If a player wants to get paid, arguably the best way to do so is to dominate in a contract year. For the “what have you done for me lately” group, there is nothing better, and it usually leads to a large contract, whether with the original team or elsewhere. This can be especially true for unrestricted free agents, but it has its benefits for restricted free agents as well. I mean on the flip side, Jacob Josefson never got a real good deal, and he is actually still an RFA this offseason. Will the New Jersey Devils give him a good contract? Absolutely not. There is a chance they could bring him back for a year or so, but even if they do it will be for something around league minimum, because why should he deserve more?
The opposite of Jacob Josefson this year is Damon Severson, AATJ’s choice for the Best Defenseman on New Jersey this season. He is up for a contract as a restricted free agent, and you can almost guarantee that his contract will not be insignificant. Between him, Eric Gelinas, Seth Helgeson, Jon Merrill and all of the defensemen from a few years ago who made the pipeline seem so full of potential superstars, he is really the only one who has thrived. Merrill has made it back to competence, and I did vote for him for biggest comeback, but he is no superstar and will never be. The others never really made it (I am not counting Steven Santini in that group, or younger guys like Joshua Jacobs. They are still up and coming). Severson, however, has the capability to be a top pairing d-man for the next 10-plus years. In three years, could you see an “A” on the sweater of Jon Merrill? Absolutely not, I already know your answer. Could you see an “A” on the sweater of Severson? I think your answer is “quite possibly.” At least, that’s my answer.
The questions for now, then, are numerous. What should Ray Shero and Company do about his upcoming contract? When looking at his numbers, what type of money does he deserve next year? What should they give him to keep him happy enough with the organization so that in a few years he won’t be chased off to greener pastures? Furthermore, what about length? How long until he becomes a UFA instead of a RFA? Should they make his next contract long enough so that it eats into his UFA years as well, or should they keep it shorter so that he is still a RFA after this next deal? Would Severson even be ok with that?
While most of those questions are opinion-based, and I will let you know what I think, let’s start with the more factual ones. A player in the NHL can become unrestricted in one of two ways: they either turn 27 before June 30th of that year, or they have accrued at least seven years of NHL experience. If neither is true at the end of a contract, then that player is still restricted. Severson will be 23 by June 30th this year, and has three years of NHL experience. This means that a contract of four years or more would make him unrestricted after the next contract ends, but a contract of three years or less would keep him restricted. Let’s keep that in mind and bring it up again later when I discuss what I think his next contract could look like.
Next, let’s look at his stats in comparison to other NHL defensemen. First, as compared to his own teammates. This year, he had 30 points, the most of any defenseman on the Devils. He generated 1.11 points per 60 minutes, tied with John Moore amongst defensemen. So, he clearly was amongst the best offensive producers on a defense starved for offensive production. He also filled that need the season prior as well, his 21 points being the most amongst NJ defensemen in 2015-16. He is filling a huge need that the Devils have, which will only up his value to the organization.
His numbers besides the points are also very good and indicate that he should be paid, but not all of them are as impressive. In 2015-16, he was the only defenseman to have a positive goals for ratio in all situations, meaning that when he was on the ice, more goals were being scored than being given up. This year, he had the highest GF% amongst the regulars in all situations not named Yohann Auvitu. Sadly for Severson, however, these numbers do not transfer when discussing only 5 on 5 play. This year, among the 8 Devils defensemen to have played at least 200 minutes at 5 on 5, Severson ranked 6th in goals for percentage, ahead of only Andy Greene and Jon Merrill. The difference between Severson and these two, however, is that Damon was much more sheltered in his zone starts, which is not particularly great. As a top pairing guy, he needs to be able to handle the tough starts and be able to get his team out of trouble, even against the opposing team’s top line. And there were times this year where you could see him struggling to get the puck up the ice. The eye test proves that one.
Possession numbers treat him much more kindly, however, and that perhaps is more important given that the Devils were a terrible team this year, and GF% can largely be a result of team play. Severson was the only defenseman this year on New Jersey to have a positive Corsi, with a 50.5 CF% (minimum 200 minutes). That number puts him 4th amongst all Devils skaters this season. In 2015-16, he was also 4th on the team in possession with a 48.8% Corsi, again with at least 200 minutes played. Those are very good signs. Over the last two years, on really bad possession teams, he had very positive relative Corsi numbers. If the Devils value analytical numbers at all, that will certainly help his case for a new contract.
