“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives,” and so pass the arbitrary dates in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement that dictate when contract negotiations can occur. Seeing as it’s now past 6/30/18, the Rangers are now allowed to extend Pavel Buchnevich, if that’s what they wanted to do, which naturally has given rise to some debate as to the advantages and disadvantages of doing so long term.
The alternative of course is a bridge deal, and the split between the two camps betrays some philosophical differences that have major implications for the Rangers’ roster renewal. On the one hand, there’s the position that Pavel Buchnevich is better than his simple point totals indicate, that he’s a bona fide top-six forward, and that locking him down to a low-price contract with the security of term would pay dividends in the future and help prevent any future cap crunch.
The flip of that is a more conservative stance that says it is better not to sign a guy to a seven-year deal, even if it is a low AAV, when he hasn’t fully blossomed yet. After all, we don’t want to have a New York Rangers version of the Nikita Zaitsev contract on our hands. Zaitsev has a cap hit of $4.5 million and a contract expiring at the end of the 2023-24 season, which could be an issue given that the Toronto Maple Leafs might just have some other players they’d rather hand out money to, with the recent acquisition of John Tavares for $77 million total over the course of the next seven years only complicating matters further. Zaitsev is kind of like the Russian John Moore, so I’m not sure it would be a great idea to fall into that trap. Anyways, it’s time to parse through the facts as they pertain to a possible big one for Buch.
Below you’ll find a quick chart I made comparing some 5v5 statistics from Corsica.hockey for our dearest Pavel, as well as the third head of the Leafs’ centerman Cerberus, Nazem Kadri, and the Nashville Predators’ top-line threat Viktor Arvidsson. I’ll admit that the selection of these other two players for the purposes of this analysis was a little bit arbitrary, and it should be noted that Kadri indeed plays a different position from Buchnevich, but the bottom line is this: Kadri and Arvidsson represent two of the best bang-for-your-buck contracts in the NHL, and their deals have made it substantially easier for their respective teams to pay other star players and widen their window. If we could do the same thing with Pavel Buchnevich, the line of thinking goes, then we could be in for something good. If any of the following stats seem difficult to digest, don’t worry, I’m going to be chewing them up for you (what’s a blog for, after all?).
Let’s start with the deals, because we are going to be talking dollars and cents by the time all this is through. I’ve included stats for Kadri from 2015 to the present and the two wingers from 2016 to the present, which is because Kadri signed his long-term contract following his one-year $4.1 million contract that ran out at the end of the 2015-16 season and accounted for 5.62% of the Leafs’ salary cap at the time. He then went on to a $4.5 million contract that ends following the termination of the 2021-22 campaign, which includes a modified NTC (10-team no-trade list) that kicks in this upcoming 2018-19 season. This contract accounted for 6.30% of the cap at the time, a figure which will only decrease as the cap increases steadily over time.
Arvidsson’s stats only stretch back to the 2016-17 season, because that’s when his last deal expired, before he re-upped to the tune of 7 years, $4.25 million at the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign (5.67 percent of the cap at the time, expiring at the end of 2023-24). This contract is just downright impressive, even if you only look at the goals and assists scored in the above chart.
The first thing both Buch boosters and those more skeptical point to when they discuss our Nice and Good Russian Boy is usage. The more fanatical folks say “well the KZB line was great!” and “his scoring was on-par with a top-line winger!” while the people who’d like to stand athwart history yelling “stop!” when it comes to gigantic contracts take a similar tack, just in the reverse. The angle there is that he was placed in the best of circumstances, surround by the two fieriest engines in the Rangers offense, and that he simply didn’t manage to put the biscuit in the basket. This, if true, is as good of a reason as any to hesitate. We were all excited about Anthony Duclair once upon a time, and his star has faded considerably since that comeback win against Minnesota where he scored his first goal. It’s true that usage plays a huge factor in any player’s production, and it’d be a bit silly to comb through every stat possible regarding every line mate every one of these guys has had (it is the Fourth of July after all, as I write this), but some basic context might be helpful.
This past season, the one that’s likely to carry the most weight in any contemporaneous contract negotiations for a variety of reasons (increased TOI, point totals, recency bias, whatever), Buch played 882.88 minutes at 5v5, 259.05 minutes with the vaunted KZB line. That accounts for 29.3% of his minutes; he also played 101.63 minutes or 11.5% of his time with the unfortunate KDDB line (David Desharnais) and 96.22 minutes/10.9% of his TOI with Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash. So it’s true, a plurality of his time on the ice was spent with two excellent players, but comparatively, is that normal?
Well, it’s funny that you mention that, because both Kadri and Arvidsson present slightly different modalities here. Kadri, was a bit more juggled around and thus his ice time figures a bit more closely to Buchnevich’s. In 2017-18 he spent 365.95 minutes out of 1,099.1 on ice with Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau and 364.53 minutes with Leo Komarov and Marleau - these two figures account for 33.3% and 33.2% of total ice time respectively. In 2016-17 the 377.16 minutes he spent on line with Connor Brown and Leo Komarov took up 33.4 percent of his time, while his next-highest 296.4 minutes with Komarov and William Nylander was 26.7% of his total.
To move quickly through the 2015-16 season: he spent 263.83 minutes/24.25% with James van Riemsdyk and Komarov and then 237.66 minutes/21.8% with Michael Grabner (remember him?) and Komarov. With Arvidsson there’s not too much to say here, because he spends a rough majority (just over 50% for 2017-18, just under for 2016-17) of his time with both Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg - 518.53/1,019.42 or 50.9% for the former season and 503.5/1,064.22 or 47.3% for the latter. Make of this what you will, but the way I see it, Kadri being bounced around a little bit more might indicate that his production is a bit more indicative of just his own skill, while the Arvidsson numbers, broadly inflated, are a bit murkier due to the fact that he spends so much of his time with two excellent buddies. Still it cuts both ways; a good linemate is not to be discounted (just ask Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom) and the fancier stats among those included in the chart indicate some nice things about each player one way or another.
Now that we’ve hashed out all of the preliminary stuff, the numbers await. In his contract year, Arvidsson was the clear top scorer compared to Kadri in his and Buchnevich in his hypothetical contract year (which would be last year, if he signs a new contract this summer or even one as the season is going on, although I doubt that happens for a variety of reasons). While the raw totals favor Arvy, and his primary points per 60 minutes of 1.75 beats out Buch’s 1.36 (Kadri’s third-best 0.99 P1/60 probably suppressed his contract value a bit) something worth pointing out here is that 76.9% of Buch’s 5v5 points this past season were primary assists or goals, which edges Arvidsson’s 73.8% (18/20 of Kadri’s 5v5 points were primary points in his contract year, which is a bit bonkers but likely anomalous).
The shots for, goals for, and expected goals for ratios, both raw and relative, elaborate a bit on the picture painted by the statistics more directly related to scoring. One thing that immediately jumps out is that Viktor Arvidsson’s relCF% was 5.83 in the season before his new contract kicked in, which almost definitely made him look good - even if you can’t watch a guy and say “man, he’s on the ice for 5.83 percent more shots than his team mates are, on average” it probably looks pretty good, even subconsciously, and same goes for his relGF% and relxGF%, although less so with that last one. In general, 2016-17 was an exceptionally good season for young Vik, and somehow the Preds still managed to get him on a bargain deal. In Kadri’s contract year, he was slightly better than his teammates as far as Corsi percentage goes, but definitely worse when it came to how often he was on the ice for goals against and slightly below team average for scoring chances as represented by Manny from Corsica.hockey’s xGF. It appears that in the case of Kadri his scoring did the heavy lifting as far as his contract negotiations went - he had just 9 5v5 goals but 16.08 individual expected goals, shooting a lowly 4.55 percent so again, even if management couldn’t pinpoint it exactly they were probably aware that he generated a lot of high-quality scoring chances despite only hitting the back of the net sometimes.
Now let’s say this is Buchnevich’s contract year. His relCF% ranks slightly worse than Kadri’s at the time his contract was signed and worse than Arvidsson’s: 1.36 for Buch, a little lower than the former’s 1.44 and distinctly lower than the latter’s 5.83. His relGF% of 7.08 is way better than Kadri’s contract year (-5.75% ) and even better than Arvidsson (5.81), and his contract-year relxGF% would be 2.62 vs the Maple Leafs’ -0.68 and the Predators’ 0.94. Pretty, pretty good, on the whole.
To bring things back to scoring for a minute, let’s bring in goals, individual expected goals, and individual shooting percentage. This will help us gauge, in rough terms, whether each player was having a good or a bad season, at least in the kind of big-picture terms we use at bars and over pizza. In Kadri’s pre-signing season he had 16.08 individual expected goals at 5v5, but only 9 wound up in the back of the net, with a corresponding shooting percentage of 4.55. Arvidsson by comparison had pretty normal luck: a 9.45 shooting percentage and 16.38 individual expected goals to 19 real-life goals. Buch, if we were to sign him right this very second would be looking at 9.59 expected goals and the slightly crummy luck that comes with a 8.82 percent iSh%, which left him with 9 total 5v5 goals on the season. So as far as the scoring chances he generated vs the scoring chances that hit the back of the net, Buchnevich had a better season than Kadri and probably one a little less spectacular than Arvidsson, just in terms of ratio (obviously Arvy notched more overall than both Kadri and Buchnevich did in total numbers).
Alright alright alright; what’s the point of all of this? Well, for starters there’s this: Pavel Buchnevich is a real-deal top-six forward who the Rangers could have, at most on one contract, from the time he’s 23 until he’s 30 aka the entirety of his scoring prime. That alone sounds good but there’s more, in that he can not only hang with two of the best bargain-bin play-driving forwards in the National Hockey League, but in some cases plays better than them, depending on the stat we’re looking at. Finally, the reason I went beyond just the contract year stats for each player was to show two things. First, for both the two known quantities of Kadri and Arvidsson, they still did produce roughly equivalent to what they did before signing long-term deals, which is to say, if Buch were to sign a long-term deal he’d likely stay consistent if not improve. With Buchnevich, I included his stats prior to this season to show that there’s been progression, and I’m going to be explicit rather than implicit that I’d bet on that progression continuing. So now let’s talk dollars and cents.
As stated earlier, Kadri’s contract, at the time is was signed, was 6.3% of the cap and carried a term of 6 years - it lasts until the end of the 2021-22 season. Arvidsson on the other hand signed a 7-year deal worth $4.25 million, just under Kadri’s $4.5 million, which means it was 5.67% of the current day cap (it expires following the 2023-24 season). Let’s say we meet halfway between the two contracts and give Buch a contract worth 5.985% of the cap next year, or $4.758075 million. Actually, let’s just call that $4.75 million flat, since agents and GMs deal in square numbers anyways. For seven years, as I said earlier, that would set Buch up until he’s 30 and give the Rangers the meaty prime years of his scoring career, all while subsidizing the Rangers’ larger contracts incurred throughout that time period.
The merits of this approach are that the Rangers would have a top-six scoring talent, and maybe a really really good one at that, locked up for all of the years anyone with a brain would want him (although I of course want him forever, because he is simply the best). As the cap goes up over time, this would give the Rangers more and more room each year, allowing Jeff Gorton and his council of elders to hand out larger contracts to other youngsters depending on the situation or even make big splashes on the free agent market (or, as smart GMs do, make smaller, savvier moves on the free agent market as well). The strong counterpoint though is that it’s quite a risk because, as mentioned earlier, sometimes you totally misjudge a player and hand him a huge contract, hampering any future you plan to have, especially if there’s limitations on where you can trade him. The counter-counterpoint to this is that there’s more risk waiting out a player than paying them slightly more upfront. The most recent example worth mentioning is Derek Stepan. Stepan had three strong years coming off his ELC, and in 2013 he was looking for a long-term deal. The problem was that because of other moves made the Rangers had just just over $2 million in cap space. Stepan eventually came to terms with the Rangers on a two-year bridge that paid $3.075 million a season, and he parlayed that into a six-year, $39 million extension worth $6.5 million. The lesson here is that lack of cap space can be detrimental when dealing with your young players, but also an abundance of cap space allows for a risk to be taken. It’s poses a fairly easy-to-answer-question: if you know a player is going to be good (more or less), would you rather pay him slightly more now on a long-term deal or way more in two years when you do this whole contract negotiation thing again?
It’s all a balancing act that GMJG must approach carefully, but if he does it right he could make a reputation for himself not unlike David Poile as far as handing out clever contracts goes. My personal opinion, if you couldn’t tell by now, is that the Rangers should go for it. Pavel Buchnevich’s quantitative case, alongside the more qualitative aspects of his skill set, make him an ideal candidate to be locked up long term.
An average GM does things that are simply expected, making obvious moves where straightforward situations present themselves and striking while the iron is already hot. A smart GM, the kind that wins a Stanley Cup or two, strikes before the iron is hot, seeing that good players can be had below market value and making decisive moves towards building a roster for years to come on the cheap. There’s risk in this approach, but there’s always risk, and this is one that all available information says you take.
At the start of free agency dozens of GMs took risks on players past their prime, and a majority of them will end up being regrettable decisions. The upside in those cases whether it be Leo Komarov or Ryan Reaves are slim to none. In this case the Rangers have a really talented young player with evidence that suggests he’s more likely to succeed than fail. Whether or not Pavel and his agent are willing to make a deal remains to be seen, but if I’m calling the shots, it’s time to extend Pavel Buchnevich long term.