New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal remains one of the most prized restricted free agents on the market, and there’s been a lot of talk about what he is worth to the Islanders, or another NHL team that wants to present an offer sheet, if one actually surfaces. But that’s another story.
So far, Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello and the Barzal camp are staying quiet, and that’s to be expected, especially from the tight-lipped Lamoriello. With the NHL season having no definitive timeline to begin the new campaign, there is no urgency to get a deal done now anyway.
The fast-skating Barzal is looking for a substantial raise after putting together an outstanding playoff run when he collected 17 points in 22 games to finish third on the team in scoring and among the top-20 NHL playoff leaders.
It was the Islanders’ most successful season since 1993, but it ended two wins short of a Stanley Cup appearance with a Game 6 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Barzal was as important as Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson to the team’s playoff success, and his future looks bright because of his age. Nelson is 29 and Bailey is 31, while Barzal, at 23, is still years away from hitting his peak.
Barzal is coming off a three-year, $3.9 million contract. At the end of last season, he had a cap hit of $863,333. Barzal is clearly worth more, but how much more?
When you look at comparables, you might consider Toronto Maple Leafs’ slick winger Mitch Marner. They have a lot of similarities. Barzal was selected No. 16 overall by the Islanders in the 2015 NHL draft. Marner was the fourth pick overall by Toronto that year.
Both players are finesse players with speed and puck-handling skills who make the players around them better. Marner has been slightly more productive, but that’s in large part because he plays on a high-powered offense and not a close-checking club.
Over their last three seasons, Marner has outpointed Barzal, but not by much. Marner has accumulated 230 points, while Barzal has collected 207 points. Each player has scored at least 60 points in his last three campaigns. Barzal has led his team in scoring the last three seasons. Marner has topped the Leafs in scoring in two of the last three seasons.
Marner was also a restricted free ahead of last season, and a deal didn’t get done until training camp opened. The feeling in Toronto was that GM Kyle Dubas overpaid by signing Marner to a six-year extension with an AVV (average annual value) of $10.8 million.
Marner’s deal is the obvious comparable to what Barzal’s value should be, and there’s an argument to be that he’s worth more. Marner is a winger and Barzal is a center, which is a position traditionally valued higher than wingers.
It’s also not fair to look straight at the points production between the two, even though they are close in that department. Marner has the likes of John Tavares and Auston Matthews to play with, and although the Islanders have offensive talent, the star power can’t compare to Toronto’s elite group.
So, it could be argued that Barzal should not take a discount for his team’s style of play. In fact, if Barzal becomes more a two-way center, his value should jump. In the past, you can look at players like Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano who sacrificed offensive production for team goals by being responsible checkers as well as timely goal scorers.
When they changed their style of play, they became winners and eventually Hall of Fame players.
When Toronto signed Marner to that $65.3 million contract, the Leafs had prepared for such a move by clearing salary-cap room ahead of time. They had traded forwards Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown and Nazem Kadri to get into a position to offer Marner the same time of money that Tavares and Matthews were getting.
As it stands now, the Islanders are in a tight squeeze to offer Barzal the Marner-type money he deserves. They have about $3.9 million in projected cap space and, with the current economic climate being so tough, it’s going to influence how the Islanders negotiate with Barzal.
Barzal clearly wants to make a deal to stay with the Islanders. After Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock signed a two-year, $10 million extension, he told the media that he and Barzal didn’t want their extensions to break up the team.
Barzal may have to sign a team-friendly contract to make that happen. His best bet might be to get a small raise on a bridge deal and hold off on a long-term extension until there is more cost certainly with the Islanders and the NHL as a whole.
The Islanders have locked up their top-scoring forwards on long-term deals, with captain Anders Lee ($7 million AVV), Brock Nelson ($6 million), Jordan Eberle ($5.5 million), and Josh Bailey ($5 million) getting rewarded. And the Islanders have shown a commitment to a gritty forward like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who signed a six-year contract with a $5 million AAV after he came over in a trade last season.
Marner is paid as the team’s third-best player. If Barzal is paid as the third-best player on the Islanders, he should fit in eventually with a contract valued at $6 million AAV.
But the Islanders are not following the Leafs’ pay model. Toronto has tied up almost $41 million in four players, and it hasn’t gotten the Leafs into the playoffs. The Islanders are a strong playoff team, yet their four highest-paid players come in at only $24 million against the cap.
Barzal might not be able to command Lee’s money right now, but he shouldn’t be too far behind. It will be interesting to see how the deal gets structured when it is finally completed. Will it be a shorter term, with more signing bonus money upfront and a higher salary toward the end of the deal?
The Islanders cap situation will improve over time, meaning that Barzal might have to take less now to earn more later if he wants to see how good this Islanders team can be.