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What Deals Should the Devils Give Pavel Zacha and Will Butcher?

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There’s a swath of RFAs available to the Devils this season, but two have been consistent contributors for multiple seasons now. What types of deals should they get?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There are several Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) that the Devils will need to make decisions on this season. Gerard is going to get to most of them tomorrow, but today I’m going to focus a couple big names today that fans here, in message boards, on social media, and off the street seem to talk about quite a bit.

First, though, I’ll clarify a few terms we’ll be using as they relate to RFAs. The “Restricted” part of the RFA title comes from the fact that the team which owns the player is given exclusive rights to make the initial contract offer, the minimum allowable value of which is determined by “Qualifying Offer” (QO) rules. If they do so, then the only mechanism other teams have to sign the player are the seldom-used offer sheets. If another team decides to offer sheet an RFA that’s been QO’d, the owning team has the right to either match the offer and sign the player at that price, or allow the player to walk and receive compensation in the form of draft picks determined by that price.

Other than offer sheets, there is only one other feature of restricted free agency that allows the player a little more negotiating power — arbitration. If a player meets the arbitration eligibility threshold they can call in an independent arbitrator with whom both the player’s and team’s representation can provide evidence. The arbitrator then decides what a “fair” contract is for the player — a decision which is binding.

Whether it is to avoid arbitration, lock down a player long term, or simply retain a strong rapport with a player and their representation, teams will normally give RFAs who have made substantive contributions to the NHL team offers beyond that of the QO (Ex: Blake Coleman and Miles Wood last offseason). So today, we look at the two players who clearly fit that description: Pavel Zacha and Will Butcher. I’ll list their arbitration eligibility, qualifying offer, and projected cap hit according to EvolvingWild’s model.

Pavel Zacha

Not Arbitration-Eligible

Qualifying Offer: $874,125

EvolvingWild Contract Projection: 2 years/$2.1M AAV

Since Pavel Zacha’s contract began as an 18-20 year old, he needed 4 seasons to be arbitration-eligible and he’s only logged 3. He’ll likely ultimately receive a contract notably above that of his QO. He’s played 3 NHL seasons, has been valuable on both special teams, is coming off his highest scoring season — one in which he scored 11 points over his last 12 games — and is still just 22 years old.

Zacha is an above average contributor in both special teams, but has been truly special as a penalty-killer. GAR (Goals Above Replacement) is a single-number metric for determining the value of a player based on their overall impact while on the ice. In Evolving-Hockey’s version, it is split into categories, one of which is “shorthanded GAR” (SHGAR). Over his 3 seasons in the NHL, among the 124 forwards (4 per team, 31 teams) with the most penalty kill minutes, Zacha has the highest SH_GAR/60 in the NHL by a significant margin. Interpretation: he’s had the best per-minute impact on the penalty kill of any forward in the league according to that model. How is this happening?

Zacha is a -14 in his 250 minutes on the penalty kill that’s -0.11 goals per 2 minutes. Put another way, after 9 penalties worth of Zacha kills, you’d expect the Devils to be down just 1 goal. This production reached a boiling point last season where, after 70 minutes on the kill with Zacha on the ice, the Devils had scored 2 goals, and given up just 3. Imagine playing a full NHL game down a man, and only losing by one goal — that is how the Zacha do.

His even-strength production is less inspiring. According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s been a negative Corsi player as well as a negative scoring chance player every year of his career. And in scoring chances and high-danger chances, this was his worst season (these are “relative” stats so the overall quality of the Devils is not impacting that number).

So lastly, let’s address the “e”-word: expectations. Many people in the NJD community seem to think that Zacha is fine but is a clear bust relative to his #6 overall draft spot. This is likely exacerbated by the fact that the next four players after him — Provorov, Werenski, Meier, Rantanen — and several other first rounders — DeBrusk(14), Barzal (16), Connor (17), Chabot (18), and Boeser (23) — are all turning into excellent pros. This distracts from what the actual expectation for that pick is, in my opinion. This is the list of #6 overall forwards in the entry draft era. In points per game, he’s 16th out of the 29 players. Even if Glass and Zadina turn out to be better than him, that’s still 18/29. Is that slightly below average? Yeah, probably. Is he a “bust”? Not unless you have an extremely liberal definition of that word. The 5 years before Zacha, the 6th OA picks were Filatov, Connolly, Zibanejad, Monahan, and Virtanen. Zacha seems clearly to be smack dab in the middle of that group.

