As August starts this week, the National Hockey League offseason will enter its real lull. It may already be there. Thoughts and hopes of Erik Karlsson being dealt or understanding Artemi Panarin’s future in Columbus have all but went mute. At least last year had the Will Butcher Sweepstakes, there is no hot collegiate prospect who didn’t sign with the team that drafted them out of the market to draw plenty of interest. For several teams, they are basically done with what they need to do with signings before training camp in September. The New Jersey Devils are just about there. They have three restricted free agents who have been qualified and will only need new contracts: Kevin Rooney, Steve Santini, and Miles Wood.
Wood is the most interesting of the three. Currently, he’s guaranteed to have a spot on the New Jersey roster. Wood made a lot of improvements to his game in 2017-18. In his first full season in 2016-17, Wood displayed a lot of speed going forward and not a lot of commitment to backchecking or playing without the puck. Wood would chase a lot of plays down for not a lot of gain. The dump-and-chase overuse falls on the coaches too. The 21-year old winger was so beaten up in 5-on-5 play that his CF% at Natural Stat Trick was 41.2%, one of the worst on a really bad New Jersey team. All this resulted in seven goals, eight assists, and 105 shots on net in 60 games. The following season was much better. Wood would actually try on defense and his play off the puck was not a waste. The coaches cut back on his line dumping-and-chasing, which allowed Wood to be more than just a fast guy trying to beat a defender to the endboards. This resulted in Wood putting up a 50.1% CF%, one of the better ones on the Devils last season. Sure, it wasn’t all on Wood alone but an uptick of nearly 9% CF% definitely involves him. In addition to not being wrecked in 5-on-5 play, Wood did more on the scoresheet in 2017-18: nineteen goals, thirteen assists, and 170 shots in 76 games. Per Hockey-Reference, his average ice time actually dropped, which makes Wood’s production a little more impressive. Wood looked like a guy who had one main skill (skating in a straight line) and not much else in 2016-17. Last season, Wood showed that he was a more capable NHL winger. That’s a break out.
It was an important time to have one as Wood’s entry level contract ended with the 2017-18 season. He’s now up for a new contract. What he should be paid depends in part on how you see Wood’s career progressing. Could we see more from Wood in 2018-19 at the age of 23? Will his production continue to thrive? Can he command a top-six level of minutes and usage? Will he keep getting better? Or is he set to be a winger on a team’s bottom half of their forward lines? I do not truly know the answer to those questions and no one really can until Wood actually answers them with their play.
A Quick Attempt at Finding Comparable Situations to Wood
But I do know that Wood is hardly the first player coming off their entry level contract (ELC) where they had a notably productive season that warrants a raise of some kind. Therefore, I used the Player Season Finder at Hockey-Reference to find players who have had similar seasons to Wood’s 2017-18 performance. I filtered out players in the salary cap era between the ages of 18 and 23 who in their second or third years in the NHL put up between 15 and 25 goals, at least 30 points, and played less than a total of 1,200 minutes. This would yield players who scored about as much as Wood did last season, would be similar in age and experience, and did not play a lot of minutes. The filters yielded some names that really are not fair comparisons for Wood for various reasons (different talent levels, ages, styles of play, expectations, etc.). Some of the names that popped up are players who are having careers that Wood would likely only dream of having. But, with the help of CapFriendly, they provide some ideas about what a post-ELC contract might be for Wood based on what they received then. 37 players fit the filters and here’s the link to the query if you want to dig into it. I will provide the highlights here.
But first, a behind-the-scenes note. I’ve been blogging about the Devils for almost 12 years. Most of the time in the offseason, I will think about an idea or a topic for a post days before I sit down. I sometimes do some research. I bring this up because I did a lot of this before I found about some news that is absolutely relevant to Wood’s contract situation. I will bring that up after this as to not throw away the work I did before I did a proverbial spit-take at said news.
- Amazingly, Taylor Hall and Vladamir Tarasenko ended up meeting this filter. Let’s hear it for injuries cutting seasons short. If Wood ends up anywhere near either of those players’ levels, then that would be astounding. Also: both signed huge deals after their ELC’s ended. They’re not really comparable to Wood.
- Neither are the eight other players who accomplished this in this past season like Wood. 2017-18 hit this filter more than any other season. Brock McGinn did it in the first year of a two-year deal totalling $1.775 million, the others were on ELCs. Do keep an eye on Ondrej Kase, who is in a similar situation as his ELC ended like Wood’s and he’s up for a new deal. Kase produced even more than Wood and played in fewer games, so he may represent a “higher end” of what Wood’s next deal would be. Of course, Wood may get his deal first. It’s something to watch for in the meantime.
