By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
Every day, consumers need to make decisions on the value of products. Whether you are shopping for a new pair of kicks, a car, or figuring out the best way to watch the Bruins, you are making decisions. Those decisions might be based on price, efficiency, convenience, and yes, an emotional attachment to the same pair of Vans you’ve worn since college. Professional sports teams are no different when it comes to making financial decisions, including signing and re-signing players.
The Bruins have one restricted free agent (RFA) left to deal with this off-season, left-winger Jake Debrusk. Debrusk is coming off of the worst statistical season of his young NHL career. After three full seasons, he has proven though to be good for at minimum 20+ goals a season while being a responsible player at both ends. However, he has also been inconsistent and hasn’t (yet) hit the lofty expectations many have for the former first-round pick. At 24 years old, Debrusk is due to his second NHL contract, and the Bruins must decide what the winger is worth to the team.
General Manager Don Sweeney and the Bruins organization will need to decide how much they are willing to offer Debrusk moving forward. They will need to consider both his history and his potential. They will also need to evaluate how essential they think he is to the future of the team. Beyond the player, the front office will also need to navigate the salary cap. A pandemic induced flat cap hurts the Bs flexibility this season, but with several large contracts coming off the books at the end of the year, they have plenty of room to work within the coming years. Debrusk and his camp are also a big part of the equation and have indicated a desire to stay in Boston and do what it takes to contribute to the team. They will likely make the argument that he has proven himself a bonafide top-6 NHL forward who still has room to grow.
Looking at similar players and the contracts they have signed is a valuable exercise at this juncture to inform us of what an upcoming Debrusk contract could look like. These comparable contracts will set the stage on the current marketplace for a player like Debrusk, and both sides will definitely be using these examples as they present their case. Let’s take a look at these case studies and examine each one’s merits in comparison to the Bruins-Debrusk negotiations.
If we were having this conversation in a normal year, we would likely be looking at different comparable players and contracts, but you know, 2020. Justin Frecker shared some players who, in a normal year, we might use as a barometer for Debrusk. He points to players like Travis Konecny, Brock Nelson, and Dylan Larkin, all of whom average roughly 20 goals and 40-50 points a season. Each will earn five to six million dollars average annual value (AAV). All three are also locked up long term, at least five years, and for a couple of them into the early years of unrestricted free agency (UFA). Both conditions generally drive up AAV. They were also all agreed to with the assumption the cap would steadily increase, not suddenly go flat for an unknown amount of time.
Because of the unique nature of our present day, it would be more prudent to look at players who have signed this off-season rather than ones who completed their deals pre-pandemic. The matches are not necessarily perfect, which we will get into as we discuss each player. In some cases, its longevity of production or potential sustainability that differentiates players. In some cases, it might be age and, subsequently, a player or team’s leverage regarding RFA or UFA status. Nonetheless, as you can see in the table below, we have identified six wingers whose production this past year mirrors Debrusk and can be used to start a conversation on his market value.
|Josh Anderson |
The Contract: $2.55 million AAV through 2021-22
The Comparison: Virtanen has played two more seasons in the NHL than Debrusk despite being the same age. His career has also been rockier, and his future less certain. Virtanen posted his best statistical year, a near mirror to Debrusk’s while getting less ice time and shouldering less responsibility. A former sixth overall pick, Virtanen has shown some flashes of offense but has put up poor possession numbers and has yet to be really trusted by the Canucks coaching staff. A two-year bridge contract will allow both sides to evaluate what player Virtanen can be. As a comparable for Debrusk, Virtanen sets the bottom of the market. The situation also demonstrates what a contract can look like when a team has leverage in negotiations and doubts about the player.
The Contract: $3.05 million AAV through 2021-22
The Comparison: Olofsson is a late bloomer who didn’t come to North America until 2018-19 at 23 years old. He subsequently tore up the AHL and followed it up with a stellar rookie season in Buffalo. While it took Olofsson a little longer to find his way to the NHL, his usage was similar to Debrusk, and his results arguably better despite playing on a worse team in 2019-20. He did benefit from a high shooting percentage, one that is likely to regress next season. He also struggled from a possession standpoint though that is not abnormal for many Sabres. Olofsson, a former seventh-round draft pick, does not have the same track record or pedigree as Debrusk. As an RFA, Buffalo could have squeezed the player, but they chose to reward him with a little over $3 million for two seasons. If you believe Debrusk has hit his ceiling as a player, then Olofsson’s numbers are a great comparable. But Debrusk’s extra years of service and potential upside likely mean a higher final AAV.
