This summer, the Nashville Predators find themselves in a unique position. With Ryan Ellis’ contract nearing its end, the team will have to make a substantial personnel decision regarding their revered top four defensemen. Currently, Ellis is wrapping up the bargain deal of the century (if we ignore a certain Jonathan Marchessault).
A thoroughbred top-four blue liner, Ellis has played his entire NHL career in Nashville, including the past four seasons at the ludicrously small cost of $2.5 million AAV. All good things must come to and end, however. After the upcoming season, unrestricted free agency looms. Ryan Ellis has said himself that he’d like to extend his time in Nashville:
— ESPN 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) May 12, 2018
To be honest, though, everyone says that about their respective team. It is certainly possible that Ellis will take a “team-friendly” deal. Realistically though, he could make more than double his current salary and we’d still consider it “team-friendly.”
To make a long story short, Ryan Ellis’ value is higher than ever. Should the Predators invest in that value, or leverage it for some additional offensive weaponry?
Let’s take a look at who exactly Ryan Ellis is on the ice. Through his past two seasons, which he spent the majority of partnered with Roman Josi, he’s certainly been no slouch. Here’s a look at where he placed among other NHL defensemen at five-on-five:
|Percentile among NHL defensemen with ≥500min TOI|
|2016 – 2017 (n=197)||2017-2018 (n=212)|
In all categories, he experienced a major jump between the past two seasons. Most impressively, he improved from the 40th to 90th percentile in Corsi (CF%), Fenwick (FF%), and High-Danger Scoring Chances (HDCF%).
Clearly, if Ryan Ellis can maintain his most recent level of production, he’s well worth having on your team. Unfortunately, there is a salary cap to consider. How much is Ryan Ellis worth in the NHL?
Believe it or not, the median non-ELC cap hit of 90th percentile defensemen in the NHL is just $5.25 million, at least when using 2017-2018 numbers. One factor in this surprisingly low value is definitely on-ice opposition. For example, P.K. Subban, whose cap hit is almost twice the median for 90th percentile defensemen, is actually between the 30th and 70th percentile in each of these categories. The likely reason? Subban is frequently facing much tougher opposition than, say, Ryan Ellis.
I’d say the absolute maximum Ellis should be paid by the Nashville Predators is about $6 million AAV, and I’d shy away from a contract length of more than five years.
Alternatives to re-signing
Now you’re probably wondering, “why on Earth is this titled ‘How to Land Nylander?’ It’s been entirely about Ryan Ellis.” I wouldn’t blame you, but there is a good reason. In my opinion, the Nashville Predators should be heavily shopping Ryan Ellis. I realize this attitude won’t make me many friends in Nashville, but hockey is a business, after all.
There are three major reasons I believe this:
1) Ellis’ value will never be higher
2) There are two viable replacements in the works
3) Offensively, the Predators are hopelessly one-dimensional
By the time Ellis’ contract expires next summer, he will be 28 years old, or about halfway through his NHL career. Basically, his production is hitting its peak at this very moment.
Elite defensemen are worth their weight in gold in today’s NHL. Specifically, though, which teams are really hurting defensively? Here’s a look at the worst five teams in each of the possession categories used earlier, using five-on-five data from 2017-2018:
Aside from the Cup-winning Washington Capitals, none of these teams is particularly surprising. Chicago, Washington, Edmonton, and Arizona can’t really afford Ellis’ cap hit. That leaves us with really just five options: NYR, NYI, OTT, TOR, and VAN. Each of these teams should probably be calling David Poile every day regarding Ryan Ellis.
Fortunately for the Nashville Predators, the team has four times as many elite defensemen as pretty much every other NHL team. Even if Ellis weren’t replaced by a real second pairing blue liner, a lineup containing Subban, Ekholm, and Josi will always be within the league’s top five.
Within the Predators’ organization though, there are two relevant prospects worth paying attention to. Dante Fabbro, who is just 19 years old, is currently playing in the NCAA for Boston University. His numbers are extremely promising, and a young defenseman would be insane to turn down a contract with the Nashville Predators. It appears to be a perfect match.