- Because of the second and third year player filter, 31 of the 36 players accomplished their 15-25 goal, 30+ point season in their second or third year of their ELC. (Chuck Kobasew’s contract information did not go that far back at CapFriendly, so it’s 36) Most in their second year, so they had another season to allow for growth and potentially increase their earning power. Players like Hall, Tarasenko, Jeff Skinner, James van Reimsdyk, Kyle Okposo, David Booth, Milan Lucic (only three years, but still $12.25 million) and Corey Perry signed significantly large ($10+ million total) deals when their ELCs ended.
- In most cases, the players ended up getting a “bridge” deal. Usually a one or two year deal with an average annual value (a.k.a. cap hit) between $1 and $3 million per year. This applied to Jason Pominville (it was over 3 years, but it was still low at $1.033 million per year, it was also back when the cap was still new), Steve Bernier, Daniel Paille, Wojtek Wolski, Clarke MacArthur, Drew Stafford, Nick Foligno, David Perron, Devin Setoguchi, Wayne Simmonds, Steve Downie, Chris Kreider, Andrew Burakovsky ($6 million over 2 years is a little stretch), Anthony DuClair, Ryan Hartman, and Anthony Mantha. All of these players received raises but in the form of short-term deals with the hopes of an even bigger contract if they could sustain and improve upon the gains they made during their ELC. Some of them succeeded, others did not, but the larger point is that this practice has been common in the NHL since 2005-06.
- The one exception: Tomas Tatar, who got $8.25 million over 3 years. That’s closer to bridge-style money on average - $2.75 million - but 3 years is more than what these deals usually last.
Out of all of the players filtered out, Chris Kreider may be the most interesting for Wood. Both Kreider and Wood are no strangers to the penalty box or being physical to a fault. Both are known for their skating; Wood likes to skate hard to chase down pucks into space and Kreider loves crashing to (and into) the crease. Both have some skill on the puck. It would not be a total surprise if Wood’s career follows a similar path to Kreider’s. While Kreider came out with some more fan fare with a signs of promise during the 2012 playoffs, Kreider ended his ELC with a similar break out year and received a $2.45 million AAV deal over two years as a bridge contract. While the salary cap is higher now than it was in 2014, that would be a reasonable ball park figure for Wood’s next contract.
And the concept of a bridge deal makes perfect sense for where Wood is at in his career. He had a great growing season in 2017-18. And we know he was not given top line minutes; his most common forward linemates were Zacha and Boyle in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. He was rarely on the first power play unit. So I believe the growth is real. But I want to see it again or see more gains from him before wishing he would be locked up long term. With Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier due for some massive extensions next summer on top of other signings, it is important that Ray Shero does not overpay for forwards who are in the middle of the depth chart. A two year deal at $5 million would be A-OK as it will give Wood a big pay bump, it would put him one of the better paid forwards on the team, and allow for a bigger pay down the line while the Devils have more than enough space in the short term to save for even larger deals.
That what I was thinking until I saw this late last night: Tom Wilson signed a six-year, $31 million contract.
I was stunned when I saw it last night. I went to bed. I slept. I woke up. I checked my phone for messages and then checked CapFriendly to see if I made a mistake in reading it. I did not. It was real. Tom Wilson has been signed for six seasons for a total salary of $15.5 million and total signing bonus of $16 million spread across those seasons. Tom Wilson has a cap hit of $5.166 million.
This is entirely relevant because Miles Wood is a better player right now than the 24-year old winger. Wood is a better player at age 22 than Wilson was at age 22. Wood is a far better player than a gritty winger who’s a penalty machine (and not in a positive way for the Caps) and most notorious for throwing dangerous hits. With fewer minutes and without the benefit of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as wingers, Wood nearly out-produced Wilson straight up this season. What? Tom Wilson kills penalties and does things on defense? So does Blake Coleman and he could be better than him at it right now. Coleman just put up 12 goals, 13 assists, and 146 shots last season and earned a $5.4 million deal over three seasons for it. That’s better production than Wilson ever had until this past season where Wilson rode part of it with two of the best forwards in the world to get past the vaunted 30-point mark. And Wilson’s annual cap hit is almost as much as Coleman’s entire contract! And Coleman doesn’t carry any of the penalty and violence baggage that Wilson brings to the rink!
Life is not fair. We should all wish we had Wilson’s agent and/or negotiations with Washington’s management. Seriously, Caps, you gave your #2 right-handed defenseman $64 million over 8 years, you traded away an anchor named Brooks Orpik and brought him back in for a lower salary, and now this? Yes, this deal takes some UFA years off the table for Wilson but is there a reality where any team would throw him $5+ million AAV from the free market? Did it have to be this much? Are you not afraid of salary cap hell, general manager Brian McLellan? Because this is how you get there!
