The Toronto Maple Leafs' search for a No. 1 center took a step in the right direction last season with the emergence of Nazem Kadri, but is it too early to make a long-term financial commitment to the former first-round pick?
Before anyone pencils Kadri's name onto the lineup sheet for next year, his agent and Leafs general manager Dave Nonis must work out a new contract for the 21-year-old restricted free agent, a situation that will become a growing distraction if it isn't solved by the start of training camp next month.
At the moment, there is no report of the two sides being close to a deal, with Toronto having just under $4.9 million in salary cap space, per Capgeek.
When players' entry-level contracts expire, GMs are often forced to pay for potential rather than performance. It's a tough gamble to make, and the results over last few years have been mixed.
The Los Angeles Kings paid young star Drew Doughty $56 million over eight years after the 23-year-old's third NHL season. This contract, so far, has paid dividends for the Kings because Doughty played an integral part of the team's Stanley Cup championship two years ago and has become a legitimate No. 1 defenseman.
But for every successful Doughty-type deal, there are others that look like mistakes. Here are a few examples.
|Tyler Myers||BUF||7 years, $38.5 million||After a two strong seasons to start his NHL career, Myers received a huge contract, but he's tallied fewer points in the last two years combined (31) than he did during 2010-11 (37). He was even a healthy scratch several times last year.|
|Jeff Skinner||CAR||6 years, $34.35 million||Skinner is a good young player, but his performance last year (career-low 0.57 points per game) proved that he's not worth $6 million at this stage of his career.|
|Tyler Seguin||DAL||6 years, $34.5 million||After leading the team in scoring in his second season, Tyler Seguin got a huge contract from the Bruins. Boston quickly realized they had overpaid for him based on his performance in the regular season and playoffs—one goal in 22 games—in 2013. He was traded to Dallas last month.|
The ideal scenario for the Leafs in their negotiations with Kadri's representatives is to agree on a "bridge contract" that will allow them to see if the young star is the real deal and actually worth top-six forward money before he gets a long-term deal.
However, that can sometimes be a dangerous game to play. There's the possibility that Kadri will become a superstar during a bridge contract and cost much more to re-sign long-term compared to what it would take to do a lengthy deal right now (much like Montreal's current situation with P.K. Subban).
But that's a gamble worth taking for Toronto. If the team made an expensive and long-term commitment to Kadri this summer and he didn't develop as planned, Nonis could be stuck with a cap-burdening contract.
If Kadri performs at the level of a No. 1 center over the next two years, giving him a rich contract shouldn't be an issue for the Leafs because they will have plenty of salary cap room with only five players signed beyond the 2014-15 season.
If Toronto cannot afford to re-sign Kadri to a two-year bridge contract while also keeping RFA defenseman Cody Franson, a one-year deal for the young center with an opportunity for a huge payday next summer is also preferable to a long-term agreement this offseason.
As well as Kadri played last year—he tallied 44 points in 48 games and finished second on the team in scoring—there are still flaws in his game that are preventing him from being a No. 1 center.
One of those weaknesses is the faceoff.
|Category||FO Won||FO Lost||Win %|
|FO on the Road||117||138||45.9|
|FO in Playoffs||18||39||31.8|
Kadri ranked fourth among the four Leafs centers who took more than 300 draws last season. In fact, he was the only one below 50 percent. His inability to win faceoffs consistently in the playoffs was also a major issue for the Leafs against a Boston Bruins team that led the league in faceoff percentage.
Winning faceoffs is a common denominator among the best centers in the NHL, which is why players such as Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux, Eric Staal and Sidney Crosby were all over 50 percent on draws last year.
From a defensive standpoint, Kadri also has room for improvement. He plays a physical game and is not afraid to dish out huge hits, but his positioning and back checking could be better.
Kadri is well on his way to becoming a top center in the NHL, but he's not there yet. He's capable of scoring 20-plus goals, making his teammates better with his underrated passing ability and playing a physical style of hockey in all three zones. His playoff performance versus Boston was also encouraging.
With that said, giving Kadri an expensive long-term deal before seeing a much larger sample size is not the best approach for the Leafs to take. A bridge contract, worth anywhere from $3-4 million per year, should be Nonis' priority for the rest of the summer.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.