The Contract: $5.5 million AAV through 2026-27
The Comparison: Anderson, coming off a disastrous year ended by injury, was highly sought after this off-season anyway. While Anderson has only once eclipsed 20 goals, he is a unique player in the NHL these days, putting the power in power forward. Anderson and Tom Wilson are a dying breed who can skate, defend, be physical, and chip in some offense. Teams are willing to pay a premium for this type of player. Anderson also had a lot of leverage going into his negotiations with Montreal, essentially holding them hostage for a long-term deal with a higher AAV to ensure he didn’t pick up and walk as a UFA next year. Despite the similarities in production, Debrusk does not play the style of Anderson, nor does he possess the same leverage in negotiations. Don’t be surprised though if Debrusk’s camp chooses this contract as a starting point for their negotiating stance.
The Contract: $4.25 million AAV through 2023-24
The Comparison: Toffoli is the only player on this list who was not an RFA when signing a contract this off-season. A consistent player throughout his career, he can be relied upon for 25 goals and close to 50 points a season while posting solid possession numbers. In many ways, Toffoli could be the player Debrusk turns into as both have similarities stylistically and statistically. Both can get their noses a little dirty when needed, are responsible at both ends, and provide reliable secondary offense. That Toffoli signed this deal as a UFA shows how depressed the market is right now. This was a great deal for the Canadiens. It could also be a great deal for Debrusk as the AAV is solid and would expire right in time for his valuable UFA years. The Bruins will likely want a contract that ends sooner, so they still have leverage in the next negotiation, or longer, so they can buy some UFA years. Either way, the AAV on Toffoli’s deal is a great comparable for Debrusk.
The Contract: $5.7 million AAV through 2023-24
The Comparison: Mantha has been in the league one year longer than Debrusk though he is two years older. The Detroit winger’s career started slower than Debrusk, and he was also plagued by inconsistency in the early going. That has changed the last couple of years as Mantha has become more of a force, utilizing his 235-pound frame to lead our comparable group in points/60 while producing nearly a point per game prior to injury this past season. His trajectory is one the Bruins hope for with Debrusk – a young player who shows flashes of top-end quality before finally putting it together night in and night out just in time for the prime years of his career. Mantha’s new pact buys several UFA seasons, a key negotiating point for both player and team. An additional important piece of context, though, is that this is Mantha’s third contract. His second was a two-year bridge deal worth $3.3 million AAV after coming off an almost identical season as Debrusk. This could be a model for the Bruins and their winger, opting for a bridge deal at slightly less AAV and waiting to see if the player can prove himself and earn a larger third contract.
The Contract: $3.5 million AAV through 2020-21
The Comparison: Bertuzzi, the Red Wings nominee for the All-Star game, went to arbitration and left with a solid one year deal. Bertuzzi was drafted in 2013 and, like Mantha, took a couple of years to establish himself. However, his last couple of seasons suggest a player that can consistently top 20 goals and 50 points a season. As we mentioned in the opening, a player who, before the pandemic, could secure a long-term deal worth over $5 million a year. While Bertuzzi plays with a little more bite, he also has a lower ceiling, therefore not serving as good a barometer for a longer-term agreement. However, on a short-term contract in our current reality, this example is a great comparison for Debrusk.
The Bruins have most of the leverage in this situation. As we have seen, when a team signs a player to a second contract over a shorter term, they typically squeeze the player and get a lower AAV. If the Bruins choose to go this route, a two-year deal is the most likely outcome. If so, we can look at Olofsson and Bertuzzi as the best matches. Debrusk likely gets a deal closer to Bertuzzi’s as the two have a similar track record. This may also be the direction Debrusk’s camp chooses, hoping the recipe for a big deal, similar to Mantha, includes a couple of strong seasons from the winger and economic stability in time for the next negotiation.
If the Bruins choose to buy more years of service, and Debrusk’s camp opts for more security over the allure of a possible bigger payday, expect a deal of five years. Debrusk is eligible to be a UFA in four more seasons, and the Bruins will want to secure a minimum of a year of UFA service in return for the higher price tag. On such a deal, Toffoli is our best comparison. The now Canadien was a UFA with plenty of leverage and opted for a four-year deal, longer than most deals this off-season, and settled for an AAV of $4.25 million. Locking into a player with some uncertainty for five years is a risk for the Bruins, but it is one they may want to take considering Debrusk’s floor is 20-plus goals a season. That is less productive than you’d expect from a $4 million player but not complete dead weight. However, if Debrusk does show he can regularly eclipse the 30 goal plateau, the Bruins will have another great contract on their hands.
While a longer-term deal could be advantageous to the Bruins, expect both sides to be conservative and settle on a two-year bridge deal with an AAV of around $3.5 million. This has certainly been the blueprint with other recent RFAs like Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Such a deal would also still leave the Bruins with room to tinker with their roster, exploring UFAs who they may be able to get on the cheap while still preserving cap space for the potential return of Captain Zdeno Chara.