Max Contract Sighting! Devils Sign Travis Zajac to 8-Year, $46m Contract Extension

by Jacob Saltiel
large_Lou_Lamoriello_HallofFame

A Devil On His Shoulder
from nj.com

That didn’t take long.

After a lockout in which Bill Daly demanded, and I paraphrase, liberty from limitless contracts or death, the Devils worked quickly to extend a player for 8 more years. That call to the league to announce the extension by Lamoriello must have been fascinating:

Lamoriello: Hi, uh, Gary?

Bettman: Lou? What? What did you do?

L: Haha, now Gary… You look taller today!

B: We’re on the phone, Lou. Who did you sign, and for how many years longer than the CBA allows?

L: About that- you should be receiving a fax any moment now…

B: Ah yes, here it is… … [EXPLETIVES DELETED]

L: Now, Gary, let’s just hold on a moment before saying things like that.

etc…

Did they have to do it? Or, can Lamoriello simply not help himself?

The Good News
On TSN‘s That’s Hockey, Mike Johnson spoke of Zajac’s reviews from his teammates, saying, more or less, that “he’s the centre that all wingers want to play with” and that “he’s a 60-point scorer who plays excellent defence”. This has been true for as long as he’s played hockey-caddy to Parise’s exploits in Jersey.

He’s also 6″3.

By extending him until he’s 36, the Devils locked up their top-line centre for the next 5+ years or so, until he loses a step and they move him to a checking line.

The Bad News

While it’s true that signing long-term contracts can limit a team’s flexibility to trade that contract in the future, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Lamoriello can claim that he traded Zajac more years for a lower annual cap hit, then this deal makes sense. The structure of this deal merits examination, too.

Let’s look at the deal then (figures from That’s Hockey‘s graphic):

2013-2014 > 3.5
2014-2015 > 5.0
2015-2016 > 6.5
2016-2017 > 6.5
2017-2018 > 6.5
2018-2019 > 6.5
2019-2020 > 5.8
2020-2021 > 5.8

Aaron Ward, on the same That’s Hockey panel with Mike Johnson discussed above, claimed that the low first-year cap hit was to protect against escrow. Therefore, if there’s a major adjustment to the player’s share next season due to depressed league revenues, Zajac won’t be too badly affected. Most of the money in this contract comes in years 3 through 6, by which point, the assumption of Zajac’s agent must run, the dollars available to the league will have rebounded.

This is fantastic for Zajac and mediocre for the Devils. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Zajac struggles to produce top-line offence for the next 2 years, and the Devils want to trade him. In that scenario, they’d have a tough time finding a partner, since whoever takes on his contract will be on the hook for the bulk of the actual dollars. The annual average is 5.75, but any team that takes Zajac back in trade will pay him more than that in real dollars.

Another item in the contract affecting the Devils’ ability to move him is the full no-trade clause for all 8 years. You’d be right in thinking that granting a player this security would come with a discount, but it doesn’t look like the Devils got a bargain on either the contract length, nor the no-trade clause.

Zajac had better bounce back from last year’s injury-season, and the previous year’s depression in offensive numbers when Parise was out, or this deal might be an overpay. Due to it’s length, it might also become a salary cap anchor.

Comparables
Mike Johnson compared Zajac to Kesler in terms of skill, but let’s compare those two, and others, based on salary.

The following centres with similar profiles (top-line or 2nd-line, defensively reliable, provides decent offence) make the following (from Capgeek.com):

Tomas Plekanec: $5m/year, until 2016
Ryan Kesler: $5m/year, until 2016
Mikhail Grabovski: $5.5m/year, until 2017
Patrice Bergeron, $5m/ year, until 2014
Henrik Zetterberg, $6.083m/ year, until 2021
David Backes, $4.5m/ year, until 2016

Without putting into context when those contracts were signed, it appears as if the Devils overpaid for Zajac.

Of course, league revenues can increase significantly in the next 8 years, but the amount Zajac can make on his contract is set at a maximum. Therefore, if the combination of adjusting the player’s share in revenue coincides with a rise in revenues league-wide, the Zajac contract can, eventually, make up a smaller percentage of the Devils’ cap than it does now. The nature of a league in which the salary cap is tied to revenues is that contracts that look like extravagances today, become comparative bargains down the road.

That’s great, but Zajac needs to play like the Zajac of 2008-2010 (164 games played, 129 points) instead of the Zajac of the last two seasons (97 games, 50 pts), or this deal will hurt for a long time.

8 years, to be exact.

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