Mikko Koivu's Extension Will Impact New Jersey Devils Zach Parise's & Travis Zajac's Future

The big news in the hockey world yesterday, and still being discussed today, is Mikko Koivu's massive contract extension with the Minnesota Wild.  It's a 7 year deal that will pay out a total of $47.5 million dollar, with the average per year value being $6.75 million. The structure of the deal is a little unorthodox, per CapGeek, but at no point will Koivu be paid less than $5.4 million. 

Wild fan and managing editor BReynolds defends the deal at Hockey Wilderness; from a neutral perspective, Gabe at Behind the Net thinks it's a very good deal; and Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy has this quote from general manager Chuck Fletcher about the amount of money given to a guy who just topped 70 points this past season:

"You look around the league at all the No. 1 centers in the league, and you ask yourself honestly, 'How many players are better than Mikko?'" said Fletcher.

...

 

"To define Mikko by his statistics is to miss the point of what he's all about," he said.

That's all well and good.  I'm not here to argue whether the contract is worth it for Mikko Koivu.  He is the face of their franchise, their captain, their top center, etc., etc.  I'm not arguing that at all.  The big reason why I brought it up earlier on this site is because this deal will set the market for top forwards in the NHL to some degree.  The deal the 27-year old, formerly pending UFA will defintiely be pointed to by players and agents in the future for deals that they feel they are deserving. This is where the New Jersey Devils come in. Koivu's contract Zach Parise (who is a RFA after this season) and Travis Zajac (who will become a 28-year old UFA after 2013).  In my opinion, cases can be made for both of them deserving at least as much as Mikko Koivu with the help of advanced statistics, regardless of Fletcher's opinion.

The short term concern is, of course, Parise. The Devils have 12 players signed for next season and $17.8 million of cap space (assuming no increase or decrease of the ceiling).  Parise will be a restricted free agent, but given his quality and the desire to want to keep him long term, most Devils fans would like to see an extension.  Thanks to the Koivu deal, this will be a large sum of money and will take up much of that cap space.

The long-term concern is Travis Zajac.  Like Koivu, Zajac is the Devils' top center. Like Koivu, Zajac plays significant minutes in all situations.  Like Koivu (until this past season), Zajac plays against tough competition night in and night out.  No, Zajac isn't the team's captain or the face of the franchise, but I think the two players are at least comparable.  Therefore, in a few years, even if the Devils may have large amounts of cap space, Zajac and his representation are going to look at Koivu's big deal and understandably demand something similar. The Devils will have to seriously consider whether Zajac is that important enough to the team to commit a significant portion of the cap.  Moreso if Parise is re-signed for massive amounts of money.  You may not be worried about it now, but smart cap management involves looking beyond just the next season.

I'd like to point out how comparable all three players are to illustrate my concern.  Please set your viewing to Wide before continuing.

It's easy to sit down and look at the following and conclude that Zajac is at least close to Koivu and Parise's better than both. (Stats per NHL.com)


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009-10 Zach Parise 81 38 44 82 24 32 9 1 5
19:46 347 11.0
2009-10 Mikko Koivu 80 22 49 71 -2 50 8 1 2 20:44 246 8.9
2009-10 Travis Zajac 82 25 42 67 22 24 6 0 4 20:12
210 11.9

Of course, that wouldn't be much of an analysis and it doesn't really say all that much other than production and minutes. I'd like to use some advanced statistics to really point out their contribution to their respective teams over the past three seasons and what impact each player had on the ice.  What Koivu brings to the table isn't seen by simple point totals, but the same can be said for both Zajac and Parise.

And remember,I'm not saying whether the Mikko Koivu extension was smart or not.  I'm arguing how similar or better Zajac and Parise are than Koivu.

GVT (Goals Versus Threshold)

Tom Awad's all-time GVT list may be normalized across multiple eras, but it allow to look back and compare each player's GVT from each season.

Mikko_parise_gvt_chart

Unsurprisingly, this is similar to what one would conclude the point totals. This makes sense since GVT is a results-based statistic.  It's not completely pointless. This fully details the rise of each player over the last three season, it shows a consistent increase for defensive GVT for Parise, and it's further evidence that Parise is the biggest contributor to their team, with Koivu and Zajac providing about the same.

While not normalized and only for last season, a quick jump over to Behind the Net's GVT listing shows Zajac and Parise being league leaders in defensive GVT among forwards.  Not that Koivu is a slouch in this area, just look at his 2008-09 DGVT.  Yet, how did it fall last season whilst Zajac and Parise soared?

For that, let's look at the even strength data from Behind the Net and see how each of the three did on-ice and their impact on-ice.

2007-08 Even Strength On-Ice Data

Mikko_parise_07-08_ev_on_ice_stats

Mikko Koivu has his 2007-08 season shortened, but in the 57 games he did play, he played against tough competition regularly and put up excellent on-ice and on-ice impact numbers in goals against (GA/60) and shots against (SA/60).  His adjusted Corsi was also among the best among top minute forwards.  Elsewhere, he below the median and not quite good in terms of on-ice shots for per 60 (SF/60).  His PDO was quite high, though.

Parise and Zajac both were superior in terms of adjusted Corsi, but all three did so well that you can't knock either one.  Their PDO was lower than Koivu; but all three great goals for per 60 (GF/60) either on-ice or in terms of impact. Zajac was superior to Koivu in terms of shots against both on-ice and in impact; but Koivu's goals against could not be touched.

In terms of across the board (top 30 rankings), Koivu stands tall here due to doing it all against tougher competition. Still, only Parise yielded a significant enough positive impact on offense outside of PDO and Corsi - he did it with SF/60.  

2008-09 Even Strength On-Ice Data

  Mikko_parise_08-09_ev_on_ice_stats

Here, Zajac didn't play enough minutes at even strength to make it to the rankings I previously made.  I wouldn't be too concerned though.  He certainly did well enough on his own with similar numbers to Zach Parise.  OK, Parise had a much stronger impact on SF/60, GF/60, and SA/60 as well as a ridiculously good adjusted Corsi. Still, Zajac had very positive values in numerous stats. 

I can't understate this season for Parise enough.  A quick look at the rankings show that Parise was an even strength beast in 2008-09.  Only in on-ice team shooting percentage (SPCT) and impact on GA/60 did Parise fail to crack the top 30 and he was just outside the group in GA/60.  Only one forward ranked in more stats than Parise in 2008-09 and that was Pavel Datsyuk, who is also a complete forward and 5-on-5 machine. 

Mikko Koivu played against tougher competition, but not as tough as 2007-08 and some of his stats actually got worse.  On ice GA/60 dropped from being the best among top minute forwards to just outside the group.  The other team actually scored more goals at a higher rate when he was on the ice. His adjusted Corsi fell like Wile E. Coyote off of a cliff.  His impact on SA/60 also fell close to zero.   It's not that Koivu was bad - most of his rankings hover around the median, more below than not.  It's that Parise smoked Koivu among a lot of players at even strength in 08-09. If Zajac played 13 TOI/60, then I'd imagine his rankings would highlight that he was better than Koivu too.

2009-10 Even Strength On-Ice Data

Mikko_parise_09-10_ev_on_ice_stats

Jacques Lemaire went from Minnesota to New Jersey in 2009-10 and the quality of competition shows it.  Lemaire tended to play his best players against the other team's best players.  Todd Richards didn't, and so Koivu's quality of competition fell.  Perhaps that's why his offensive numbers improved?  Yet, in terms of base on-ice numbers, Koivu didn't rank so well.  At least he was great at on-ice SA/60; more so with his impact on SA/60.  Koivu has that over the two Devils here.  He also had a better on-ice team shooting percentage than the two, for what it's worth.

Yet, that's really it.  Again, Parise and Zajac ranked better in more stats.  Their adjusted Corsi fell while Koivu improved, but they're still ahead of him by a good amount.  While Koivu had a positive impact, much less a strong one, on SA/60; Parise and Zajac were excellent in terms of SF/60 and GA/60.  Basically, when they were on the ice, while the shots against rate worsened a bit, the goals against rate dropped as their own shooting rate improved. It's definitely a fair tradeoff.  Parise's strong impact on GF/60 further justifies a reputation of being a great even strength player.

While Mikko Koivu's numbers weren't bad and arguably the best in 2007-08, Parise and Zajac showed to be better than him at even strength in 2008-09 and 2009-10.  This past season really hammers home the point.  Both placed among the top 30 forwards with a TOI/60 of at least 13 more than Koivu last season.  Koivu is only superior in three stats and only ranked highly in two of them (SA/60).  Zajac and Parise have had a stronger impact in more stats and often ranked very well there.  

Moreover, they've done all this last season against tougher competition than Koivu.  If John MacLean has the dynamic duo player weaker minutes, their impact could be stronger if they keep up this pace of on-ice impact and production.  By no means is Koivu a bad player, but given that most of the game is played at 5-on-5, it seems to me that Zajac is definitely similar to Koivu and Parise is a better player overall.

Additional Factors

All three players have other stats that should be considered.  While not applicable to Parise since he's a winger, Mikko Koivu can claim superiority at faceoffs.  He won 56.9% of 1,518 draws last season, which is absolutely impressive.  Going back the two years prior, though, Koivu was quite good but not as impeccable with winning percentages of 52.5% (07-08) and 52.7 (08-09).  Perhaps Mikko broke out last season? Perhaps he was just hot all season long and he'll go back down to Zajac's level? That level is still quite good, as Zajac's winning percentages went from 51.2% to 53.1% to 52.9% in his last three seasons.

One area where the two Devils stand out shooting percentage. While Parise and Zajac enjoyed rather high PDO values last season, their career shooting percentages are 11.8% and 11.1%, respectively.  Parise's career low was 10.5%  (rookie season) and Zajac's career low was 9.0% (only time below 10%, 07-08).   Koivu's career shooting percentage stands at 8.9%, his high was the only time he broke 10% with 12.3% in 06-07 and his low was 6.9% as a rookie.    Who knows where all three will be next season, but if their careers are indicative, then I'd expect Parise and Zajac to put up a higher shooting percentage than Koivu.  Given that Parise shoots all day long and Zajac has improved in taking more shots like Koivu, it wouldn't surprise me at all if both put up more goals than Koivu next season and in future seasons. 

Koivu can hold over the dual intangible of being the franchise's top player. He is their captain, their face, their top player, and no one else on the roster can speak of doing as much or that much better than Koivu.  Parise could be a captain depending on whether the locker room will listen to him, and he's in line to be the next franchise player as Martin Brodeur's and Patrik Elias' careers move on to their final phases.  Zajac can't reach both short of stepping up in a big way both on and off the ice.  That's not a slight for Zajac, but it is something that may hold him back in a negotiation should a comparison of Mikko Koivu comes up.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the whole point of this post was to do just that.  Again, I am not questioning the contract Minnesota gave to Koivu.  I'm highlighting how it will impact other team's deals, Parise and Zajac in particular on New Jersey.  I will admit this is not a complete analysis as there are no special teams discussions. 

Still, one can argue that Zach Parise and Travis Zajac are similar if not better players overall than Mikko Koivu in multiple areas ranging from straight up production to goals versus threshold to on-ice even strength advanced statistics.  It logically follows that if they are better than Koivu, then they could command a contract that is larger than his.  Remember: Koivu's cap hit is $6.75 million and it's for 7 years.   When discussion eventually turns to Zach Parise's extension, expect bigger numbers to be brought up.  We're talking big money deals the Devils have never offered to a player in the cap era before. 

I look at this deal as a "floor" for what Parise could ask for in an extension.  The idea that Parise should or will take less money as a "hometown discount" is romantic, but completely unrealistic. Especially now that Mikko Koivu's average yearly salary is $6.75 million.  Parise has contributed more to his team, he's also the next franchise player for his respective team, and his on-ice impact is like his production: beloved by Devils fans all around the world.  There is no way Parise will want a smaller average salary deal than Koivu short of something ridiculously front-loaded or having some bizarre representation.

As for Zajac, again, it's not for a couple of years, but we're going to see the same issue come up then.  Should Zajac keep playing at this high of a level, again similar or better than Koivu in some areas, then he's going to want a similar contract as well.  And this too is a significant amount of money short of the salary cap shooting up to dizzying heights.  Even with a new CBA in place by then, Koivu's deal is still going to be firmly placed on the Wild's books and in the minds of every agent of a #1 center going forward.  I think the two players are quite comparable right now, and I think they could remain comparable in the next few years despite their status on the team.  The Devils should really stray from offering too many long contracts now lest they want to undercut themselves for keeping Zajac after 2012-2013.

This may mean not signing Ilya Kovalchuk at all to ensure Parise and Zajac staying in New Jersey.  Personally, I think that's the best direction for the team to take; though, I'm sure an argument the other way can be made.

It's not even just Zajac and Parise that will be affected by the Koivu extension. Look at other centers, like 2011-UFA Patrice Bergeron or 2011-RFA Steven Stamkos.  You may want to start comparing both and other top forwards to Mikko Koivu now to get an idea of what they'll want in 2011.   It's funny how that in an offseason where only one high-profile free agent forward is available with the rest re-signing prior to July 1, a fat contract extension to an already-established could have a powerful effect on future contracts.  Perhaps this will be balanced out by other top players taking less money or something else happening.  Or it could be exacerbated if Mikko Koivu flops after the extension, leaving more players to point at his deal and demand similar or better deals.  The future is certainly interesting but all signs point to more big contracts being given out.  It's best for Devils fans to expect and accept this now rather than get surprised when it happens later.

High quality players deserve high quality money.  Koivu is the latest example of that and the deal he got will ensure that the truism will continue for many years to come in the NHL.

Now it's your turn.  Do you think Zach Parise is better than Mikko Koivu? Do you think Travis Zajac and Mikko Koivu are similar players? What other ways would you like me to compare the three players? How much do you think Parise and Zajac could command when their deals are about to expire?  Please let me know your thoughts and answers in the comments.

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