Two very different eight-year contracts: Islanders’ Pelech, Oilers’ Nurse

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Friday continued a trend of prominent defensemen signing massive eight-year contracts, either from the free-agent market or in the form of extensions. The Oilers also continued a trend of handing eight-year extensions that could far outweigh the value a defensemen brings — in their case, with Darnell Nurse. Leave it to the Islanders to break that trend, though, as the eight-year deal they handed Adam Pelech could be a steal.

At the very least, the Islanders’ eight-year deal for Pelech feels like a steal compared to the rest, including the extension the Oilers handed to Nurse.

The Islanders confirmed that it’s an eight-year contract for Pelech, who is 26. They didn’t make the cap hit official, but multiple reports indicate that Pelech will carry a $5.75 million AAV from 2021-22 through 2028-29.

The Oilers confirmed that Darnell Nurse’s eight-year contract carries a whopping $9.25M cap hit.

Nurse is also 26, but he’s about to enter the final year of a deal that carries a $5.6M cap hit. So, that escalates the risk with Nurse more than Pelech even more: Nurse’s extension would run from 2022-23 to 2029-30.

In a comical twist, Cap Friendly noted that Pelech’s new, eight-year contract compares quite a bit to what the Oilers … won’t be paying Nurse much longer.

It sure seems like the Oilers made a massive, and highly questionable, gamble with Darnell Nurse. They’re not alone, as it was already an offseason of wild, probably ill-advised eight-year contracts for defensemen. And it’s not like most teams saved money with such terms:

Context matters … but the Islanders did get a good deal while others rolled the dice to extremes.

Islanders leveraged Pelech’s RFA status, other advantages for an impressive deal

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that Adam Pelech was an RFA. No doubt, Pelech’s RFA status gave the Islanders added leverage. The Oilers, meanwhile, risked Nurse hitting the unrestricted free-agent market next offseason.

Still, you can chalk at least some of that difference down to planning. Could the Oilers have positoned themselves better to limit future risks with Nurse?

You can make a very, very persuasive argument that the Islanders aren’t just getting a cheaper deal; it’s possible that Pelech is just a flat-out better defenseman than Nurse. Consider how the two defensemen grade out side-by-side in Evolving Hockey’s three-season RAPM charts:

Two very different eight-year contracts: Islanders' Pelech, Oilers' Nurse RAPM comparison
via Evolving Hockey

Again, the RFA (Pelech) and pending UFA (Nurse) aspects make this an imperfect comparison.

But zoom out, and you can still consider some fascinating tidbits.

Among other takeaways, it sure feels like points/goals and other factors inflate reptuations, while teams aren’t paying as much money for proven defense. Adam Pelech brings a ton of value when you start to dig into “fancy stats.”

Now, there is some risk for the Islanders when it comes to investing in Pelech with an eight-year contract. Yet, by getting that cap hit down to $5.75M, it’s a far less frightening risk than the Oilers are making with Nurse (and other teams are making with eight-year gambles).

With a modest 14 points in 2020-21, and an also-modest career-high of 21 points, you have to dig deeper to see just how valuable Pelech’s been to the Islanders. Kudos to the Islanders for taking advantage of that.

More to come from the Islanders?

Personally, I’d also be curious if Pelech’s contract could serve another purpose for the Islanders. Ryan Pulock, also 26, sees his $5M cap hit expire after next season. He’d become a UFA from there, so that could theoretically open him up for a payday.

Yet, considering that Pelech is his partner in crime, maybe that eight-year, $5.75M cap hit could serve as a vague guideline for Pulock? Maybe he’d take fewer years, but something closer to that $5.75M AAV? If Pulock would listen to such an offer, I’d be tempted to make it, if I were in Lou’s shoes.

You’d think that Pulock might lean closer to Nurse than to Pelech. Along with having similar soon-to-be-UFA leverage, Pulock’s put up the counting stats that err closer to Nurse. While Pulock was limited in 2020-21 (17 points in 56 games), he rattled off 32 points or more in each season from 2017-18 through 2019-20. During that span, he scored 10 goals twice, and also nine goals.

By wiggling out of contracts for Andrew Ladd, Nick Leddy, and (admittedly more painfully) Jordan Eberle, Lou Lamoriello’s already looked more like a GM of the Year this offseason than last one. If Lamoriello can follow this promising-looking Pelech contract with an affordable Pulock extension, then maybe just start handing out a Second Best GM of the Year trophy for everyone else.

Even if that Pulock situation lingers, this is a fine bit of business. According to Cap Friendly, the Islanders have almost $12 million in cap space to work with. While Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin linger as RFAs, maybe there’s room for Zach Parise and/or Kyle Palmieri? Could the secretive Islanders even have something bigger up their sleeves?

Impressive stuff, overall. From the Islanders, that is …

Oilers still not learning the right lessons with eight-year Nurse extension

Consider Darnell Nurse’s eight-year extension with the Oilers as a parallel to the Blue Jackets’ shocking Zach Werenski deal. It’s not that we’re talking about bad defensemen. It’s just too much money for what they offer.

To many, it feels like another case of the Oilers (among other teams) ignoring two things:

  • Shooting percentages that likely won’t continue.
  • How drastically Connor McDavid could juice someone’s scoring numbers.

From giving Zach Kassian too much to selling low on Jordan Eberle, the Oilers have seen this movie before. Retaining Tyson Barrie alone already displayed an indifference to obvious red flags.

Truly, though, the Oilers might have been better off merely letting Nurse play the 2021-22 season out to get a better gauge of his value. Instead, they extended him after what will be a very difficult season to repeat.

Yes, it’s impressive that Nurse scored 16 goals and 36 points over 56 games last season. He’s shown offensive acumen before, reaching 10 goals once before 2020-21, and also managing 33 and 41-point seasons.

Yet there are certain numbers that may not repeat, at least not often. After peaking with a 5.9 shooting percentage, Nurse skyrocketed to a 10.4 shooting percentage last season. There are flashing red flags that Nurse rode an unusual wave of luck last season. You don’t need to dig deep to find those numbers, either.

Even if he cools down, Nurse can bring offense. The concern is just that, without those bounces, his defensive issues might become tougher to stomach. At least at a price tag that grows to the $9.25M range starting in 2021-22.

Like with Seth Jones, the Oilers have a chance of getting some nice value with Nurse’s eight-year extension. Yet, also like with Jones, the price tag makes it a very dangerous gamble. When you’re paying this much, is an extension even “proactive,” or are you merely being hasty in making a mistake?

Can teams learn from the Islanders?

Again, Nurse and Pelech weren’t in the same exact situations. Them both signing for eight years (one a contract, the other extension) on the same day opens up the door for certain takeaways, though.

  • It sure seems like teams aren’t getting much more sophisticated, especially in assessing defensemen. There’s still a lot of imagining what a defenseman could be, while ignoring underlying troubles. That’s especially true when they’re a big, prototypical type like Nurse.
  • On the other hand, pure defense is tougher to truly measure. It’s also seemingly less marketable.

However you explain the differences, the Islanders enjoyed a good-to-great deal, especially with defensemen prices skyrocketing. If that helps keep costs down on a potential Pulock extension, then even better.

On the other hand, Nurse’s extension only makes it harder to imagine the Oilers stockpiling the sort of quality around Connor McDavid that could build a sustainable contender. This was already an offseason of questionable moves by Ken Holland, especially when viewed long-term. This Nurse extension could haunt the Oilers for years — maybe as soon as it kicks in during the 2022-23 season.

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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.