Skjei’s Pay Day on the Horizon

Brady Skjei is having a sterling rookie season and has leapfrogged over any fair expectations that fans and media alike could have had for him before the season. While Alain Vigneault still does not trust him as a regular top-four player (though he does often pair him with Ryan McDonagh if the Rangers are trailing late), his production rivals any of the league’s young defensemen. In the next year or two, his contract will too.

Amongst rookie defensemen, Skjei leads the league in 5-on-5 points (31) and assists (26) while ranking just 16th in TOI per game. Of those who have played more than 30 games, Skjei’s assists per 60 minutes (1.36) ranks first and he trails only Columbus blueliner Zach Werenski in points per 60 minutes (1.74). Nikita Zaitsev, who is working on a seven-year extension with Toronto, ranks third of that group in points, points per 60 minutes, assists per 60 minutes, and 5-on-5 points.

Putting up numbers relative to other rookies reveals a partial truth but, in Skjei’s case, the numbers remain strong even when you include veterans. Amongst all defenseman who have played at least 30 games, Skjei’s points per 60 minutes ranks 10th and his assists per 60 minutes ranks fifth. At even strength, where he has been a terror, he ranks eighth in points.

Perhaps more importantly than the full context of his raw numbers is the fact that he’s been growing all year and is peaking at the right time. He’s got six points in the last six games and is as confident with the puck as ever, as we saw in his three-assist performance in the playoff-clincher against San Jose.

All of this is to say that, quite frankly, Brady Skjei is going to get expensive in a hurry. The cap ramifications for the amount of young talent that the Rangers have has been discussed ad nauseum and at this point, it’s worth evaluating what Skjei might be worth on the open market. While he’s still under contract next year at a $925K cap hit, it might behoove Jeff Gorton to think of buying UFA years to lock down Skjei at a discount. General managers around the league are taking this approach with their own young defensemen and, in doing so, have provided potential benchmarks for Skjei’s value.

Comparables

Hampus Lindholm: 6 years, $31.5 million

After back-to-back seasons playing more than 23:00 per game in the playoffs at just 21- and 22-years old, Lindholm, who held out the start of the season, eventually signed the six-year extension with the Ducks. A phenomenal possession player (53.2% Corsi For in his career), Lindholm is a bonafide first pair defender and just turned 23 in January.

He earned this contract through his overall value to the Ducks, rather than his point production, but his contract probably represents a ceiling for Skjei right now. Should the Rangers choose to wait until after next year to extend him and he has, say, a 50-point season, Lindholm’s $5.25 million cap hit would be a very reasonable comparable.

Rasmus Ristolainen: 6 years, $32.4 million

Unlike Lindholm, Buffalo’s clear top defenseman of now and the future made a show of good faith by attending training camp this year despite the fact that he wasn’t yet under contract. When it’s all said and done, this contract could prove to be great value for both parties. At just 21-years old when he signed, Ristolainen will be in line for another fat contract when this one expires and, for now, Buffalo has a 45-point, 26:00 per night defenseman who is making less than both Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.

Skjei isn’t going to fill in that top pairing role for as long as Ryan McDonagh is a Blueshirt, but the biggest takeaway for both Skjei and the Rangers is that it provides a template for signing long-term immediately after the ELC expires. With this approach, Skjei probably wouldn’t surpass the $5 million mark and could provide tremendous value at somewhere around $4.7 million per season. More on that in a bit.

Morgan Rielly: 6 years, $30 million

Toronto’s decision to sign Rielly long-term is peculiar because, unlike the two aforementioned players, they aren’t getting much value out of the $5 million per year investment. Realistically, Rielly is a 25-ish point defenseman who, maybe, Toronto thought was going to hit another level. He still could, of course, as he’s just 23, but the former fifth-overall pick has never had a 30-point season.

When it comes time to negotiate, Skjei’s party will certainly be using the Rielly contract as a barometer. Jeff Gorton would face quite the challenge in selling a <$5 million per year contract to a player who is so much more productive than Rielly. Perhaps the fact that Rielly sees significantly more ice time than Skjei could help drive the price down, but that’s tricky, considering not only Skjei’s production but his future role on the Rangers.

Ryan McDonagh: 6 years, $28.2 million

If Ristolainen serves as a template for how signing an extension after an ELC can work, fundamentally, then the Rangers’ captain provides benchmark numbers. McDonagh’s extension came before the 2013-14 season and like Lindholm was predicated on value to the team. In the two seasons leading up to his contract, McDonagh averaged more than 24:00 a night and paced more than 30 points in both seasons. He’s still locked up at just $4.7 million per year until after the 2018-19 season and, discounting ELC players, might have the most team-friendly contract in the NHL.

Jeff Gorton has to see the value in locking up a player with Skjei’s potential on a budget deal and would be silly not to entertain the same approach as Glen Sather took with McDonagh. It seems almost laughable to think that Lindholm, Ristolainen, and Rielly all make more than McDonagh, but that’s inflation and a swelling salary cap for ya. Considering that, Skjei probably stands to get a bit more in annual value than McDonagh, but following in his captain’s footsteps—from Minnesota to multi-million dollar contract—seems a logical next step.

A Bridge Too Far?

Of course, both the New York and Skjei camps could opt for a “bridge deal” of shorter term like Jacob Trouba did to end his own holdout this season. Two years and $6-7 million is fair for Skjei, regardless of what he does next year, and could allow the Rangers some breathing room if they are unable to unload the Staal and Girardi contracts. But, doing so means that Skjei would find himself as a UFA three years from now and the Rangers would lose a lot of negotiating leverage.

Now, regardless of where Skjei’s agent and Jeff Gorton believe he falls in this context, there are two factors that can drastically alter that conversation during this offseason or after next season. First, his playoff performance can drive his cost up, as we saw with Hampus Lindholm. Secondly, if he turns in, say, a 50-point season and develops into a power play catalyst, his value would launch into elite company and, instead of looking for value with a long-term deal, the Rangers would almost be forced to pay a premium or use a bridge contract.

It is fair to critique Skjei’s production because of the fact that, of his 33 assists, 20 are secondary, which indicates he’s a beneficiary of the Rangers’ overall production rather than a catalyst for it. However, his numbers this season haven’t been dependent on overall team scoring.

Through the first 39 games of the year, the Rangers scored at a 3.41 goals per game clip and Skjei had just 15 assists and 16 points. Through the next 38, starting January 1st, New York’s scoring has fallen to just 2.87 goals per game. However, Skjei’s production has increased to 18 assists and 22 points during that time.

The increased production despite an overall downturn in the team’s production strongly suggests that Skjei’s play is system-agnostic. He’s not dependent on a powerplay, system, skilled forwards, or, really, a premier partner, to ring up the points. That bodes well for his next contract and, as a whole, his career.

Which path Gorton will choose to pursue is anybody’s guess. For my money, he and Skjei’s camp will agree to follow in McDonagh’s footsteps and agree to a long-term deal after the rookie’s ELC expires next season. The annual value should fall somewhere between $5 million (Rielly) and $5.25 million (Lindholm), but it’s possible Skjei is willing to accept a more team-friendly deal with a reduced annual average value. An explosive (or abysmal) 2017-18 campaign could be the deciding factor in that regard.

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