The other option is a little less exciting, but perhaps a little closer to being “NHL ready.” Alexandre Carrier, currently with the Milwaukee Admirals, is a relatively small, roving defenseman with a right-handed shot. Sound familiar? He’s played two full seasons with the Admirals, and managed very respectable point production.
Dante Fabbro is on the Predators’ development camp roster, so we’ll get to see him in action later this month. Alexandre Carrier should definitely get big preseason minutes in September, in order to gauge his development progress.
Nashville has needs
Finally, we come to the Nashville Predators’ most glaring weakness: offense. True, the defense and goaltending left much to be desired in the playoffs. However, the one-dimensional nature of this team’s attacking identity is a much deeper issue. For the past two years, when the stakes get high, there have been only three forwards producing. They are, without exception, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson.
Although they have spurts of excellence, the current second line simply won’t cut it. With the amount of offensive sheltering this line enjoys, there is no reason they shouldn’t score every game. The Predators have invested too much into Kyle Turris to decrease his workload, however, so the issue will probably have to be solved by the wingers.
Of the teams listed earlier that really need defense, only one of them has both cap space and enough forward depth to really be a trade destination for Ryan Ellis: the Toronto Maple Leafs. The amount of young offensive firepower in Toronto is, quite frankly, disgusting. Furthermore, their complete lack of defensive ability was fully exposed during the playoffs, and they now have a brand new general manager.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, between now and 2020, they will need to re-sign or trade thirteen players. One of those players, who is currently a restricted free agent, is William Nylander, who tallied 61 points (20G, 41A) last season. Here’s a quick look at some of his numbers:
|Percentile among NHL forwards with ≥500min TOI|
|2017 – 2018 (n=367)|
At first, this doesn’t look great for Nylander. However, consider that he played on a bottom-five defensive team and was 50th percentile or higher in three of these possession categories. If he were able to develop on a team with a real defensive backbone, like the Nashville Predators, his upside is limitless.
For an extra look into the kind of contributions William Nylander can make, let’s make a comparison. He’s a small, fast, young right winger. It seems reasonable, then, to put him side-by-side with a certain Viktor Arvidsson. In this awesome tool, developed by Corey Sznajder and CJ Turtoro, we can really zoom in on each player’s influence on a game’s flow. That is, how they affect shot generation for both teams, and how they affect zone transitions:
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why a player like Nylander should be so sought after. When it comes to creating chances for the good guys, and limiting those against, he’s borderline elite in every category.
What is Nylander worth, though? He’s coming off an ELC, so his previous salary can’t be used as a reference. There are two possible approaches, and it all depends on Nylander. Toronto could offer him a bridge-type deal, or roughly $3 million for the next three years. Unless he really loves Toronto, though, I imagine he’d be tempted by a longer deal with more money somewhere else. In that case, he’s going to be looking for at least $5 million on a five- or six-year deal.
David Poile has demonstrated that he doesn’t really care for bridge deals. Often, he takes gambles on young players and lengthy contracts. It has paid off well for him, at least up to this point. Nylander is exactly the type of player Poile should make an offer for.
Let’s talk trade details
A one-for-one swap between Ellis and Nylander actually isn’t too unreasonable for either team. In pure dollars, though, the Predators might want a cherry on top. A top-4 defenseman is generally seen as more valuable than a top-6 forward in today’s NHL.
Because of his restricted status, Nylander likely won’t be officially dealt until after this year’s draft. That is, unless he makes it clear immediately that he won’t accept the Leafs’ qualifying offer. It’s safe to say we’re talking about 2019 picks and beyond. If you ask me, the Predators should try to work out the following deal:
|To Toronto||To Nashville|
2019 2nd round draft pick
After a disappointing playoffs, the Nashville Predators are clearly in need of improved offensive scoring depth. They also find themselves in a unique position: needing to re-sign or trade one of their many elite defensemen.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a wealth of young forward talent, but a ticking clock when it comes to expiring contracts. Defensively, they would be foolish to enter next season without making a significant addition.
The stakes of the potential trade are high, but the player values are close to equal. If there’s a GM who can break Nylander out of Toronto, it’s David Poile. Likewise, if there’s a GM who will fully recognize Ellis’ potential value to a team, it’s the analytically-minded Kyle Dubas.
To me, it seems like a match made in heaven.