How are his numbers against other NHL defensemen? His 31 points ranked him 51st amongst all defensemen in points this year. That placed him just behind Jacob Trouba and Dmitry Orlov who each had 33, and just ahead of Dion Phaneuf and Ivan Provorov who each had 30. Sadly for Damon, however, his measly 3 goals are not nearly as positive for him, making him tied for 111th in that category with 23 other skaters.
Now onto possession. Among all defensemen with at least 200 minutes played this season, a category spanning 236 players, Damon finished 93rd in Corsi, which is not particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy, however, is that is relative Corsi, +4.0%, rates him 16th amongst those same 236 d-men. Of all defensemen this year, you can argue that only 15 of them had a more positive impact on their team’s possession than did Severson for the Devils. (Fun side fact: click on that link there and look at who is ranked 228th out of 236 on that same list. If you guessed it was Ben Lovejoy without even looking, kudos to you.)
Now, I did not provide an exhaustive list of stats there. Really, I just provided points, possession, and a touch of GF% and zone starts. In reality, the Devils should and will go considerably deeper when determining what to give Damon for his next contract. However, for our purposes of conjecture, it is a decent base by which to continue. When guessing at his next contract, the first question that needs to be answered is this: will the Devils give him a long enough deal (4 or more years) that he will become a UFA after the deal is done, or will they keep it shorter (3 years or less) so that he is still a RFA after it is done? The ideal for the team is to keep it shorter, and in the end I actually think that happens, as I think there are positives for both sides. Severson is clearly improving as a defenseman. His numbers are getting better, even as he takes on tougher competition. If he signs a 6 year deal this offseason, the money he would be making in years 5 and 6 of that deal would almost certainly be way less than what his value will be at that time, this assuming he keeps developing. If he signs a shorter deal, say two or three years, what he could make in that next deal will most likely be considerably higher than what he could make now. If he bets on himself that he will keep improving, taking the shorter deal is the right move for him. If I had to guess, I would say a 3 year deal is in order, although a 2 year deal is not out of the question.
Next we need to determine AAV. To get this, it’s good to try and find players in similar situations who got similar 2-3 year deals that kept them as RFA’s. One such player from a few years ago was Colorado’s Tyson Barrie. He was coming off of his ELC after the 2013-14 season after having produced 38 points in 64 games. He was a very promising offensive defenseman who at the time was essentially the same age as Severson is now. Colorado awarded him with a short term deal of two years, with a $2.6 million AAV, with Barrie remaining a RFA. Tyson played through the deal, improving as a defender and producing even more points. He now is on a 4 year deal worth $5.5 million per and will be a staple of Colorado’s blue line. Another player in a similar situation was Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon. His ELC ended in 2012-13, and he signed a 3 year deal with a $2.667 million AAV that kept him as a RFA as well. Now, he’s signed a new four year deal paying him almost $5.2 million a year with a modified no trade clause.
Are those players identical to Severson, in identical situations? Of course not. But their situations were very similar, each having played a few years in the NHL before receiving their bridge deals. Both of those players are also promising defensemen who are seen as the present and future of their franchises, just like Severson is here in New Jersey. One got a two year deal at $2.6 million, the other got a three year deal at $2.667 million.
In the end, I have to think that something similar is coming Severson’s way. You could argue that both Barrie and Spurgeon were better than Severson at the times they signed those bridge deals, and I would be hard pressed to argue that. However, I would not say they were massively better either. So we might not expect $2.6 mil per year for Damon if he is not quite as good. However, what about three years, $2.3 per year? To me, I could easily see the AAV being anywhere between $2.1 and $2.5 per year. I don’t see the AAV being less than 2 million as that would be an insult to Damon and the way he has played, and I don’t think he makes much more than $2.5 per year either. However, Lovejoy does carry a $2.667 cap hit per year, so what’s to say Damon deserves less than that?
Enough of my thoughts on his contract, however. What do you think the Devils will do with regards to Severson’s next deal? Will they keep it short as a bridge deal and keep him a RFA after his next deal as well? Or, will they give him long term so as to keep him cheap years down the road? What do you think the AAV will be, given how well he has played, and comparing that to what others have received? Please leave your comments and ideas below, and thanks for reading.