The looming Jason Spezza problem

If the Senators and Jason Spezza sign another contract, one side is going to walk away unhappy with the deal.

No, this is not an article about Jason Spezza's supposed slow start to this season. He has five points (2G, 3A) through five games, and a five-game scoring streak. The fact that you think he's started slow on a point-per-game pace just proves how spoiled he made you last season. If all you can think to ask of a player is "more," you should probably re-evaluate your expectations.

However.... Unfortunately for the Senators and their number one center, there are dark clouds forming on the horizon.

First, let's review what we know: Spezza has already reached his peak as a player.

We know this because last year, arguing that the team should consider trading Spezza so as not to waste his best remaining years, I had to figure out what those years were. In order to do that, I compiled the stats of centers who had equal or better production (defined as points-per-game) as Spezza's worst full season. This gave me about a thousand data points to work with, and averaging them showed that the peak year for that type of player was their age 27 year--and Spezza was 28 years old last season. It's interesting to note that Hawerchuk over at Arctic Ice Hockey posits that age 26 is the peak for NHL players in terms of point production and shooting percentage. The difference is that those pieces sampled the NHL at large, while I restricted mine to what I refer to as Spezza's "peer group." It makes sense that a more talented group would have a longer curve, thus explaining the discrepancy.

But before we go any further, maybe Spezza is the exception. Maybe he hasn't peaked yet. Maybe he'll defy the odds and be the outlier. Right? Wrong. How did the greatest player in the history of the game do against the same averages? Wayne Gretzky was originally thrown out of the data set because he would skew the numbers unfairly. But does he follow the same trend?

We should try to get this Gretzky guy.

So, even Gretzky took the inevitable nose dive. It's an undeniable fact: Spezza's peak year has already passed. This does not mean, however, that he is done being useful. In fact, he's just entering his prime years, where the decline will be so slow it's essentially negligible. We already have evidence to this fact, in that Spezza was 28 years old last season and his production actually increased over his presumed "peak" year. While that's encouraging, it's also the source of the problem. What does that look like into the future?

He can fly higher than an eagle.

What the data tells us that it's age 31 where the production decline starts to drop a noticeable degree. The decline isn't terrible--just noticeable. You can see above that Spezza has "declined" from last year to this year, but that's the magic of charts: the drop is just .05 points per game. Negligible. However, the aggregated drop between age 27 and age 32 is .13 points per game, which would translate to a drop from a 78-point season to a 67-point season, assuming 82 games were played in both cases. Essentially, the age of 31 is the last of a player's "prime" years.

It's also the last year of Spezza's current contract.

So, here's the looming problem: Do the Senators even try to re-sign Spezza?

The obvious answer, of course, is yes. Spezza has only played for the Senators in his career. While he has been a whipping boy, he's also shown a tremendous improvement in maturity under head coach Paul MacLean, so much so that most fans assume he'll take over the captain's duties when Daniel Alfredsson retires. He's the team's top center and integral to the offense. He's the franchise forward. They have to re-sign him.

But what kind of player would they be re-signing? Spezza's numbers will almost certainly indicate they're re-signing an elite center. His years with 50-goal-scorer Dany Heatley are clearly visible on the graph of his career. His production last year was as much about head coach Paul MacLean's system as it was having Erik Karlsson blossom into an offensive threat himself--and more talent is coming. Karlsson and Jakob Silfverberg have not even reached their prime years yet. Spezza has demonstrated an ability to perform above the averages for his peer group when he has talent on the team that complements him, and performing above the average among this group of players means you can use the word "elite" fairly. But we also know from looking at Spezza's peer group that's almost certainly what the Senators will not be getting.

Why wouldn't Spezza ask for elite center money? If he reaches the market as an unrestricted free agent, we know for a fact some team will pay him that money. That's the nature of the free agent market. In fact, we just recently saw this with a similar player: Brad Richards. The New York Rangers gave Richards a 9-year, $60M contract at the age of 30. The contract took advantage of rules under the league's last collective bargaining agreement, and was front-loaded and included low-dollar (for professional sports, anyway) late years to artificially drive down the cap hit to $6.67M per year. That number puts him below centers like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but right in line with centers like Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar, Mikko Koivu, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Paul Stastny, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Henrik Sedin, and Henrik Zetterberg.

