Today we'll take a look at restricted free agent forward Jesse Winchester. Finding comparables for Winchester was a tough call, but I've found a few players who might offer good comparisons.
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Contract status: Winchester was signed out of college as a free agent, and he made $525k in his first season and $575k in his second. His first contract was a one-way deal, although he spent a few games in the AHL on a conditioning assignment.
Season review: It sure looks like Winchester was grossly mis-cast as a playmaker when he signed with the Senators, but he has settled nicely into a checker's role on the fourth line. His production on a per-game basis increased slightly in his second season, despite missing plenty of action due to an early-season injury. Once the end of the season rolled around, Winch had basically been usurped as the fourth-line centre by Zack Smith, and was held pointless in the playoffs.
Comparable players: It was tough to find comparable guys to Winchester, but I pulled a few of them out of the pool. Ideally, I was looking for forwards with similar offensive output earned in a similar role. Here are a few of them...
#17 / Center / Columbus Blue Jackets
Nov 06, 1981
Cap hit: $635k, one more season
Similar to Winchester, Murray went through the NCAA before turning pro, but he played a couple full seasons in the AHL before joining the Blue Jackets. In parts of the last three NHL seasons, though, Murray's put up very similar numbers to Winchester. Before last season, Murray signed a three-year deal worth $1.875M, at a cap hit of $625k per season. That seems like a pretty reasonable estimate of what Winchester might get.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think Winchester is the player Kirk Maltby is, but I think it's a reasonable estimation of his career potential, based on what we've seen so far. And if that is the case, Winchester would likely be looking at a second contract with a similar salary like Maltby's most recent contract, which paid him $950k in the first two seasons but had a cap hit of $883k. Maltby's a more penalized player than Winchester, but their offensive statistics are pretty similar. If Winchester develops his game to become an even more effective grinder and agitator, he might get a contract similar to Maltby's 2002-2007 multi-million dollar deal, but he's a ways off that now.
Hilbert's a bit older than Winchester, and his statistics are actually a little bit better. But one key reason why Hilbert might be a good comparable: His two-way contract. Before last season, Hilbert signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Minnesota Wild; he spent most of the year with the AHL's Houston Aeros, though. It wouldn't be Winchester's preferred scenario, but it's possible he'll have to accept a two-way deal in order to get a contract done.
Even though they're the same age, Goc has a few more NHL seasons than Winchester under his belt, but he's put up similar numbers (on a per-game basis) in a similar role. Last season was Goc's best in the NHL, and he put up 12G and 18A in 73GP to earn a one-year contract extension with a $775k cap hit. And if it takes a career-year like that to earn a contract like that, Winchester's salary would likely fall below Goc's.
Pettinger has just come off a one-year, two-way deal with the Canucks. Most of his time was spent with the Manitoba Moose, and he put up decent AHL numbers. Pettinger is a few years older than Winchester, and he's got similar production rates, and seems to be the kind of grinder 'tweener that Winchester has looked like so far in his career.
Conclusion: If there's one thing these comparable players show us, it's that Winchester's not going to have much job security in the NHL. The Maltby situation is the exception to the rule, especially given the evolution of the new NHL: Winchester will virtually always be playing for his next contract, and may have to take a lower salary or a two-way contract to get a deal signed. I think GM Bryan Murray will push for a two-way contract in the negotiations, and if he can get one, I imagine it could be a two-year deal with an NHL salary around $700-750k per season. The two-way nature would allow for a slightly longer term and slightly higher NHL salary than the one-way deal would, so it might be a catch-22 that Winchester needs to decide on.