New Deals on the Horizon
The good news for the Maple Leafs is that the ill-conceived decision to make Luke Schenn an NHL player at 18 apparently won't prevent him from becoming a quality NHL player. He has improved dramatically this season, and its not inconceivable that when the time comes to start looking at names for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team, he'll have wedged his way into the conversation.
But that's a long, long way off. Schenn's pedigree suggests he'll be among the better defensive blueliners in the league by then and his development curve is upwards after a mediocre sophomore year, but that doesn't guarantee a thing.
The downside to making Schenn an NHLer so early that can't be changed, of course, is that the bill comes due earlier. His entry level deal will expire at the end of this season, one of 11 expiring contracts the Leafs, but probably the only one that could conceivably cause Brian Burke to lose any sleep. Sure, there's Tomas Kaberle and J.S. Giguere, but those are contracts the Leafs may be just as happy to wipe off the books, and right now it looks like they could have upwards of $24 million (depending on the cap figure next season) to spend next summer.
But back to Schenn. He's a restricted free agent in June, and eligible to be unrestricted at 25 after his seventh NHL season. By comparison, the player taken before him in the draft by St. Louis, blueliner Alex Pietrangelo, just started his entry level deal and won't even be restricted for another two years after this season. Last year's Calder Trophy winner, Tyler Myers, was drafted in the same year but held back for an extra year of junior, so his entry level deal won't expire until after next season.
To recap, the '08 draft started with Steven Stamkos first overall and then included the big four blueliners. Drew Doughty went second overall, Zach Bogosian third, Pietrangelo fourth and Schenn fifth after the Leafs traded their first, second and third round picks to move up two slots. Schenn was the highest Leaf draft in 19 years.
Like Schenn, Doughty and Bogosian are on contracts that expire next summer. Doughty has had some injuries this season and has amassed only seven points, but he's still playing 25 minutes a game and is a plus-6. Bogosian is more like Schenn, low-scoring, physical and defence-first, while Pietrangelo is blossoming with the Blues and has 15 points this season while playing almost 23 minutes a night.
All four look like they're going to be good players for a long-time. Doughty might have a Norris Trophy in his future. But what do you pay them? And how do the Leafs structure a deal for Schenn, with just four years left before his UFA year?
Doughty, a Norris finalist last year, will probably end up with something along the lines of what Mike Green and Duncan Keith make, somewhere between $5-6 million per season.
For Bogosian and Schenn, however, it's a little trickier, if only for the lack of clear comparables. You can't look to the '07 draft for any help, as the top defenceman picked that year, Thomas Hickey, has yet to play an NHL game for the L.A. Kings (yep, those high picks are always locks to be stars, right?). Karl Alzner went fifth overall, and only now is he working himself into the Caps lineup as a regular.
In '06, Erik Johnson was the first pick overall, but he missed the entire '08-09 season with a knee injury, which altered his status. Last summer, he signed a two-year deal worth $2.6 million per season, a shorter contract that will allow the Blues to better assess his development and value before locking in long-term.
Johnson is a big, stay-at-home blueliner like Bogosian and Schenn, but probably with more offensive upside. Another comparable would be Chicago's Nik Hjalmarsson, who is in the first year of a four-year contract that pays him $3.5 million annually. Hjalmarsson is 23, a former fourth round pick and a similar player to Schenn and Bogosian, albeit less physical than either.
But his contract was the result of an offer sheet tendered by San Jose last summer that the Hawks matched. Schenn could get an offer sheet next summer, but it seems unlikely, and the Leafs would match.
There are no negotiations on a new deal yet for Schenn. Something like Johnson's two-year deal would make sense for both sides. The Leafs won't want a four-year deal that would simply take the young defenceman to UFA status, and going five years or longer while Schenn is still establishing himself doesn't make sense.
In an ideal world, the Leafs wouldn't be facing this decision so soon. In another year, they'll have a much better idea how good this youngster is going to be.
That's how these decisions made on 18-year-olds can come back to bite you.