Adam Larsson got paid decent, but not great, money over the weekend, and plenty of term. The reasoning behind it, though, is a little hazy.
Obviously, you don't want to part ways with a former No. 4 pick who is now just 22 years old, but if you had a redraft of the 2011 Entry Draft, Larsson might not be in your top 10. He's certainly not fourth overall. And this extension kicks in at a time when his career seems to be at its lowest point in a lot of ways.
He got what he got — $4.167 million AAV over six years — because that's what most young defensemen in the league get these days. Sure, the Devils were a shambling disaster last season, but Larsson wasn't really a bright spot, which seems like a problem for a guy you just extended for $25 million. He didn't really get it because he earned it.
Starting around the end of the 2011-12 season, most promising young defensemen in the league who had contracts coming up started signing long-term for relatively short money in about the range where Larsson now lands. This makes a lot of sense for both parties because players felt like they were getting good paydays and solid job security, while teams were banking on getting long-term value from those contracts. This, in short, started to replace bridge contracts for this specific type of player.
It started with Marc-Edouard Vlasic re-upping in San Jose, then continuing through the 2013 offseason with Ryan McDonagh, then Justin Faulk toward the end of 2013-14, then a bunch more that summer and into this past season. Here's a list of the more notable contracts of this type signed in the past few summers:
Now, it must be said that the value of Vlasic's $4.25 million, which started in 2013-14, is more like $4.72 million in today's money, but teams and players alike seem not to really think of it that way (even though they should). As a result, that was the baseline for just about all these contracts going forward. For the most part, teams have been willing to give up the extra year for a little more cost certainty.
And you also have to keep in mind that RFA years, of which Vlasic had none remaining, are generally cheaper than UFA years. This means that those giving up fewer UFA years will necessarily see their dollar values depressed. Larsson gives up three years of unrestricted free agency eligibility, meaning half his contract is still RFA, which is why his dollar value is so low.
But what you'll also notice about that list of defensemen who are now paid in roughly the same category as Larsson is, “Hey, they're all a lot better than him.”
Part of that, I think, is that most of them have some help. Faulk played with Andrej Sekera until the latter was traded. Brodie plays with Mark Giordano until Giordano injured himself. Stralman plays with Victor Hedman. Vlasic plays with the underrated Justin Braun. Brodin plays with Ryan Suter. Jake Muzzin obviously plays with Drew Doughty. That all helps a guy look better than he is, even if he's really good himself, and all these guys appear to be just that.
(Yes, yes, Ryan McDonagh, well, lugs Dan Girardi up and down the ice. Exceptions to every rule, etc.)
Larsson doesn't really have that luxury. In 2013-14, he played a lot with Eric Gelinas, who, while goodish, was also just 22 and not really a sort of stable option. This year, with Mark Fayne headed off to Edmonton, he was paired with Andy Greene. That pairing failed to recapture the possession-driving magic of Fayne/Greene the season before. Larsson, by some measures, had the worst year of his career as a consequence.
That's mainly because his assignments got pretty difficult. His zone starts were much, much harder than anything he'd faced in his career to that point, even as quality of competition diminished somewhat. Which is fair enough given that he's now 22 and coaches should want to protect younger guys from the most difficult assignments their competition has to offer, but this is a pretty big swing.
Some of his numbers suffered as a result. His relative possession was only marginally better than the rest of the team's (second-worst of his career) with by far the lowest overall shot-attempt share at 46.93 percent. Which is lousy. I have a lot of time for the argument that whatever Peter DeBoer was doing to be so successful early on simply stopped working last year; the entire team went from a possession juggernaut — No. 4 in the league in both 2012-13 and '13-14 — to a punching bag. They were fifth from the bottom in overall corsi share last season, despite the fact that they trailed for an awful lot of the time. Larsson was certainly part of that downturn.
But at the same time, he matched the number of goals he posted in his entire career previous (128 games) in just 64 last season. And yeah, that number was “three” so big deal, but you can't fault the guy for posting 24 points when his previous career high was 33 percent lower than that (16 in 65 as a rookie).
Smart fans know, though, that a sudden huge surge in production while possession stats decline is often a cause for concern, not a sign that a player of any age suddenly “figured it out.” Trusting that big jumps in production will continue is usually not very good business (though you have to say that it is something new Devs GM Ray Shero has proven is something of a modus operandi for him, personally). Not to say Larsson couldn't keep up those numbers long-term — he is, after all, a high-ceiling player who should continue to improve for a few years to come — but to bet on that improvement at this term and dollar figure strikes one as concerning, given the trends in his underlying numbers.
It's easy to understand why this happened, but the fact that it happened at all should be worrisome. Especially because, even as his zone starts were the toughest, his quality of competition was effectively No. 4 on the team. Not that he has any control over that sort of thing, but you'd really like to see him do a little better.
This does not strike one as a guy you reward with a six-year deal and a 400-plus percent raise, even if the counting numbers say he improved. Especially because, once again, he didn't come close to playing the full 82. Out of a possible 294 games over the four seasons of his NHL career, Larsson has played just 65 percent. Who's to say that he can stay healthy at any point long-term in his career? I'm not usually one to say, “He's injury prone!” but when you miss more than 100 of your first 300 or so career games, that seems like a cause for concern as well.
The good news is the cap hit isn't egregious and should provide some value if Larsson continues to grow as a player. And, again, he should, given that he won't be 23 until November. If he follows the trends most guys take in their career, he'll probably have between two and four more years of improvement before he starts to decline in his late 20s. This contract eats up that entire “prime” plus a few years more.
But comparing him with other defensemen who have signed similar contracts when they were a few years older indicates New Jersey actually thinks better of him than they do of them. I see no reason he should be viewed favorably in comparison with a Faulk, Muzzin, Brodie, etc. Especially given how badly he struggled against top-end talent, and especially given the injury concern. He has a career 0.04 career WAR for a reason, and while the last two were positive, even $4.167 million is a lot to give to a guy who's barely above water. For the bulk of his career, he appears to be a roughly second-pairing defenseman who can put up first-pairing assist numbers.
Frankly, Larsson should have had another prove-it year or two before the team really committed to him longer-term. This isn't a “bridge contracts are bad” situation where a guy was obviously worth a ton of money and the team tried to bully him into a cheaper deal to help them do... something short-term. This is a situation where a guy put up a bunch of points for a lousy team even as his underlying numbers got worse. The NHL is supposed to be smarter than that these days.
There was no need to pay him now unless the Devils were terrified he'd become elite and they'd have to cough up more money later. We have very little evidence, though, that this is likely to happen. Not to say that this is a bad contract, necessarily, but it is a puzzling one.