Of all eleven restricted free agents the New Jersey Devils have to deal with this summer, it's no question that the most important one is Adam Henrique. Henrique just finished up his entry level contract with the lockout shortened 2013 regular season. According to CapGeek, he earned $525,000 plus whatever performance bonuses he hit so he's due for a significant raise with his next contract. While his qualifying offer only has to be $577,500, it's a safe bet he'll get much more than that. There's no way he's not becoming a seven-figure earner this summer. The issue is two-fold: how much and how long should the Devils re-sign Henrique.
Let's start with Henrique himself. After not sticking with the roster initially in the 2011-12 season, Henrique got a chance to play in between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise and made the most of it. By the end of the season, he finished with 16 goals, 31 assists, only seven penalty minutes, a positive factor in possession, an average of over 18 minutes of ice time per game with regular shifts on the penalty kill, 130 shots on net, the fourth most points on the Devils, the third most points among all rookies in the league, and a finalist for the Calder Trophy. In the postseason, Henrique was moved away from Kovalchuk and Parise at times but managed to contribute. He put up five goals and 13 points which included the tallies that knocked out the Panthers and eliminated Our Hated Rivals.
During the lockout, Henrique suited up for Albany until he suffered a thumb injury in late November. He did not return to the ice until January 31. Henrique started off hot with four goals in his first six games but, as with the rest of the team, the production dried up to a point. He picked up points here and there and ultimately finished with 11 goals, five assists, 78 shots on net, a much more significant force in possession, an average of over 18 minutes of ice time per game to play in all situations, and the sixth most points on the team. While he wasn't great, it wasn't necessarily the leap one would hope from a sophomore player. However, the fact that the team as a whole struggled to score a times limited his - and everyone else's - production.
Still, 2013 established that Henrique is a top-six caliber forward who can play significant minutes, help possession go forward, and be effective in his own end to a point where he was killing penalties as a rookie. He doesn't shoot a lot (and I think he really should) and it's an open question whether he's better suited as a winger or a center. Henrique was swapped between the two spots in this past season. While every season can be seen as important, the upcoming 2013-14 season will go a long way in determining what one can reasonably expect from Henrique for the prime of his career. It's tempting to look at his rookie season and think he'll get back to that level of production. He might, but he's not going to have Parise and Kovalchuk with him to help out as they did in 2011-12. How the Devils evaluate Henrique and determine how he will or will not develop will go a long way in determining the terms of his next contract.
As far as what range we should expect those terms to be in, I decided to look at players who have produced similarly to Henrique since the 2005-06 season. Henrique has played a total of 116 games and scored 67 points for an average point per game rate of 0.577. To look for comparable players, I went to Hockey-Reference and filtered out all forwards who played at least 100 games in their first two seasons, were under the age of 24, and had earned a point per game average higher than 0.5. This actually doesn't include Henrique because H-R has his "first season" as 2009-10 since Henrique appeared in one game. Anyway, after settling on a point per game range of 0.51 through 0.62, I looked up and included their "RFA Deal" from CapGeek (all numbers in millions, except for term which is in years). This would be the deal they signed after their ELC. Some players got it a year later but for the purposes of comparison, it works out. Here's a chart of the 23 players filtered out:
There are certainly a lot of intriguing names. I was certainly surprised to see Henrique actually put up a better point per game rate than Zach Parise in their respective first two seasons in the NHL. Some of these players went on to become significant scorers after their first two seasons, like Zach Parise, Jeff Carter, and James Neal. Some did not get to that proverbial "next level" after or during their next deal like Steve Bernier and Andrew Cogliano. There are certain names that may jump out at you, but this is by no means a guarantee of success.
Speaking of jumping out, I bolded the players in this group that took a regular shift on their team's PK in their first two seasons. It's not common for a young forward to play a big role on their team's penalty kill; it speaks to how comfortable the coaching staff is with the player as well as the player's own defensive game. I would think that would be taken into account in the Devils' valuation of Henrique as it did for those players. It's another dimension to their game beyond just being offensive and it's another contribution to the team. The goal is to find players similar to Henrique to get a grasp on what he could get in his next contract. You may want to put a little more stock in what Neal, Armstrong, Patrick O'Sullivan, Carter, Pavelski, Mikko Koivu, Steen, and Blake Wheeler got because they were regulars on their team's penalty kill like Henrique.
