A good indication that you have signed a player to a bad contract is that outside your organization, there is basically no one, in their right mind or otherwise, who is willing to defend the deal.
Ryan Kesler is, for some reason, now signed in Anaheim until 2022, when he will be 37 years old, and receiving $6.875 million per season against the cap. The future of the ceiling is of course unknowable for a litany of reasons, but it's a safe bet to say that in 2022 — which oh my god that's still seven years from now, because Kesler still has one year left on his current contract — $6.875 million will probably still be a decent chunk of the total limit. Even if the cap goes up to $90 million in that time, an AAV of that size would be worth what about a $5.5 million deal is today.
You do not want to have 37-year-olds making 7.7 percent of your cap. That's just a general rule.
When talking about how forwards age, and what it takes to get to the point where someone thinks you can still play as a 37-year-old. Most of those who do are either fading superstars or bottom-six grinder types whose game doesn't in any way rely upon them having the ability to skate even somewhat competitively. And the attrition for guys in their mid-to-late 30s is massive; over the last eight seasons, 41 percent of forwards who were in the league at 35 were gone by 37.
So what you need to know is the number of forwards who have started the season as 37-year-olds in the past seven seasons is just 51. And it is, frankly, a bizarre mix of guys; Sergei Fedorov, Jeremy Roenick, Teemu Selanne, Alex Kovalev (high-talent guys) mix with Craig Conroy, Tomas Holmstrom, Martin Gelinas, and Jamal Mayers (not so much). As a composite, this is what those the average of those guys looks like:
So, not great.
The good news for the Ducks is that they will, as a few people have pointed out at this point, almost certainly buy out Kesler before the end of this contract, and I'd be surprised if he makes it all the way to 2020 before he's given a bunch of money to no longer play for the Ducks. The funny thing is that Kesler himself told the media on Wednesday, “This isn't my last contract.” He meant it in terms of, “I'm playing the full six years of this one and beyond,” but c'mon.
Some might say that reason alone is why Anaheim wasn't completely foolhardy to sign this deal — basically, they'd be giving Kesler all this money when he's more or less worth-it, but then dumping the contract and carrying a much smaller cap hit for four or six years beyond that (and oh yeah there's also another potential lockout coming up before then, so who knows what happens next. The wisdom of purposely signing a guy knowing that you would buy him out before the end of the contract seems crazy, but then the likelihood is that such a move would probably be among Murray's last as a general manager, or perhaps among his successor's first.
Anyway, the idea that signing a guy at more or less what is market value right now for the remainder of his early 30s (and beyond, wink nudge) would be a good idea is nominally true. You can say what you want about Kesler, but he helped make Matt Beleskey rich this summer, and if you're running a guy of his current quality out there as a No. 2, you're going to be in business. And if Getzlaf is your No. 1, that's about as good a 1-2 punch as there is in the Western Conference.
But the fact is that the Ducks probably have a window to be truly competitive because at some point Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will lose their fastball and become non-elite players. When that happens, the Ducks' chance of winning Cup is effectively over. And whaddaya know: Getzlaf, Kesler, and Perry are all 30 right this second (though Kesler will be 31 in August). So we're really talking about a window that'll be open for, at the very most, the first four years of this contract. Five if they're extremely lucky.
The good news for the Ducks is that right now, those three guys are the only ones signed beyond 2017-18. So that gives them a lot of flexibility, and if they understand their Cup competitiveness is ending, then let the great contract sell-off begin. Retain some salary, buy Kesler out, and you're looking at a team that's probably heading into a rebuild and holding onto some veteran contracts for which it has no use anyway.
In that regard, it's not a bad forward-thinking deal. But if you're already going, “Okay, what do we do when this contract really stinks five years from now?” a year before it even goes into effect, maybe you just don't sign it? There's also the fact that, hey, there's still five years left of hockey to that point.
Currently, Kesler has a bit of a reputation as not being very durable, but that's really not fair to him. Since becoming an NHL regular in 2005-06, he's missed 77 games, though 31 of them came in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. That's really not that bad, so any concerns there are at least a little overblown. But at the same time, it's very fair to ask whether Kesler has already begun his decline by any measure.
And I guess if you're going to decline, being a guy who can still reliably post 45 or so points a season is a good way to do it. Kesler averages that many over the last two seasons. But he's soon to be 31 and going into a contract year, so the question is why extend him now, and for this long? The price point is inarguable: That's frankly less than what he'd be paid on the open market. But at the same time, it's the highest AAV he's ever gotten, and Anaheim is paying for it after years of him being worse than he's ever been in a number of ways.
Now, that's not a knock on Kesler. Time erodes all, and so on. If Anaheim wants to pay him for the next seven years, he'd be a fool to say no.
But it does perhaps create unreasonable expectations that aren't dissimilar to what Chris Drury faced when he moved to Broadway from Buffalo.
Obviously the Drury contract was for considerably more money ($7.05 million in 2007-08, worth an insane 14 percent of the cap), so expectations in New York were even greater, but they are fairly similar players. We only have “advanced” stats going back to 2002 (and even those aren't great when you get beyond 2007-08), but the numbers show that while Drury had a better peak, the decline hit real hard right around his age-31 season.
Which, again, it happens, but the real warning signs here are that Kesler had a difficult season by his own standards despite the fact that he was facing some of the easiest competition of his career. He wasn't used in the way that most teams use their good-quality No. 2 center: To take on the heavyweights on the other team and allow the more creative and offensively talented players to play weaker competition (Boston, for example, does this with Patrice Bergeron so David Krejci gets an easier ride).
Nope, Ryan Getzlaf plays the really tough competition — and still annihilates them, because Getzlaf is incredible — and gets the easier zone starts. Kesler gets the tougher zone starts against weaker opponents. But his handling this season was an outlier in comparison with his normal requirements.
And you'll also notice that the 2012-13 season (the lockout season in which he was playing very, very hurt) and this past one were the only ones in which Kesler has not recorded a “blue” (positive) relative possession total, and that to is in line with where his career has been headed for some time.
Kesler put up 47 points this year and got outscored, while also barely maintaining positive numbers (on a Ducks team that did a pretty good job of it this year, for once) and barely outchancing the competition. Now, that's getting a little picky, I admit; “barely” outchancing and outpossessing the other team is still doing both of those things, and that's to Kesler's credit. To be fair, you'd have to say that the “getting outscored” thing might just be a quirk of percentages (and indeed, he had a PDO of 99.5).
But again, you have to look at where things are headed. Downward, is where. And guys who play the kind of physically demanding game Kesler does don't age particularly well. It's usually a bad idea to extend guys who are already north of 30 long-term, but for guys who like to throw the body around like Kesler (902 hits in his last 649 appearances in both the regular season and playoffs), those are hard miles to begin with.
Again, this contract appears to be a slight discount from market value now. When it actually starts more than a year from today, we might not feel that way, and we almost certainly won't when it's half over. Which is why this deal is indefensible.