After a career season, the Islanders announced on Thursday they had re-signed center Brock Nelson to a six-year, $36 million extension. The deal will keep the Isles’ 2010 first round pick on Long Island through the 2024-25 season, and marks the first major transaction of the Isles’ offseason.
You can find the full write-up on the case to sign Nelson here, so now that the deal is done it’s time to focus on the financial side of things.
The reaction to the Nelson signing was interesting. Followers of the Islanders felt very strongly in favor of the deal, while more neutral parties appeared more skeptical at the efficacy of the deal. Some of this type of reaction is expected: fans of the team in question will typically always be inherently optimistic, especially with regards to major transactions.
Again, this is an overpay in terms of real value, but perhaps not market value. I stand by that I think NYI had to do this given their C depth and the market, but I think this is mostly fair for everyone - certainly would not call it a gigantic win for the Islanders.— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) May 23, 2019
Judging transactions rapidly typically becomes zero-sum: it’s either good or it’s bad. Fast, immediate reaction and content consumption almost require that, but the reality is most things do fall somewhere in the middle of the two absolutes. Understanding contexts that sit below the surface can help us understand the pros and cons of things like context extensions more clearly. Let’s dive further into Nelson’s contract, the Islanders’ situation, and everything in between to explore what that really means.
‘Brock Nelson’s Contract is Bad’
Career WAR and ‘16-19 EV RAPM show an average-to-below-average forward depending how you sell it. I’m not even sure there’s a good argument if you look at standard box score stats either. pic.twitter.com/XnKntkgm4A— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) May 23, 2019
Josh and Luke Younggren from Evolving-Hockey put out their contract projections model earlier this month (all explained here), wherein they had projected Nelson to receive a 4 year, ~$4.5 million per year deal. Their model cannot and should not project team context, which means this looks at an “all things equal” lens. These projections are an extremely valuable guideline, as it sets some baselines when judging how teams are handing out contracts during a frenetic off-season period.
This is non-scientific, but here are the non-ELC forwards that scored 45-50 points this past season. Average cap hit % is 5.88%, per @CapFriendly, which equates to $4.88M on an $83M cap. Pretty similar to what @EvolvingWild had projected. (1/2, again) pic.twitter.com/WMJr2AF9mL— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) May 23, 2019
In a considerably less scientific manner, I went ahead and took a look at all non-entry level forwards who scored between 45-50 points last season (Nelson’s average points-per-game over the last three seasons projects out to 44.5 points) and averaged out their cap hit percentage. As seen above, that projects out to about $4.88 million per year, which is more in the ballpark of what the Evolving-Hockey twins had projected. Again, another baseline (albeit, much less meaningful).
Speaking of points, Nelson’s 2018-19 season saw him set career highs in points (53) and finish one off his career high in goals (he finished with 25). At 27 years old, it’s hard to see him get objectively better, especially given NHL aging curves. So, the Islanders in a lot of ways are paying a player for over a half decade on the heels of his best season. That, at least, lends itself to some risk - can this player maintain this level of production into his early 30s? Maybe. A fair retort on this? Nelson has been an incredibly reliable shooter over the course of his career, so it seems realistic that his goal totals could hold up.
In general, getting into the habit of paying players coming off career years is pretty suboptimal. Teams should be paying for future performance, which is a trend we’re starting to see across the league as star players start to receive more lucrative contracts coming off their entry level deals. That kind of mentality doesn’t necessarily play here, as this player who before this year was considered perhaps the most enigmatic on the team despite his reliable goal totals.
‘Brock Nelson’s Contract is Good’
All the above may be valid, but it also does not take team context into account. The Islanders are clearly in the business of trying to win, especially coming off of a surprising season that saw them appear in the second round. Given that, it’s important to note that the free agent market is pretty scarce: only Matt Duchene and Kevin Hayes present long-term options outside of Nelson.
On top of that, Islanders have very little center depth. To give that a little more color, Mathew Barzal and Casey Cizikas were really the only two NHL options for 2019-20 in the entire organization before Nelson signed. That created a bit of a pressure point for the team, making Nelson more valuable to the Islanders than he may have been in previous seasons.
It’s no secret the Isles have had trouble attracting free agents, which also may have impacted the team’s decision making. Simply replacing Nelson with Duchene or Hayes seems unlikely to begin with, let alone the cost implications of bringing one of those players to a team that’s typically been an undesirable destination. Combining that context with the notion that Barry Trotz seems to really trust Nelson, it makes sense the team would commit to a player they know works in the current situation.
That’s especially important given that the Islanders typically have struggled to keep their free agents, whether by their own choice or by the player’s choice. The John Tavares saga is overly documented at this point, but in recent years the team has also lost Mark Streit, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Calvin de Haan to free agency. The replacements for those players have typically been less than optimal and at times cost-prohibitive, too.
Brock Nelson (6x6 NYI) is a second-liner with a great shot. pic.twitter.com/4ZZ7k70a6U— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) May 23, 2019
On the ice, Nelson has been productive over the course of his career even when struggling with inconsistency. His plus-plus shot has been a reliable weapon, which has led him to four 20 goal seasons. This past year, Nelson played more minutes than he ever had, which ultimately gives him more opportunities to shoot (his 183 shots this year was the second most in his career). Should that trend continue, and there’s no reason to believe it would not, it seems pretty reasonable to expect his level of production to at least stay fairly consistent as it has even through some of his worst seasons.
‘Brock Nelson’s Contract is Fine’
The team context of the Islanders puts into perspective what may look like a mistake. There’s little question the team likely overpaid for the services of a solid player, but that player also means more to the Islanders than he would to anyone else. Put another way, in the past the Isles have stretched for players who were already in their 30s and/or whose skills were defined by “grit” and not skill. That is not the case here, as overpaying for a 27-year old player expected to give top-six production is, at the very least, a more defensible position than how the Islanders have typically handled free agency.
Also non-scientific but here's some similar deals using @CapFriendly's tools, and... again, this does not seem out of line for this player at all. Some deals that are clearly better, some deals that are clearly worse, and one Josh Bailey. pic.twitter.com/woR81fb6QZ— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) May 23, 2019
Additionally, a lot of similar deals around the league range from those that worked out to those that quickly became an albatross. Nelson’s likely to fall in the middle of that, given his durability (he’s missed two games in five years), his age, and his ability to score. In other words, the chances this contract becomes an abject disaster seems very slim.
So, as mentioned at the start of this piece, nuance is ultimately quite important here. It’s true the team overpaid, but it’s also true the team needs quality centers. It’s true Nelson isn’t a star, but it’s also true that Nelson worked quite well within Barry Trotz’s system. It’s true this isn’t some enormous win for the Islanders, but it’s also true this isn’t a fatal mistake.
Sometimes, it’s okay to take the middle ground.