What We Learned: The case for Ryan O'Reilly's contract

What We Learned: The case for Ryan O'Reilly's contract

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Friday afternoon, while everyone was getting good and prepared for the Independence Day weekend, the Sabres snuck in a contract that surprised the hell out of the hockey world, and seems to have even led to many a derisive chuckle from the peanut gallery.

“Seven years and $7.5 million for Ryan O'Reilly? Seems like a whole lot.”

It is, in point of fact, the largest contract ever given to a Buffalo Sabre, and it therefore seems at least a little bold — especially because, in three years' time, Jack Eichel is going to get a much, much bigger one — to give that kind of money to a guy who is perceived as having never in his life played first-line minutes.

But in terms of how he was used by Patrick Roy, something over which he has no control, his minutes are often more difficult than those of, say, Matt Duchene, who gets the benefit of much easier zone starts but only slightly harder competition. And over the last four seasons, the total amount of 5-on-5 ice time separating them every night is 17 seconds, in O'Reilly's favor. So just to get that out of the way: O'Reilly played slightly harder minutes against roughly comparable competition to Clear No. 1 Center Matt Duchene Who Is Great.

What's more, there is and has been this odd perception that O'Reilly is somehow not an effective producer, despite the fact that he has more points per 60 minutes (1.83) over the last four seasons than guys like Ryan Johansen (1.71), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1.69), Paul Stastny (1.66), and so on. He's also in the same neighborhood as Nicklas Backstrom (1.86) and Joe Pavelski (1.87), etc. That's not a huge number — it's tied for 43rd among centers over that span — but it's better than most people give him credit for.

On the other hand, he's one of only 20 centers in the league to clear 0.7 points per game overall and 250 games played since 2011-12. The rest of his company is pretty good, though. Tavares, Backstrom, Getzlaf, Seguin, Toews, Thornton, Sedin, Kopitar, Eric Staal, Pavelski, Couture, Ribeiro, Krejci, Duchene, Bergeron, Stepan, Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Carter. Elite company, that.

And wouldn't you know it: The average 2015-16 cap hit for the other 19 guys on this list is about $6.5 million, though a lot of those guys are on deals that were signed at least two years ago, when the cap was lower, or are older and therefore not going to get as much money. That number also doesn't include that coming deal for Derek Stepan, whose contract will at least be close to O'Reilly's if it doesn't exceed it.

Anze Kopitar, for example, would likely make well north of his current $6.8 million cap if he hit the market this summer, despite the fact that he is four years older than O'Reilly. People would give him O'Reilly money happily, and feel they got a discount. And while Kopitar is better, he's also had a better supporting cast, and a coach who actually knows how to run a hockey team successfully over the long haul.

In addition, though, O'Reilly has, over the last four seasons, actually been among the best producers on the power play in the entire league. Among all forwards, his 4.96 points per 60 minutes of power play time is 29th in the league. Almost everyone ahead of him is an elite forward in this league (Seguin, Stamkos, Hall, both Sedins, Kessel, Kane, etc.).

But even still, the problem with O'Reilly, who has 90 goals 246 points in 427 career games, is that if you're looking at just his point production you are doing him a disservice. (That's right, folks, it's time for a look at O'Reilly's underlying numbers!!!!) He is, in fact, elite-level valuable in terms of his ability to drive possession numbers for his team, which is admittedly terrible at this sort of thing.

All those middling stats about scoring at 5-on-5 become world-class when you talk about possession. Among all forwards, the improvement Colorado has seen in its possession numbers — which, you have to keep in mind, tend to be dreadful — when O'Reilly is on the ice is 35th in the league. The improvement from about 46 percent to 50.3 percent is a big, big jump. It's like going from a garbage team like this past season's Toronto club to a very middling one like Minnesota.

In addition to all that, O'Reilly is also an clear No. 1 faceoff man among heavily-used centers, placing 26th in the league at 5-on-5 over four seasons, which has a certain amount of value — though not as much as people will generally believe — to a club that got murdered at the dot last season; Buffalo's 44.9 percent on draws was 30th in the league and not particularly close to the teams that tied for 28th and 29th (the Rangers and Canucks at 46.7 percent).

