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The NHL playoffs are just around the corner, to be followed shortly after by the business of the off-season, and the Winnipeg Jets have several important files to tackle — the most important of which might be restricted free-agent Jacob Trouba.
Trouba has been a key to the top pairing for the Jets all season long, and recently has had to hold the fort while partner Josh Morrissey (shoulder) and Dustin Byfuglien (ankle) have been out for extended periods; Byfuglien returned to the lineup last week after a six-week absence.
The loss of two of Winnipeg’s top three defencemen resulted in Trouba’s ice time jumping from 22.5 minutes per game to over 24 minutes, and while his goal differential wasn’t great, his point production was tremendous, with 13 points in 17 games.
After Trouba was awarded US$5.5 million last summer by an arbitrator, one would assume a long-term contract for Trouba will now cost at least in the US$7 million-plus range per year, so the question is: how does Trouba compare to his peers in that salary range?
This season there are 11 NHL defencemen with cap hits in that salary range, although Los Angeles Kings blue-liner Drew Doughty will be making tons more on his new contract that kicks in next season. A few are on those long-term, back-diving deals that are no longer possible — such as Montreal Canadiens’ Shea Weber and Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild — and most were signed in years where they were going into unrestricted free agency.
In fact, the only player in that range who signed as a restricted free-agent with the end of the contract being unrestricted is Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers (US$7.5 million), so clearly we need to expand the range.
If we flip the comparison to percentage of the salary cap dedicated to one player, and use 10-11 per cent at the time of the signing, we get a group of Ekblad, San Jose Sharks’ Erik Karlsson and St. Louis Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo. Let’s see how Trouba compares, first looking at each player’s impact relative to teammates in the year they signed the contract.
Looking at the season preceding the contract being signed or in the case of Trouba a prospective contract, it seems like Ekblad and Pietrangelo are on the lower end of this group, while Karlsson stands alone.
Ekblad, in particular, appears markedly overpaid considering his actual impact on the Panthers, but he scores goals at a high rate and has the gleam of being a first-overall pick that increases his negotiating power.
Karlsson signed a sweetheart deal with the Ottawa Senators that should have made him a hero to the organization, but instead resulted in long and damaging divorce that saw him traded to San Jose.
Trouba, meanwhile, looks to compare well to the group. He’s not as strong of a driver of Corsi rating as Karlsson but has had a similar impact on high-danger scoring chances. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had the same impact on goal differential, which could have a lot to do with the way the Jets have played this season more than his own performance.
The differentials don’t tell us everything. But it’s a fair assessment that when comparing Trouba and those players the years they were signed, he is deserving of a contract of that size.
That said, we don’t have fully detailed individual data so we can’t compare apples to apples. But we know that Karlsson and Pietrangelo have become elite defencemen throughout their contracts, and Ekblad is good, so how does Trouba compare to them individually this season?
At 25, Trouba will be older when he signs his contract than the others within the group. Karlsson and Pietrangelo were 23 when they were signed, and Ekblad was just 20. I don’t believe we can expect Trouba’s impact on his teammates to increase as dramatically as Pietrangelo or Karlsson have in their careers, but on an individual basis he’s comparing very well.
Trouba doesn’t move the puck as effectively as Pietrangelo or Karlsson — few defencemen do — but he recovers loose pucks in the defensive zone as well or more effectively than Pietrangelo or Ekblad, and he’s second-best to Karlsson in the frequency he engages puck-carrying opponents and succeeds in taking it away from them.
Offensively, he doesn’t jump out from this group and certainly isn’t equivalent to Karlsson, but I think the takeaway here is that he isn’t far behind this group of defencemen in many important facets of the game.
Over the summer I did an exhaustive statistical ranking of every player in the league over the last three seasons and, among defencemen, Trouba ranked 48th and has improved his play this season. That could mean he is now a legitimate No.1 defenceman, and locking him up for about 10 per cent of the salary cap from ages 25 to 33, for example, strikes me as an extremely sound idea.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.