Not too shabby.

What did the Rangers get for their money? 25 goals and 41 assists. 66 points is not a terrible season by any stretch of the imagination--in fact, it's right in line with what the average suggests we should expect--but it is decidedly not elite. Remember: Mike Fisher's 25 goals and 28 assists weren't even good enough for a second-line center in the eyes of some Senators fans. 13 more assists might have calmed that criticism, but that kind of season from Spezza on the team's top line would have fans calling for his head more than they ever have before.

Another interesting comparable is Vincent Lecavalier , who recently celebrated his 1000th game with the Tampa Bay Lightning. At the age of 28, he was given an 11-year, $85M deal with a cap hit of $7.7M per season--also artificially manipulated under the terms of the old CBA. Lecavalier hasn't played a full season in each of the past two years, but still managed 49 points in 64 games for the Lightning last year--a production level very similar to Richards in New York.

Stop this train, I want to get off.

Is production of slightly less than a point-per-game worth upwards of $6M per year? Richards played a full season and delivered at .8 PPG. Lecavalier was at .77 PPG. The average for Spezza's peer group is .84PPG at age 31. We have an awfully good idea of what to expect both in terms of Spezza's production in a few years--as well as what kind of salary he might ask for.

Both Richards' and Lecavalier contracts take them to age 39--retirement deals, presumably--and will continue to look less palatable as the players age, since their cap hits will remain static while their production inevitably shrinks. Lecavalier, already, is second on the depth chart behind phenom Steven Stamkos. And despite 82 goals between the two players, the Lightning missed the playoffs last year. Through five games, they currently lead their division, but Senators fans got a good look at that team last week, and can form their own conclusions as to the viability of spending $15M on two centers when one is on the downside of his career. It's probably no coincidence that Lecavalier is the fourth-most bought-out player on CapGeek, behind only Roberto Luongo, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Rick DiPietro.

Vinny gets one more gift for his 1,000th game, it seems.

In short, the end point of Spezza's current contract puts the team in an uncomfortable position: His numbers and the market will still justify an elite price tag, but the odds of him providing offensive production to live up to that price tag are very strongly not in his favor. If the team gives him an elite contract, he quickly turns into Lecavalier, but the team will have lost the opportunity to use an amnesty buyout on him by the time they'll need to.

What would an elite contract for Spezza look like? Here the new CBA actively works against the Senators. Obviously, the team would like to lock up Spezza for on a retirement contract, as they did with Alfie, which would mean they'd use the option for 8 years. If we assume there's no cap increase or salary inflation (and this seems unlikely) over the next three years, the target would be right around $6.6M. The new CBA seeks to actively discourage front-loading by stipulating that the lowest year of a contract cannot be less than half of the largest year. If the team were to try to give Spezza $9M in the first year, they would not be able to give him less than $4.5M in any other year. The CBA also stipulates that no year can drop more than 35% from the previous year. That means that by the third year, the contract will already have reached the minimum allowable salary, because the goal would be to try and pay real dollars for Spezza's best years up front. That would create a contract with the maximum possible payout of $41.85M. Over 8 years, that would create a cap hit of $5.23M--well below what we've set as the target. In chart form, here's what that would look like:

Year 1 $9M
Year 2 $5.85M
Year 3 $4.5M
Year 4 $4.5M
Year 5 $4.5M
Year 6 $4.5M
Year 7 $4.5M
Year 8 $4.5M

That's not too enticing for Spezza, though it's only slightly more than the cap hit the Senators gave Daniel Alfredsson on his presumptive retirement deal. In order to reach the target cap hit, the Senators would have to offer Spezza a deal in the $53M range. But doing such a deal requires some crafty math. If the team doesn't want to pay him more than $9M in a year, they could try something like this:

Year 1 $9M
Year 2 $9M
Year 3 $9M
Year 4 $7M
Year 5 $5M
Year 6 $5M
Year 7 $4.5M
Year 8 $4.5M

This, obviously, would pay him $27M, a little over half the contract, in the first three years. If that's not to the team's liking, they can spread that amount across the contract by front-loading it even more heavily, and then dropping it as quickly as the rules allow: an 8-year, $53.475M deal, with a first year payment of $11.5M, and it could look something like this:

Year 1 $11.5M
Year 2 $7.475M
Year 3 $5.75M
Year 4 $5.75M
Year 5 $5.75M
Year 6 $5.75M
Year 7 $5.75M
Year 8 $5.75M

Spezza would probably be fine with that, but it's difficult to imagine Ottawa being comfortable paying a 39-year-old Spezza $5.75M in real dollars, especially since at that point in his career, you'd expect to get 47 points out of the guy. Is that worth a $6.69M yearly cap hit for the next 8 years?

