As the Red Wings continue to prepare for next season, Ken Holland is already at work trying to lock up the restricted free agents as quickly as he can before having to worry about offer sheets or arbitration for players who traditionally come quite cheap anyway. So far, we have depth/Griffins defenseman Brian Lashoff and now Riley Sheahan taken care of, with some other and bigger names left to go - Danny DeKeyser, Petr Mrazek, Alexey Marchenko, and Teemu Pulkkinen all included.
For all of the valid criticisms of how Ken Holland has managed the Red Wings since their last cup victory, the one thing he has consistently done well is manage RFA contracts. The Sheahan deal is no different.
Sheahan’s $2.075M AAV for two years will expire with the young center/winger remaining an RFA, which will again limit his bargaining power for whatever contract he earns during the next two seasons. While there’s no guarantee Sheahan will be a Red Wing for that time, the RFA expiry is a contractual value that keeps trade value higher as well [insert joke about Ken Holland trading away an everyday roster player here].
What’s more than that though is that $2.075M for a guy who turns 25 this season should be telling of what to expect for Sheahan.
The Cart or the Horse
While we’ve argued plenty during the salary cap era about the differences in salary merit versus playing time merit (hello Jonathan Ericsson getting played more because of his contract), things tend to even out pretty well. We do know that players on entry-level contracts and those on RFA deals tend to get paid beneath their line assignments. However, bridge RFAs are starting to get treated more like known quantities than they have in the past, so their pay and their assignments do tend to match up.
So what does this mean for Sheahan?
Well, at 25 years old, we’re at a point in Sheahan’s career where we’re in the very last chapters of what could be called his development. With more than 200 NHL games played and a spot on the aging curve well right of people we responsibly still call “prospects”, the variation we’re looking for in how Sheahan will play for the next two years will have more to do with his deployment and just plain old luck than they’ll have to do with a mystical unknown quantity for how much better he’s expected to still get.
Granted, players mature at different rates all the time and lots of guys bloom late to redefine their roles, but if we’re talking about what’s expected, then we’re talking that the Riley Sheahan we see is the one we know.
The Sheahan We Know
After a 36-point performance in 2014-15 which followed a breakout half-season that saw Sheahan pace well over 40 while eating up low-line competition, Sheahan went the way of the entire Red Wings team last year and saw a big step back in his overall numbers due largely to the team’s stinky power play.
Sheahan saw his overall point production drop by 11, but his even-strength goal production increase by three. In fact, Sheahan scored one more this season than last, but saw the drop happen in his assists and mostly on the power play, where he saw his TOI more than halved.
As StraightOuttaSverdlovsk noted in his season grades post, Sheahan’s step back coincides so neatly with the way the entire team seemed to do so that it’s very difficult to say a down year for everybody should weigh so heavily on Sheahan, especially since he saw more defensive responsibility this season and spent almost twice as much time sharing the ice with Luke Glendening as he had during his 36-point campaign.
Play Him Like You Pay Him
At 25 years old and $2.075M in salary, it's clear what Riley Sheahan is at this point in his career - A bottom-six forward who can play two-way hockey effectively against other bottom six players. While we can hope that Sheahan might blossom into a 2nd-line center in the NHL someday, we’re not paying him a realistic salary to do that. Looking simply at the cap hits of centers in the NHL, General Fanager shows that the salary range for centers #31-60 in terms of pay range from $3.5-5.2M while the #61-90 range starts at $1.65M.
I know that a simple look at salary creates a lot of noise in terms of all the various overpaid/underpaid/RFA/ELC types of deals, but it’s clear that Riley Sheahan is paid like a third line center who’s closer to the 4th line fringe than he is to the top six. This is the role I expect Sheahan to fill. If for whatever reason he ends up bumped down to be what would essentially be an overpaid 4th liner, I’d feel more comfortable on the assumption that it’s because an underpaid person has surpassed him. If he is needed for 2nd line duties, I think those duties should be extremely limited for Sheahan, to the point where a player who should still be considered a prospect with a higher ceiling should be given that role instead, even if that prospect isn't quite as ready to take on such duties as Sheahan is.
From a business perspective, Sheahan's deal is a smart, valuable contract. From this point, it's going to be up to Jeff Blashill to treat it as such by ensuring Sheahan is deployed appropriately.