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NHL Free Agency 2017: Sharks’ long extensions the new normal, but may be costly

The game has changed, and the Sharks must now adapt.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Arizona Coyotes Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly a decade passed between the first and second times San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson signed a player to a contract extension lasting six or more years.

On August 24, 2007, Wilson locked up left wing Milan Michalek to a six-year, $26 million extension. The Michalek deal was the longest during Wilson’s tenure until November 22, 2016 when he signed defenseman and eventual Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns to an eight-year, $64 million extension.

Wilson waited a hair over seven months to add the third and fourth to his ledger, signing defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to an eight-year, $56 million extension and goaltender Martin Jones to a six-year, $34.5 million extension on Saturday.

“That’s just the landscape of what’s taken place in this league in the last two [or] three years and how contracts are structured for high-end players.” Wilson said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday. “Whether you like it or not, that’s just the reality of it. [In order] to keep Brent Burns, or Marc-Edouard Vlasic, or Martin Jones, you have to accept that and do what’s necessary in that framework.”

Welcome to the NHL’s new normal.

The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) gave teams an advantage in signing their own unrestricted free agents. Players are allowed to sign with their current teams for as many as eight years, but can only sign with other teams for up to seven years.

Since the new CBA came into effect in 2013, eight defensemen have signed eight-year contract extensions prior to the expiration of their current deals. Six of those players were set to become unrestricted free agents the following summer, as Vlasic was. The first to do so was Kris Letang, who signed his eight-year, $58 million extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a 26-year-old in 2013.

Since Letang signed in 2013, three of the five pending unrestricted free agents that signed eight-year deals signed in their 30s. The first was Brent Seabrook, who re-signed with Chicago for eight years and $55 million in September 2015. The next two were both Sharks: Burns in November and Vlasic on Saturday.

San Jose’s top two defensemen signed for more money than Seabrook, and deservedly so, as the following HERO charts (courtesy of Own the Puck) comparing their three seasons before signing eight-year extensions to Seabrook’s.

Brent Burns’ three seasons before signing an eight-year extension vs. Brent Seabrook’s
Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s last three seasons before signing an eight-year extension vs. Seabrook’s

What should worry the Sharks, though, is what comes after signing the extension. Since signing in 2015, Seabrook has begun to show signs of decline as he progresses into his 30s.

Seabrook’s declining primary assist rate can, at least in part, be explained by a lack of puck luck in the offensive zone. Chicago converted on just 6.8% of his shots with Seabrook on the ice in 2014-15, and 7.9% in 2015-16, both below his career average of 8.7%. There is an overlapping season in these charts (2014-15), but those declining shot suppression numbers are alarming.

Burns and Vlasic may not age exactly as Seabrook has, but the odds of remaining elite defensemen aren’t exactly in their favor. As Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert wrote in a piece on Seabrook’s extension in 2015, expecting that level of performance is foolish:

Full stop, it's a terrible idea to sign literally any player until they are 39, simply because even the elite players among the elite players of the world typically do not last that long. Most don't even come close. Since 2007, just 59 defensemen have even made it through to age 35, and that number significantly for each season thereafter. Only 22 have played at least 1,000 minutes at 36 or older. And just 13 at 37. And eight at 38.

When you get down to the end of it, only four defensemen have played at least 1,000 minutes as 39-year-olds in that time.

These numbers will probably go up this season, as a number of older defensemen are still in the league, but this gives you a pretty shocking baseline for how players age. Of the 175 defensemen to play at least 4,000 minutes in the league total since 2007-08, only 2.29 percent went on to play at 39. Therefore, Bowman is gambling that Seabrook falls into, let's say, the 95th percentile in terms of durability.

Burns will be 40 when his deal expires, and Vlasic will be 39.

Wilson, for his part, did not sound concerned about how Vlasic will age over the course of the eight-year contract on Saturday and said it was critical to lock him up for the long haul.

“When you have two guys on the blueline like [Burns] and [Vlasic], I’m not sure there’s many teams that can say they have those two types of players,” Wilson said. “[Vlasic] is, I think, one of the most respected players in this league, certainly one of the best defensemen.

“Not only [is he] the best stopper, but he can move pucks and we expect even more offense [from] him going forward. We think he’s coming into the prime of his career. He’s a great athlete. The way he thinks the game, I’m not sure there’s many people in the game that think it like he does. He’s very important to us.”

The Sharks would have been hard-pressed to replace either player if they signed elsewhere as unrestricted free agents, especially as the team continues to try and contend for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. But, how they age over the course of their eight-year contracts has to be a concern.

Vlasic did not meet his previously set high standards this past season, struggling alongside usual partner Justin Braun, who had a down year himself, and playing noticeably worse after returning from a facial fracture in January. A bounce-back year could very well be in the cards, especially without a condensed schedule coming off of a deep postseason run, but sustaining his previous performance over the duration (or even most) of his contract, which doesn’t begin until next fall, will be difficult. The same can be said of Burns even as he begins his contract just months removed his (and the franchise’s first) Norris Trophy win.

“I wanted long term because I wanted to be in San Jose for a long time,” Vlasic told reporters on a Saturday conference call after signing his eight-year extension, via the Mercury News. “We’re competitive every year, we’ve been competitive every year since I’ve been on this team and I don’t see us dropping off in the near future. I see us being competitive many years down the road. When you start a team you need good players, and we have a foundation of good players if you add [Joe] Pavelski, [Logan] Couture, and the young guys coming up.”

Pavelski and Couture will be eligible to sign eight-year contract extensions next summer. They’ll be 34 and 30, respectively, when they begin their next contracts. An eight-year contract is unlikely for a player at Pavelski’s age. Assuming Couture signs such an extension next summer and receives a raise, the Sharks would be investing significant term and money in three players on the back end of their careers.

The young guys Vlasic mentioned will be extremely important in surrounding his and Burns’ extensions with value, but Tomas Hertl and Dylan DeMelo are due for raises as restricted free agents in 2018, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc will no longer be on rookie deals after 2019, and Justin Braun will become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Veterans like Joel Ward and Paul Martin will come off of the books along the way, which will provide some of the space the Sharks can use. Wilson will face a delicate balancing act though, and one far different than he has previously at the helm.

As Wilson said, long contract extensions are just part of “the landscape” in today’s NHL. It’s now up to him to navigate it.