They could try to avoid the fancy numbers manipulation, as the Dallas Stars did recently with Jamie Benn, who simply got a five-year deal that paid $5.25M every year. If the Senators were to offer something like that--say, an 8-year, $53M deal, they'd come out with a $6.625 cap hit and salary for each year. That option still puts them in the position of having to drastically overpay Spezza for the majority of the contract.

Bottom line: The new CBA makes it impossible for the Senators to pay Spezza a salary proportional to his production value over an 8 year period.

So, are there other options?

Sure. Trading him is always on the table, though he is now protected by a full no-movement clause. Given the Senators' difficulties with moving Wade Redden and Dany Heatley thanks to their own NMCs, this is probably not an ideal option. It also doesn't make sense from a practical standpoint, given that the 2014-15 Ottawa Senators project to be a significantly improved team over the current 2013 version, with much of their young core just starting to approach their primes. That's not the kind of environment you generally try to subtract a top center from.

Better, though, is a transition deal. We have the model for this in San Jose, where Joe Thornton signed a three-year, $21M deal at the age of 30 for a cap hit of $7M each year, and Patrick Marleau signed a four-year, $27.6M deal at 31 for a cap hit of $6.9M. If Spezza is agreeable to something like that, a four-year, $26M deal with an $8M-$8M-$6M-$4M structure would be ideal. Such a contract would give him the most money in his most productive years and carry a reasonable cap hit of $6.5M. We already know that cap hit will almost certainly be an overpayment for what the team gets from Spezza on the ice in those years, but it saves them from massively overpaying once he gets past the age of 35. You might suggest Ottawa just tack on four more years of $4M to that contract, but that's asking Spezza to leave $11M on the table against his assumed market value--that deal would drop his cap hit to $5.25M.

Of course, a transition deal also opens the door to having Spezza reach unrestricted free agency once again. The challenge for the team is always going to be whether Spezza is willing to bring his market value into negotiations. If he's interested in maximizing his earning potential on his last contract, there's very little incentive for him to take a four-year offer from Ottawa when it's a certainty that some other GM will give him a seven-year contract with at least equal, if not cap-inflated, dollars.

The best the team can hope for in negotiating Spezza's next contract is good faith--and set against the backdrop of the constant refrain "it's a business," that's not the best thing to hope for. Hope, in fact, is never a good strategy. There's plenty of incentive for Spezza to stay in Ottawa: it's his home, it's where he's raising his family, and the team is on the upswing. Do those off-ice things offset the millions of dollars he'd give up in signing a deal friendly to the team? Only he knows the answer to that. There's plenty of incentive for the Senators to keep Spezza in Ottawa: he's their most talented forward, and the guy the team has been built around for the last 12 years, he's the heir apparent to Alfie, he's the elder statesman to transition the team to the new young guns, he'll have a ton of experience to bring to the table. Do those off-ice intangibles offset the millions of dollars the team would overpay to keep him here at market value? Only whomever the GM is in three years will know the answer to that.

Either way, there's only two possible outcomes to keeping Spezza here: Either the team gets themselves into cap trouble to hold on to a declining player, or Spezza agrees to leave millions of dollars on the table--whether on this contract or the one following a transition deal--essentially forfeiting a huge chunk of his remaining earning power out of a sense of loyalty. And if you expect that of him, think about how you'd feel if someone expected you not to get what you were worth. What kind of person tells another one to take less for their own selfish desires?

There's no middle ground to find on Spezza's next deal. Either he loses money or the team wastes money. Whatever happens, the next time the Senators and Spezza sign a contract, there's going to be a clear winner and a clear loser. It's just a matter of which is which.

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