didn't really progress that much in terms of basic numbers after that fourth season. So should Larsson stagnate, this may be a good point of reference.
With the six points of reference, all but one had some kind of a bridge deal where upon the player proved he was worth more. There are other points of references I could've used but a two-year deal was common after the entry level contract ended. These bridge deals would be at least a million per year but less than $2 million per year. Should the player improve and get a larger role, his earnings would improve for the next deal prior to unrestricted free agency. The amount of production, minutes, and general performance would drive how much that would be - the difference between, say, T.J. Brodie and Karl Alzner.
Nicklas Grossmann's situation is instructive that it's possible for a short contract to be followed by another one. Given that Larsson is 22, it wouldn't be that odd to give him another two year deal. He'd still be far from unrestricted free agency by the end of it. More importantly, we and the New Jersey Devils would have a better idea of what sort of player Larsson will become. Yes, he could very well be on the top pairing in 2015-16, but being on the top pairing for a bad team isn't really worth much. Who's going to challenge his spot anyway, Damon Severson? Even so, he's still on the top two pairings on a bad team. Being better than Merrill, Gelinas, Moore, and the rest isn't worth a lot if we're honest with ourselves. If he's going to break out in terms of production and handle more minutes, then he could easily command a rate somewhere upwards of $3.5 million per year. If not, then somewhere about what Alzner's getting would be more appropriate.
The problem is that after four years of not always being used, not always being available, not really "figuring it out" on the ice, and not having underlying numbers that stick out, it's not all clear what Larsson is really worth. As much as I can understand locking someone up long term, overpaying significantly on potential is a risk. I'll agree that Larsson is better as a player now than he was in 2011-12, but how much more potential does he have left? In Chicago's case with Hjalmarsson, it worked out; in Los Angeles' case with Greene, not so much. The Devils certainly have the cap space to handle an overpayment, but doing so because they can afford an overpayment by overrating Larsson's future or present makes little sense.
Again, I will agree he deserves more than what Moore got and since he'll play significant minutes short of being injured, so I'd think $2 million per year would make sense as a minimum. If I were in Ray Shero's position I'd offer a quasi-bridge deal of two years worth $5 million. This would represent a raise for Larsson, but at the same time be a bit closer to what similar players have received in Larsson's position. It's not a big risk like the one Hjalmarsson's and Greene's teams took, but it's also an increase over the Demers, Alzners, and Grossmanns of the past. It will also keep him as a RFA, provided I counted his years correctly. Should Larsson really blossom as many hope with more consistent usage and not crazy-difficult on-ice situations, then the team can set him up nicely for a significant extension that eats into his prime UFA years. If not, then the team can go cheaper and potentially move him with a favorable deal.
I wouldn't want the Devils to lock up Larsson for five or six years on the hopes that he can be someone the defense can be built around until he proves he's good enough to build around for a defense. I like his improvement, but he hasn't done that yet. The numbers, basic or advanced, tell me he hasn't. If the team wants to go down that route, then the deal should be somewhere in the $3 to $3.5 million range for five years. This is a bigger increase and ties him up until he's 27. That may make him a UFA risk but the Devils could extend him prior to the deal ending. Getting him $4 million or more would be too much for someone who hasn't done so much; though it may be required for an even longer deal. Beyond even that mark would be ridiculous since that's closer Brodie's territory and Larsson hasn't done anything like him yet.
It wasn't easy finding points of reference for Larsson. So if you have any others for him, I'd love to hear them out and why you think they fit. Nevertheless, I personally think another bridge deal would make sense for where Larsson is in his career based on what he's done. I know some of you want him locked up. Tell me what you think about what Larsson's next contract should be in the comments. Thank you for reading.