Why Joe Pavelski is an unusual free agent risk-reward case

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It’s kind of hard to believe it, but Joe Pavelski will turn 35 on July 11.

Frankly, Pavelski doesn’t really feel like a player who’s about to turn 35, so maybe it’s fitting that his next contract apparently won’t fall under the 35+ designation, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and others note.

In a nutshell: 35+ contracts exist to keep teams from trying to sign veteran players to longer deals that are front-loaded to circumvent the salary cap, while the provisions also provide some protections for players fearing buyouts, AHL demotions, and other ignominious ends.

So, Pavelski not being eligible for that 35+ provision is great news for potential suitors, right?

Well … we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s remember how good Pavelski is.

Pavelski’s really good!

Either way, reports indicate that the market has been strong for Pavelski. In a free agent roundup on Friday (sub required), The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports that Pavelski’s suitors are in the “double digits,” while Friedman reports that Pavelski’s had the luxury of rejecting teams who (in his opinion) aren’t close to contending. There are mixed impressions of Pavelski’s willingness to sign with the Minnesota Wild, for example, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo indicates that the situation is fluid (sub required there, too).

Bottom line: it sounds like Pavelski has plenty of options, and Friedman indicates that Pavelski is seeking term and a chance to win a Stanley Cup.

On its face, that’s great, and the down-the-line flexibility of Pavelski not being a 35+ contract makes multiple years far less intimidating to bidders.

Because, let’s be clear: Pavelski remains a fantastic player. While it’s unrealistic to expect a 38 goal in 75 game pace like Pavelski enjoyed last season, what with a 20.2 shooting percentage that’s high even for a quality shooter with a 12.5 career average, 2018-19 marked the third season in a row of at least 64 points. Before that, Pavelski was even better, generating 70+ points for three consecutive seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Pavelski’s scored 355 goals since coming into the NHL in 2006-07, ranking him 10th best. His 221 goals since the latest NHL lockout in 2012-13 is even more impressive, placing him at sixth, ahead of the likes of Steven Stamkos, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Phil Kessel.

It’s about more than scoring for Pavelski, too, as he checks plenty of “fancy stats” boxes, while also pleasing the old-school crowd by often playing through absolute agony during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

If you’re a team hoping to take the next step by adding Pavelski – or, in the case of the Sharks, by keeping him – then you might be wondering what’s not to like?

Risky business

Here’s a medium-hot take: 35+ contracts might sometimes protect teams from themselves – they tend to make foolish decisions on July 1, or thereabouts – and that hurdle might have been a blessing in disguise for those who want Pavelski.

Personally, I’d probably want to spend more on Pavelski on a per-year basis, while keeping his term low. That way, if Pavelski hits the aging curve — not outrageous, especially after the extremely painful year he endured — you can at least mitigate the risk in term.

Instead, Pavelski is basically like every other UFA, and considering his substantial talent (and intangibles?), he’ll be one of the biggest targets. That means he gets to pick and choose, which probably means big money (fine) and maybe the most term he can find (probably not so fine).

You merely need to look to Patrick Marleau as an example of how this could go wrong for a Pavelski suitor.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with the 35+ provision hovering as a red flag, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Marleau three years of term. In maybe the most predictable outcome ever, that deal went sour pretty quickly, especially when you consider how that extra year backed Toronto into a corner. They were able to get out of that bind, but at the extreme cost of a first-round pick. For a team that could really benefit from unearthing a difference-maker on a cheap entry-level contract, that really burns.

Again, Pavelski wouldn’t be on a 35+ contract, but signing an older player and not really worrying that much about the future can have adverse effects.

The Anaheim Ducks bought out Corey Perry, even though the benefits were actually … kind of minimal? Perry wasn’t 35+ (he’s 34, yet seems about five years older than Pavelski considering Perry’s decline), but he serves as a reminder that, actually, the buy out option isn’t always much of a boon, either.

A team could really take on some serious risks if they sign Pavelski for a considerable term. While there’s a risk with just about any free agent, those warning signs crop up sooner for a player who’s 35, and it’s not as though Pavelski’s lacking mileage even beyond his age.

Take the Stars, for example.

Right now, the idea of adding Pavelski is really enticing. The Stars struggled mightily to score beyond Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn, but with Roope Hintz rising, imagine how tough an out that team could be if they added Pavelski?

Fascinating, but if the term is excessive, then the Marleau parallels crop up, even though Pavelski wouldn’t be a 35+ contract.

In signing Pavelski, it would be that much tougher to squeeze everyone under the cap as time goes along. Miro Heiskanen could be in line for a huge raise once his rookie deal expires after 2020-21, and John Klingberg‘s bargain $4.25M cap hit only lasts through 2021-22.

There’s the thought that, if Pavelski was 35+, he might only sign for two or three years, in which case the Stars could funnel whatever he makes to Heiskanen or Klingberg. Instead, if there’s overlap, and especially if there’s overlap and Pavelski’s play plummets, then the Stars might have to bribe someone to take Pavelski off their hands, much like the Leafs with Marleau.

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In other words, if Pavelski carried the greater risk of the 35+ contract, that might have … actually convinced teams to reduce their own risks?

Of course, this is also assuming that NHL GMs care, either way. In an auction-like setting such as the “free agent frenzy,” maybe GMs would have given Pavelski virtually the same, extremely risky deal, under even riskier 35+ circumstances. These executives aren’t always all that forward-thinking, particularly if their jobs are on the line.

Let’s recall what then-Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said about signing David Clarkson to a terrifying seven-year contract:

“I’m not worried about six or seven right now,” Nonis said back in 2013, via The Globe & Mail. “I’m worried about one. And Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

As it turned out, Clarkson was someone to worry about from the very beginning, but the point stands.

Is Pavelski worth the risk of a longer contract? That depends on a number of factors, including how much term might bring the per-year number down, and how much a given team actually believes in their Stanley Cup chances.

Ultimately, though, if you’re a team-building nerd like me, you’re amused by the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the heightened risk of Pavelski if he was a 35+ contract might have actually saved some teams from themselves. Pavelski’s been a great player, and could be great or at least very good in the near future, but Father Time’s punishment can be as sudden as it is cruel, so we’ll have to see how this all works out.

Be warned teams, even if that 35+ isn’t hovering like Michael Myers creeping on his next victim.

(Wait, is Michael Myers … Father Time?)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.