I wouldn't put too much stock into it as there are additional variables at play. For starters, the cap ceiling will fall from $70.2 million to $64.2 million for next season, but that's still higher than what it was for some of these contracts. There's inflation, for lack of a better word, in the system; a $2 million player back in 2006 took up more space than it would be today. So it's tempting to look at Colby Armstrong, Alexander Steen, and Joe Pavelski and figure it wouldn't be so unreasonable for Henrique to stay on a cheap deal like them. I would argue the opposite: those players would get more now for the same amount of contribution. Their percentage of the cap may not change much, but the value would be higher. Therefore, keep that in mind when Henrique inks that new contract this summer. That may not be so bad because, again, everyone's got more space to play with and the Devils have plenty of cap space.
For another, how the player has grown seems to play a role. While Henrique and Parise put up a similar rate of points in their first two seasons, it was clearly apparent to the team that Parise was going to be a significant player. He had a good shooting rate that would only grow and increased his production by 30 points from his first to second season. Parise had a set left wing position and the team paid him accordingly. Several players on this list went through a similar transformation. This is what could hurt Henrique. He had a very good rookie season, yet his rate of production dropped in 2013. It's an open question as to whether he can get to that level as a rookie. I hope he does and I'm sure the Devils do too, but they still have to make a business decision on what they believe is his current path as a player.
It appears term can play a big role as well. The average deal amount and term length of all 23 players is 7.97 million over an average of 2.59 years. That suggests that an $8 million deal over three years would be in line with players who have put up numbers at a rate similar to Henrique. That's not bad. It can even structured like David Clarkson's now expiring deal. However, notice that the larger cap hits and deal amounts come with longer lengths. Ten of the 23 players signed a three or more year deal and the average deal value jumps to $13.57 million over an average of 3.7 years. In a way, this makes sense. If a team wants keep their player on one contract until they can become an unrestricted free agent or even into their first few years eligible as an UFA, then it's going to cost them. The player would be giving up potential earnings, so they have to pay out more. Just look at Jeff Carter and Tyler Seguin. (Aside: Dustin Penner's deal was an offer sheet from Edmonton. Yep.) The contracts may be worth it but it is definitely boosted by their term. As a result, it's common to see two year contracts signed. This allows the team to keep a player for a little bit and not commit too much and the player can stand to improve his earning power as he grows into the peak of his career.
Overall, based on this chart of 23 players, I think there a couple of good examples that I would be comfortable seeing offered to Henrique. Ideally, I would want the Devils and Henrique to agree to a cheap deal, see Henrique out-perform it, and then establish a stronger foundation for the next contract before he turns 27. The $4.55 million over two years Sam Gagner got would be a good way to follow that ideal. I'm not exactly confident the Devils will go that low, but it's not so outrageous, especially considering cap inflation. It's a safe bet that Henrique's going to earn at least $2 million per season anyway since only five players on this list of 23 had a cap hit of less than that. In terms of a worst case scenario, I wouldn't be a fan Henrique getting something like Parise's $12.5 million over four years, but I would understand it. I think it's a safe bet Henrique won't be making that much unless the Devils absolutely love something he does that he's got to show in this coming season.
I think that's committing too much to a player where we're not sure if he's going to be a solid 50+ point secondary two-way forward or someone muddled between 30-40 points. I think the best among this group would be James Neal's second contract at $5.75 million over two years. It gives Henrique that raise he deserves, the term means it won't rot on the salary cap, and it gives him an opportunity to earn much more later. Clearly, Henrique and Neal were and are different players; but it's a model to work with. Of course, I would not be opposed to Henrique taking a little less than that. Should three years be the goal, then I'm hoping for something closer to what Michael Frolik and Jakub Voracek got than, say, Patric Hornqvist. I would be happy with something similar to Neal's deal.
Again, I did all this to get an idea of what would be reasonable for Henrique to get compared to his peers. There may be other or even better comparables, who didn't necessarily produce as much in their first two seasons but did so in their second and third seasons. Nikolai Kulemin and Chris Higgins come to mind as forwards who did quite a bit in their own end but contributed more than just a little on offense. Nevertheless, leave your impressions in the comments. Who do you think would make a good comparable for Henrique's next contract? What do you think Henrique's next contract should be - how much and how long? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Henrique in the comments. Thank you for reading.