As we approach the start of the 2013-2014 season, I’ve been thinking about our current edition of the Ottawa Senators and fumbling toward making some kind of prediction. Looking up and down the lineup, you can get a pretty good sense of what to expect out of almost everyone. Some players are well-established in terms of the data available on their play, allowing you to modulate your predictions accordingly. The really young guys, like Mika Zibanejad, are still on their very affordable ELCs, so even if they have a bum season, and even if that bum season is the start of a trend, the risk to the club is mitigated somewhat by how little their inclusion in the lineup keeps someone else out of it financially. In other words, I can look up and down the lineup and still feel like Jason Spezza, if healthy, will contribute well relative to his salary. I can still feel like Chris Neil will take more penalties than he draws and just generally be an overpaid agitator. I feel like the young guys with a lot of variability in their game (or at least in our predictions of their game) but don’t cost too much–you can healthy scratch them, or send them to the minors if something drastic happens. Status quo, in other words. The Senators are a team getting all sorts of value up and down the lineup.
The big exception for me is Jared Cowen, who just earned a shiny new contract, and on whom the organization will be heavily relying to linchpin their second pairing. Part of the problem, and the big difference between Cowen and the other youngins, is that usually someone with such a small sample size either gets a bridge contract, or was so ridiculously good in that small sample size that their teams felt comfortable predicting more greatness. Cowen’s only played one full season in the NHL, and a combined eight games outside of that, not including playoffs. His numbers aren’t exactly pretty–not horrific, just not pretty–even in that tiny window. In his one full season Cowen played mostly on the third pairing, against weak competition, and received a large number of favorable zone starts. You could charitably say that he didn’t lose Ottawa any games–which isn’t as backhanded a compliment as it sounds (this is a tough league), but then, he was on his cheap ELC at the time. The risk-reward factor is always going to be high on a player making so little.
My main contention here isn’t that Jared Cowen is secretly terrible. It’s that there’s very little we can actually tell about him, or his future in the NHL, based on what we’ve seen so far, and that makes management’s decision to give him $12.4 million over four years an interesting one.
It‘s clear what the organization thinks of him: that four year, $3.1 million AAV is actually the conservative contract Cowen ended up with. Rumors were flying around in the off season that Cowen received an eight-year, $28 million offer. In both of these deals, we can glean that management assumes Cowen will be a top four defenseman for many years to come. Not spectacular, but someone in the Chris Phillips mold, who plays solid NHL hockey, provides up to 20 minutes a night, and around whom you can reliably plan your hockey team.
That’s a hell of an assumption. They’re betting, basically, that a player who’s experienced several major surgeries, missed all of last season, and has never really been leaned on quite so heavily, is ready to take a big, big step. It’s a calculated risk–the kind of thing you have to do in the NHL, no doubt, and especially the kind of thing that a poor team like Ottawa has to do to provide value down the line. But there’s little denying that Cowen is being paid in advance of proving he can fill the role the team needs him to.
It’s worth noting that the practice of giving your premier RFAs big deals up front isn’t exactly novel. Edmonton just gave Ryan Nugent-Hopkins $6 million a year, for example. The question, it seems to me, is whether you can include Cowen in the group of RFAs who have a ton of bargaining power, who might actually generate an offer sheet, and whose skill is so evident you have less of a problem assigning a lot of financial risk to them. He may very well be; I just don’t see how that assessment is being made.
Compare Cowen’s deal with, say, Cody Franson, who received a one year bridge, “prove it” contract from Toronto for $2 million. The Leafs may have to pay more for Franson in the future, but the point is that they’ll know more in the future. If your players turns out to be really great, I think you have to not mind paying him really great money. Paying someone what they’re worth seems less disastrous to me than paying someone less, and then they may not even be worth that. People are giving Montreal shit because they’ll have to give Subban the moon on his next contract, but I have to think that any GM in the league will take a Norris trophy winner on their team at market value. On the other hand, Ottawa has put themselves in a position where Cowen absolutely has to pan out as he’s projected to for that deal to provide value.
Ultimately, I think Ottawa’s deal with Cowen is a much larger risk than the sort of deals we usually jump up and down on management for. Sure, Alex Kovalev made $5 million a season, didn’t seem like he wanted to be here, and played poorly–but on a two year deal, and with a huge body of data with which to assess him, that’s a risk I can understand taking. The same can be said for signing Clarke MacArthur to a two year deal this past summer. There’s enough data there to justify it. If it doesn’t turn out, that doesn’t mean that the risk wasn’t justifiable at the time you took it. It means you misused them or had bad luck, or both. You can understand where the mistake came from by discounting your risk assessment.
With Cowen, you’re basically in a void. You look at his size and think, “I like big tough players.” You look at where he was drafted and think, “This guy has pedigree.” You watch video of him beating the shit out of Ryan White in the playoffs and think, “This guy has grit.” But there’s really nothing to point to that says that he’ll be a reliable second pairing shutdown guy for you for years and years to come. It’s a risk, especially for a team with an owner who is perpetually moaning about being over-budget and totally broke.
If I’m Cowen, I would have jumped at the stability of an eight year deal over the chance to make many more dollars at a theoretical future point in my career when I’m a dominant force in the NHL. If I’m Cowen I look at my own numbers, my injuries, and the apparent luster management perceives on my abilities, and I take the career deal for fear of that luster wearing off. Everyone, including Cowen, is assuming he’s going to be an upper-tier player in this league, if not a star. He may very well turn out to be, but if it does, let’s not pretend it was anything more than guesswork and luck. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that it can’t be the evidence. There isn’t any.