Summarizing, The Devils have a player in Pavel Zacha who has demonstrated that he is useful in certain situations, has improved his scoring, and is performing roughly at what you’d expect from a 6th overall pick, though still has a lot of work to do specifically in his 5v5 game. The closest comparable I can find is Sam Bennett — 4th overall pick who got 26 points in both his age-20 and -21 seasons and got a 2-year deal at 2.6% of the cap ($1.95M AAV). The projected cap for 2020 is $83M which would make the same contract $2.16M today — almost exactly the projected deal.

Will Butcher

Arbitration-Eligible

Qualifying Offer: $874,125

EvolvingWild Contract Projection: 2 years/$2.3M AAV

Towards the end of his excellent rookie season, I wrote about how Butcher was being underutilized. This season, in some areas, Hynes began to trust Butcher with more responsibility — certainly more minutes. And he did well with the bigger role. In fact, he’s basically the only defender that was significantly above average in on-ice impact.

As you can see, I’ve written a lot about Will Butcher. That’s because I’m an fan of analytics and, in a D-corps that is has been abysmal for a while, but especially the last two seasons, Butcher has been the one bright spot and has been one of the most efficient defenders in the league during that time.

Detractors will likely point to the fact that, at 5’10’’, he’s too small in stature to be an all-situation defender. The lack of physicality on the ice supports this conclusion. And perhaps that wouldn’t be prohibitive, but he’s actually a pretty slow skater too. Small, weak, and slow is a solid recipe for looking like a bad defender.

My counterargument would be basically that looks aren’t everything. This is his performance in All-Three-Zone metrics tracked by Corey Sznajder the past two seasons.

He excels in breaking out of the defensive zone (96th and 97th percentile in exit rate/efficiency), and is quite adept at moving the puck within the offensive zone as well (84th percentile in shot assists) — both of which are extremely important in determining future on-ice results.

Last season he had good on-ice results, and had good transition metrics which help predict future on-ice results, then did the same thing again this year. He’s as safe a bet as there is on this blue line and there’s not a close 2nd.

Another thing his critics say is that he gets sheltered. He plays high minute in the offensive zone, and against less impressive competition than, say, Andy Greene. To that, first, I’d like to say that about there’s about an 80% overlap in shift location and stats like ZSR make it seem like players are more different than they are. Second, as John looked at Monday, Butcher was good against everyone. Specifically, he was the best defender on the team against elite competition. His utilization isn’t his fault. He’s proven he’s deserving of more responsibility, it’s on the coaches now to give it to him.

So how come the Zacha-esque contract projection? Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that his most likely contract is a 2-year one, but the 2nd most likely is a 6-year which would be $4.2M AAV. Secondly, Butcher is two and a half years older than Pav. According to the current consensus around about player-aging, Zacha’s best years are ahead of him, whereas Butcher has just hit is peak.

I had a really hard time finding comparables to Will Butcher because his level of production (0.4 assist/game) is really high and normally matched only by younger players who were higher draft picks and/or had more TOI. This was my best attempt at comparables using Hockey Reference’s play index. Feel free to try your own here and share your results in the comments. The cap hit percents of the first post-ELC contract of these players ranged from 4% to 10% ($3.3M to $8.3M).

I think they will, and should, give him the Severson contract, which is also the aforementioned 2nd most likely deal on EvolvingWild’s model: 6-years, $4.2M AAV.

I think that if he keeps up this production level he’ll earn every penny of that contract, and then some. Especially if he finally gets the minutes he’s earned.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of these two players? What contracts do you think they will get? What contracts do you think they should get? Is Zacha a bust? What’s Butcher’s ceiling?

Leave your thoughts on all these things in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading!