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Late in the afternoon this past Friday, the Philadelphia Flyers announced they’d come to terms with second-year defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere—more commonly referred to as Ghost, or Ghost Bear (usually written in emoji form). It’s hard to believe teams are still clinging to this in 2017, but despite GM Ron Hextall’s antiquated and irritating refusal to initially release the terms of the deal, the details leaked nonetheless, as they always do.
Ghost: 6 years, $4.5 AAV
— Tim Panaccio (@tpanotchUFA) June 9, 2017
Neither the term nor the $4.5M AAV should be terribly surprising for a National Hockey League management landscape that is largely adopting the progressive philosophy of awarding young, blossoming talents with long-term contracts in exchange for a team-friendly AAV. Ghost’s extension was announced a little over a month after the Toronto Maple Leafs signed 25-year old defenseman Nikita Zaitsev to a nearly identical contract ($4.5M x 7). As the ink dries, both men will be joining a class of burgeoning rookie blueliners who share much of the same physical traits on the ice, as well as one off it—the forward-looking agreement between front office and player to sidestep a bridge contract. That group is already home to the likes of Hampus Lindholm, Rasmus Ristolainen, Connor Murphy, Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, and Oscar Klefbom among others. Not only will Zaitsev and Ghost both join their rank, but so too, hopefully, will Brady Skjei. Perhaps as early as next season.
Ghost, 24, is a smooth-skating, point-producing fan favorite in Philly and has provided the Flyers with an impressive amount of offense through the completion of his entry-level contract. The preponderance of his points came in the second and third years of his deal, having burned the first year of his ELC in 2014-15, but his 85 points in 142 games are second only to Mark Streit’s 96 points in 192 games from 2014-15 to 2016-17 among Flyers defenders. Best yet, Ghost’s 0.60 P/GP pace bested Streit’s 0.50 over the same stretch. It’s largely for this reason that the Flyers chose to forego a traditional bridge contract. Instead, they are banking on the promise and production Ghost has already shown them in the expectation that it will continue, if not improve. By signing him to a six-year term, they will effectively purchase two years of RFA and four of UFA from the Florida native. As a result, the Flyers get the financial flexibility of an AAV far lower than what he would have signed for had they chosen to kick the can down the road another year or two. In exchange, Ghost gets the security of a six-year term. Barring an unrealistic collapse in his play, it’s win-win.
Like Ghost, Skjei, 23, is also a graceful skater who finished the season second in rookie scoring among defensemen with 39 points in 80 games—a seasonal total just three points shy of tying Ryan McDonagh for the team lead. In fact, Skjei’s 0.49 P/GP pace was just two ticks shy of matching Ghost’s 0.51 P/GP for the 2016-17 season. Looking at the two players head-to-head between boxcar stats and beyond, it’s easy to see why Ghost’s deal just set the bar for Skjei’s next extension with New York:
Throughout the season, Ghost was clearly deployed more in the offensive zone, owning a greater oZS% to dZS% differential, but Skjei still found a nearly identical production rate and season total despite playing more than two full minutes less per game on average.
While neither player is much of a penalty-killer, another important distinction to make is that Ghost averaged a team-high 03:49 TOI/G on the power play, while Skjei averaged just 01:23. That difference is borne out when you take a closer look at their production and where it comes from. Of Ghost’s 39 points, 16 came on the PP, while Skjei scored the majority of his points at even strength, scoring just seven of his 39 with the man advantage. Skjei was so good at five-on-five, he actually lead all Rangers defenders with 32 even strength points from the Blueshirts’ blue line.
Despite these few mitigating circumstances, when it comes to general style, age, production, and baseline analytics, the two men naturally compare, so it’s natural to compare them. They’re peers, right down to the NCAA-to-AHL-to-NHL career trajectory they both took to get to the Show.
While there’s technically nothing stopping the Blueshirts from inking Skjei to an extension today (he was eligible to re-sign with the team as of January 1st, 2017), it’s likely they’ll hold off on pulling the trigger just yet as they’re under no real pressure to do so. They could even—though it would be foolish to do so—ride out the entirety of next season before opening negotiations. The risk to that, however, is if Skjei dramatically improves on his rookie campaign, Ghost’s contract will shift from comparable baseline to bare minimum requirement. This is also directly related to why they’d be just as unwise to offer him a bridge deal instead of buying what stand to be his most productive years sooner rather than later. A one- or two-year deal with a mid-range salary of say $2.5M (like they just re-signed Miller to) would grant them a couple seasons of great point-per-dollar value. That value would be fleeting, though, and would cost them much more against the cap in the future when they then had to broach his third contract at the age of 25 or 26. A contract that would inarguably come with an even higher sticker price as even more UFA-eligible years would need to be purchased in the process.
Perhaps a productive first half of the 2017-18 season might be all the evidence the Rangers need to open mid-season discussions and/or to table an offer to Skjei in December or January—a practice they haven’t normally made use of outside of the extensions given to Henrik Lundqvist and Fedor Tyutin, way back when. Still, regardless of whether an offer is tabled during the season or the Rangers wait until next summer to negotiate, one thing has been made perfectly clear—Gostisbehere just primed Skjei’s market. And like the Flyers, the Blueshirts would be wise to buy early and buy big.