Little doubt out there right now that the new contract Leon Draisaitl signed at midweek was at least something of an overpayment.
While he’s a very good, very young player, the fact that he’s pulling top-10-among-skaters money all of a sudden tells you that everyone involved should know that’s a bit generous. Even if you think his playoff performance was a coming-out party — and hey, why wouldn’t you be convinced he can shoot 27 percent forever? — he’s plainly not a top-10 skater, and he’s plainly not particularly close to that mark.
With that having been said, Peter Chiarelli was faced with that old familiar problem: He couldn’t not-pay for Draisaitl. He couldn’t get cute with an offer sheet. The idea that Draisaitl is worth $8.5 million AAV right now is laughable. Four years into this contract, when he’s still at his peak expected performance level and the cap has probably gone up another 10 percent or so, the odds are much better that he will be worth something approximating that number.
The problem, then, is figuring out what Draisaitl actually “is” in today’s NHL. Is he a fabulous wing man for Connor McDavid? Absolutely he is. But as with any star player’s running buddy, you have to consider the impact that playing with a guy like that has on a player. Put another way, the important thing for Chiarelli to figure out was how much of Draisaitl’s breakout year — 29 goals and 77 points in 82 games — was a product of spending the majority of his time on ice playing alongside the league’s 20-year-old MVP.
Of Draisaitl’s 77 points, more than half (39) came either on McDavid assists or were McDavid goals assisted by Draisaitl. That, obviously, only makes sense. McDavid was on the ice but didn’t have a point on another 14, bumping the total to Draisaitl getting points with McDavid on the ice to 68.8 percent of all his production.
This despite the fact that they only played about 57 percent of Draisaitl’s minutes at 5-on-5 together.
Perhaps more worrying here is that 22 of Draisaitl’s 27 power play points came with McDavid on the ice as well. And that’s at a time when his production on the man advantaged tripled from 5-4-9 to 10-17-27. And again, it’s better to score with McDavid than not-score with him, or at all.
As a quick aside, though, it’s easy to get wrapped up in Draisaitl’s brutal hit his underlying stats take away from McDavid, but his scoring rates are actually more impressive, which is surprising. He also becomes much less of a finisher without McDavid, and way more of a playmaker.
But this is run-your-own-line money.
They’re now counting on Draisaitl to score away from McDavid, because if Patrick Maroon can do it, anyone on a $3 million contract probably can. You don’t need to pay $8.5 million to a sidekick, and Draisaitl’s pedigree suggests that he’s overqualified for that sort of role anyway.
But if you’re asking, “Where do the Oilers get the idea Draisaitl is capable of being a No. 2 center after a year of being a No. 1 wing?” well, one need only look at the postseason.
Draisaitl had 16 points in 13 games in Edmonton’s mid-range playoff run. McDavid only had points on 3 of Draisaitl’s 8 at 5-on-5, and another three of five on the power play. And in the playoffs, his time with McDavid at full strength dropped from 57-plus percent to only about 48 percent.
That was his audition, so to speak, to be his own man, and production-wise you have to say he got the part in the room. Yeah it was buoyed by an on-ice shooting percentage of almost 16 percent, absolutely. But even if he’s in the neighborhood of a point a game as a second-line guy, you’re getting some big value out of that contract, at least in theory.
McDavid is the guy who will draw the heavy competition, every team is going to put its absolute best players over the boards in their feeble hopes of keeping him off the scoresheet. But McDavid’s going to get his goals if you put out an All-Star lineup every night against him. Draisaitl acting as more of a second option, working around the tough stuff and still finding ways to score, is probably just as likely.
So while it’s an overpayment, and a big gamble that McDavid wasn’t the only thing driving Draisaitl’s production to such incredible heights in his third season, it was a gamble they had to make. And if you’re going to bet big, you might as well bet big on the guys most likely to deliver the full value of a big-money deal.
You don’t have to look far in the Oilers lineup to see all the times Chiarelli did the opposite: Look at what he gave Milan Lucic and Kris Russell. These are guys who, at the time of their deals being signed, were already out of their mid-20s and clearly in some sort of decline. He extended both long-term — in Russell’s case, it was at least after a one-year show-me contract where the Oilers liked what they saw), ensuring they’d be well-paid into their mid-30s. These were probably bad bets not only because of the sort of heavy, demanding games they play (Lucic’s job is to get rough in the corners, Russell’s to block shots) but because their ceilings weren’t all that high to begin with.
Chiarelli seems to have (mostly) learned his lesson about contracts like that in Boston, where he delighted in extending guys like Chris Kelly and Shawn Thornton for reasons that went beyond their on-ice contributions, and that’s what eventually got him fired. With the Lucic contract, he was clearly trying to make a big splash and get the “best available forward” in that draft to run enforcement for McDavid and chip in 20-plus goals. That didn’t work out because Lucic couldn’t keep up with a player who can skate like McDavid; this season he played well under half his 5-on-5 minutes with the best player in the league.
Here Chiarelli learned you don’t try to square-peg the round hole; you find guys who can approximate what McDavid does and who understand the game, and you let them play together at a relatively low price point. And because of McDavid’s price tag after this season, you still have an expensive line.
You’d certainly rather have a couple lines that cost you in the range of $15-17 million than one that costs you $23 million or something like that, because it spreads the talent throughout your lineup and makes you harder to play against overall. The idea that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might soon be a team’s No. 3 center when he’s a perfectly credible high-end No. 2 should fill opponents with dread.
With that said, Draisaitl is on a wait-and-see kind of deal. It’s aspirational, and it won’t be easy for him to live up to it.
Every team in the league has bad contracts on the book, to be sure, and that’s an issue that won’t go away. Higher-end players are almost always overpaid at some point in their contracts. In Draisaitl’s case, he’s overpaid now, when he has room to grow, and anyway the term on the deal ensures that even if things don’t work out, he’ll still only be 28 or 29 when the contract wraps.
At least the Oilers aren’t throwing $5 million at a third liner hoping he’s going to roughly deliver on that promise. Even if Draisaitl doesn’t hit the full value of this deal — and man, it won’t be easy — he at least has the talent level to do so, and the opportunity to pound on weaker competition to facilitate that.
Anyone expecting him to improve upon 77 points next season, away from McDavid except perhaps on the power play, are thinking wishfully. It’s possible but not probable. But as long as he’s pushing play and getting power play time, he’ll be a very useful, productive player.
Maybe not worth $8.5 million, not now. But there’s room to grow, and now plenty of time.