Not that I want the Caps to do particularly well, but this awful, awful contract is going to impact the signings for a lot of mid-level forwards throughout the league. Shame on the Caps homers who will defend this one. Spare me the rationalization of percentage of total caps or how long the term goes. Wilson is now worth less than a million on average per year than Adam Henrique, an actual do-it-all-pretty-well forward who has consistently out-produced Wilson and for longer. Wilson is now worth more than Elias Lindholm, who has done more positive things on the ice and doesn’t go to the box all that much. (I’d like to think Elias Lindholm threw down a pillow or something in anger when he learned about this signing.) As Sean Tierney noted on Twitter, Wilson is now paid more than the average first-line forward. And Wilson is without any of the results, talent, or on-ice value that you expect out of an average first-line forward. So those players who are on or above Wilson’s level are certainly thinking about increasing their compensation. Wood is surely one of them.
It is now that much harder for Ray Shero and his team to go to Wood and his people and offer a fairly reasonable bridge contract that is in line with what other players with similar levels of production during their ELC years had received in the past. Wood and his people can now counter with, “But Tom Wilson is getting an average of $5.1667 million for the next six seasons. He’s actually getting $6.1 million next season. Why should I/my client accept so much less?” And that’s going to be a tough question to answer. Especially since Shero needs to maintain cap flexibility to give out big extensions and make other needed moves in the future. If you’re going to overpay a player, overpay the guy with legitimate top-tier talent - not the guy averaging 12-14 minutes per game and can put up somewhere between 15-25 goals. (Or the guy like Wilson who does less unless he has an all-world center and all-time winger on his line.) But thanks to this Wilson deal, it’s a tougher act.
I am holding out some hope that maybe Tom Wilson’s big, fat, stupid contract does not torpedo the idea of Wood getting a reasonable deal. Again, while the comparables through Hockey-Reference may not be totally perfect fits, various players who have done about what Wood just did received bridge deals of 1-2 years for cap hits ranging between $1-3 million. As stated earlier, I would be perfectly fine with something around $5 million over two years and see whether Wood has more to show or whether his 2017-18 is closer to what to expect going forward. But I doubt that entirely knowing what Wilson is now making. At this point, if it is around $5 million over two years, then I’ll be very, very pleased.
I’m trying to talk myself into something in the $3 million range as some kind of midpoint. Something more than what was traditionally done since 2006-07 or so while also avoiding the nonsense zone that Brian McLellan entered when offering that contract to Wilson. That may even be justifiable since a lot of those bridge deals stayed in a similar range of money despite an increasing cap ceiling and floor. The Burakovsky $3 million/year bridge deal may be more in line with the reality of the cap these days. So I’m gearing up for that. It may not be so bad for New Jersey as they have a lot of cap space right now. But knowing they’re likely going to pay a ton for upcoming extensions which will likely include a lot of hard money paid out in signing bonuses as potential lockout protection, Shero cannot be too loose with the cap space for the moment. Anything to result in the high three or even four million in the cap hit would be ridiculous. I just hope that is not the demand in this post-Wilson-contract world.
I would still prefer a short term as opposed to a long term deal. His 2017-18 was an improvement over his 2016-17, but nothing about it really commands that he should be a Devil for a long time. Not just yet. Besides, the original questions about what would drive an extension still apply. Wood is about to enter his prime years in a couple of seasons; the next two should give us an idea as far as what Wood will be in this league. A potential second-line caliber talent may be worth keeping around for 4-6 seasons. A straight-up third-liner, even with one really great speed, may be more replaceable.
More importantly for the player’s side, a short term deal now would be better for Wood’s earning power. Wood is currently a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights. In two seasons, he’ll be entering or right in his prime at age 24, he can file for arbitration, and he’ll be three years away from unrestricted free agency. He will have more control over his situation and, should he improve, command a lot more money. If he wants a long term deal, he risks being stuck to it and potentially losing out on some more money should he improve, and the Devils risk having a long term guy on the books that may not be an impact player. Say what you want about Zajac, Schneider, and Greene, but they signed their big contracts when they were playing at the level of top-tier talent. And Damon Severson has largely been a top-four guy in a position that carries a lot of demand (recall that Larsson being a right-sided defenseman was worth Taylor Hall). Wood has not even averaged over 13 minutes a game yet.
So I’ve stated what I would like to see in Wood’s next deal. What do you want to see in his next contract? What do you think he is worth? Would you want to see him a get a short-term bridge deal? Will McLellan’s silly contract given to Tom Wilson throw a gigantic wrench into these negotiations? (I may be over-hyping it, but, goodness, that’s a miserable contract.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Wood and what his next contract should/could be in the comments. Thank you for reading.
Tomorrow: You can rank Wood and other under-25 year old Devils in the organization.