But, if you're not convinced O'Reilly is worth that kind of money, you're not going to be convinced by the good but not great scoring lines, strong possession numbers, top-level faceoff stats, and so on. The fact is, most of that data says he's probably not worth $7.5 million.

You have to keep in mind that, while he played with good forwards a lot of the time, the defense behind him was typically underwhelming at best.

That's a lot of “lugging bad teammates to decent numbers,” but he's not a miracle worker. No one can make Nate Guenin look good, and the fact that Guenin was eighth in “ice time with Ryan O'Reilly over four years” speaks very much to Colorado's quality. It was and still is low.

I can show you plenty of charts about how he makes his awful teammates better at just about everything we can measure in hockey, and I can do it all day. O'Reilly is probably better than the numbers suggest, but because he's not a big-time goalscorer, and has pretty much never been paired with good players who can make him look better than he is, he's not a No. 1 center and doesn't deserve to be paid like one (his cap hit is, in fact, tied seventh among centers).

In addition, he's also clearly improving, as most players do from age-21 to 24, while his team has gotten worse. You can attribute the higher goals-against rate to a higher quality of competition.

Similarity scores show that he's as good as Duchene or Landeskog, two players everyone likes a lot, and has turned in seasons similar to those of younger versions of Justin Williams, Ryan Kesler, Nicklas Backstrom, or Stephen Weiss (when he was good). And he's also only 24, meaning he's locked in at that price until his early 30s. It costs money to buy that many UFA years, so while this may seem like a huge overpay now, we frankly don't know what the cap will look like in two or three or five years from now. At that point, based on the Toews contract, elite-level players will be getting eight figures rather than the high sevens. Period.

And along those lines, we have to keep in mind that the sticker shock on new deals in this league is always going to happen to some extent, because of the stuff we saw above when looking at O'Reilly's annual cap hit versus those of his production and showing-up-for-work peers. An AAV of $7.5 million for 2015-16 constitutes about 10.5 percent of the total salary cap, yes, and that's a lot of money.

But if you compare that number to what was 10.5 percent of the cap coming out of the lockout ($6.75 million), that number becomes a lot more palatable. In fact, that's probably how we need to start viewing contracts in general. Not as a dollar value, but as a percentage of the overall salary cap.

The top players in the league was only getting $7 million immediately after the cap went into effect, when the salary cap was $39 million. At that time, the league's biggest contracts were worth almost 18 percent of the cap. Now, Toews and Patrick Kane are tops in the league, and their numbers make up just 14.7 percent of the cap. This means elite players no longer cost what they once did; the cost of such a player is dropping, even if the dollar value has gone up.

The point is that $7.5 million now isn't the same as $7.5 million even two years ago. Therefore, given that O'Reilly is likely to continue improving as a player into his mid-to-late 20s, and the cap will probably also keep going up during that time period, he's quite likely to continue improving the value of this contract as well.

Buffalo is still bad, despite the huge improvements made already this summer. It will probably be bad next year as well, even if Jack Eichel rips the Eastern Conference apart at the seams. As discussed previously, you don't go from “worst team in modern hockey” to “halfway decent” in one offseason. And maybe a lot of that blame will fall on O'Reilly and his biggest-ever-in-Buffalo contract. Heck, even if he isn't “worth it” right now, a lot of factors will probably combine to push him in that direction over the next seven years.

That's not to say he's going to look like a bargain by the end of it; I would guess that the value ends up being more or less fair. The dollar value of the wins he will have delivered is quite likely to have been worth the Sabres' investment. Seven years is a long time, $52.5 million is a lot of money, and O'Reilly at 24 years old is probably worth about that much on both counts.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Shawn Horcoff could be a decent performer for the Ducks, especially at that $1.75 million number. Not saying it's likely, but it's really not hard to be worth that much in the NHL these days.

Arizona Coyotes: This team sure is going to be bad next year. Hey, it worked for Buffalo.

Boston Bruins: Don Sweeney is a genius again because he “only” gave five years and less-than-expected to Matt Beleskey. They're still worse right now than they were last year. They still have one top-four NHL defenseman on the roster. But yeah, a genius.

Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel is a beautiful American boy who is great. But because this is a Bucky Gleason column: “Sabres fans will appreciate intangible qualities that fail to show up in analytics – the high-speed hockey processor between his ears, his desire to be the best, his work ethic and homespun personality – more than his obvious natural talent.” No I bet they will appreciate the billion points he puts up as a Sabre more than him being a nice kid.

Calgary Flames: At this point Brad Treliving's job boils down to, “Don't let anyone offer-sheet Gaudreau and Monahan.”

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes have improved, but they still know they're not going to be that good next season. Hmm, realism sure is nice.

Chicago: They're still trying doggedly to re-sign Marcus Kruger, and let's just say they're lucky he's an RFA and no one gives anyone offer sheets any more. You could probably get him for a few mid-round picks. Worth it.

Colorado Avalanche: The headline says it all, gang. And even with the revamped blue line, there's still a lot to worry about on the back end as well.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Saad contract is such a good deal for the Blue Jackets. It's below market value now, let alone three years on.

Dallas Stars: If the Stars improved this summer — I'm not so sure — is simple regression to the mean for the goaltending alone enough to get them back into the playoffs? Very, very tough to say.

Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin might be NHL-ready right now, but there's very little chance he makes the big club out of camp. It's The Detroit Way.

Edmonton Oilers: If the Oilers are slow out of the gate people are going to lose their minds.

Florida Panthers: Oops.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings might have a rather serious depth problem if some kids can't step up to the plate. When you look at the top pairings and lines, though, that might not even be that big of an issue.

Minnesota Wild: A few Wild players were on hand to sign autographs and stuff like that at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this week, including Matt Dumba, who is Canadian.

Montreal Canadiens: I still can't believe Jim Benning agreed to this trade.

Nashville Predators: Rookie development camp starts today in Nashville. Hockey season really doesn't end, huh?

New Jersey Devils: New Devil Kyle Palmieri is saying all the right things about playing against the Rangers. He will do his best to beat them, he vows. His best likely will not be good enough, because the team as a whole sure isn't.

New York Islanders: The Isles are really stocking up the farm here. But when you're getting a bunch of guys who have at least had a cup of coffee in the NHL, that's not bad at all.

New York Rangers: How dare another team give a potentially inflationary contract to someone. It's not like the Rangers did that with everyone. Constantly. For decades.

Ottawa Senators: The 2017 Heritage Classic will be in Ottawa. No real surprise there.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers drafting Ivan Provorov is kind of a big deal. They typically don't go with too many Russian players.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens' roster for next season is still a work in progress. Meaning they want to sign a forward because good defensemen are for suckers!!!

San Jose Sharks: Three years is an awful long time for a hard-nosed 34-year-old. At this point, the wheels could fall off at any time.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues have actively made themselves worse this summer. Maybe that's for the best, but I doubt it.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Adam Wilcox could become a good NHL goaltender, but really how many of those will Tampa need with Andrei Vasilevskiy ready to go in a year or two?

Toronto Maple Leafs: This post is a joke, right?

Vancouver Canucks: Daniel Sedin is selling his house! Oh no they're trading one of the Sedins!

Washington Capitals: Dan Ellis could be a good call-up option for a team flush with goaltending talent at the NHL level.

Winnipeg Jets: Unfortunately, Alex Burmistrov will not wear the number he sported in the KHL.

Gold Star Award

USA teammates Shannon Boxx, second from right, and Christie Rampone, far right, pose with the trophy as the USA team celebrates following their win over Japan at the f FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday, July 5, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
USA teammates Shannon Boxx, second from right, and Christie Rampone, far right, pose with the trophy as the USA team celebrates following their win over Japan at the f FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday, July 5, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Congratulations to our wonderful Women's World Cup champions. The best.

Minus of the Weekend

Florida Panthers goalie Dan Ellis warms up before the start of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Saturday, April 4, 2015 in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Florida Panthers goalie Dan Ellis warms up before the start of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Saturday, April 4, 2015 in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Is Dan Ellis really the most interesting free agent signing of the weekend? Someone please sign Cody Franson soon.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Canadian Jesus” is someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares.

To Toronto:
Derrick Pouliot
Rob Scuderi
5th round pick 2017

To Pittsburgh:
Dion Phaneuf

You may remember me as the guy who came to dinner a few weeks ago with underwear on my head.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here