Ryan McDonagh is going to be the trickiest RFA to sign.

Ryan McDonagh is going to be the trickiest RFA to sign.

 When news broke yesterday of Roman Josi’s new contract with the Nashville Predators ($28 million over 7 years), focus immediately shifted to Ryan McDonagh. After all, McDonagh and Josi are very comparable players. They are both coming off their ELCs. They are both top-pairing defensemen. They are both arbitration eligible. Most importantly, they are both likely to receive some attention on the RFA market.

However, that is where the similarities end. Josi has just one lockout-shortened full season, and 52 games in his rookie year last year. He has put up lines of 5-11-16 and 5-13-18 in each of those seasons respectively. Meanwhile, McDonagh has an extra full season under his belt, and has a 30 point season as well. On paper, McDonagh is the more credentialed defenseman.

Another factor here is the contract Josi received. Slats never gives out second contracts of that length. In fact, the last time he gave out a second contract that was longer than two years was Marc Staal. Staal is the exception, not the rule.  Now, if there’s anyone worth breaking that rule again, it is Ryan McDonagh. His career path and current accomplishments are even better than Staal’s at the time of his deal.

Since there is such a difference here, more comparable contracts need to be found. Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning comes to mind when his ELC expired, and he $20 million over 5 years, which is the same AAV as Josi. Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins had similar numbers to McDonagh at the time his ELC expired, and he got $14 million over 4 years ($3.5 million AAV). The problem is that both of those guys signed after the 2009-2010 season when the cap was actually lower than the $64.3 million it will be this season. Those contracts may be a bit outdated, even if they do stay consistent with the market value set by Josi.

The wrench in this is the Oliver Ekman-Larsson contract out in Phoenix. OEL’s contract expired at the end of this season, and Phoenix signed him to a whopping six-year $33 million contract ($5.5 million per season). OEL had very similar numbers to McDonagh, but he has never dipped below 20 points in a season.

When it comes to McDonagh, finding a comparable contract isn’t as easy as it was with Derek Stepan. OEL is definitely the high-end of market value, but his individual value to his team is about equal to McDonagh’s value to the Rangers. Letang is probably the low-end of the spectrum, but he has a different career path than McDonagh. Josi and Hedman are the two that really steer market value to the lower-$4 million range.

One other factor to consider: Any deal over two years means that at the expiration of the new deal, McDonagh will become a UFA, not an RFA. McDonagh is currently 23 years old, and turns 24 in two days. The UFA age is still set at 27 years old, so a deal of three years or longer means buying UFA years on McDonagh. Slats is actually stuck between a rock and a hard place with McDonagh.

If he sticks with his two-year bridge deal, then Slats still gets McDonagh as an RFA when the deal expires. The problem is that McDonagh will likely command a higher AAV for a shorter deal, especially when his agent is looking at the Josi deal and thinking: “If Josi gets $4 million over seven years, and the Rangers want to sign McDonagh to a two-year deal, then Ryan should get more money because he is taking less term.” It’s just the business of the game. (For the agents in the house, the counter argument for this is that the Rangers aren’t buying UFA years. It’s tricky.)

Now if McDonagh is to sign a long-term deal, then the Rangers are buying UFA years, which is a very pricey proposition. McDonagh isn’t going to command Shea Weber or Ryan Suter money, but he is in the $6 million range if he continues to progress the way he has. In a deal like this the money is likely to be back-loaded, again like the Josi deal, to compensate for the UFA years.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been predicting McDonagh gets between $4 million and $4.5 million. That prediction stands if McDonagh gets a Slats bridge contract of two years. If he gets more years, I’d expect the AAV to be between $4.5 million and $5.5 million, depending on the number of UFA years bought out. Considering the cap crunch for next season, I’d expect McDonagh to get a bridge deal and then sign his big deal at the expiration of his second contract.