Winnipeg Jets Contract Week: What is Bryan Little worth?
What is Bryan Little Worth?
The Winnipeg Jets have an interesting off-season upcoming in terms of their pending unrestricted and restricted free agents.
Little has primarily played first line center for the Jets 2.0 with both Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler on his wings. Little is fast, albeit undersized, with his game slanted more towards scoring goals than setting them up.
The former 1st round selection of the Atlanta Thrashers is currently completing the final season of his second professional contract; a contract that paid Little $7.15 million over three years (the 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13 NHL seasons.)
The cap hit that Little carried over the just completed three year contract was $2.38 million per season. However, it is important to note that in the final year of Little’s contract, the 2012-13 NHL season, Little’s actual salary was $3.0 million.
The old Collective Bargaining Agreement (the new CBA has yet to be officially completed and released—but all indications are that this clause will remain the same) sets forth that for the Winnipeg Jets to retain the contract rights to Bryan Little, they would have to qualify him at an annual salary of $3.0 million. This does not mean that Little has to accept the qualifying offer (although he has that option), but if he declines the qualifying offer (which is quite likely in this instance), the Jets, by virtue of offering him the qualifying offer of $3.0 million, would retain his contractual rights.
For the purposes of this article, we will assume that the Jets will submit the qualifying offer to Little and he will not accept the offer. As such, he will become a restricted free agent (Group 2 free agent—clause 10.2(b) of former CBA), and a number of options will present themselves to the Winnipeg Jets with regard to Bryan Little.
Option 1: Re-Sign Bryan Little
If the Jets opt to open negotiations in an attempt to re-sign Bryan Little, the organization is going to examine Little’s production and progression as an NHL player.
Here are Little’s stats since the beginning of the 2010 NHL season in Atlanta:
As of this writing, Bryan Little is 25 years old and will be 26 this upcoming November. He has just accrued his sixth NHL season meaning that his first opportunity for unrestricted free agency would come after the 2013-14 season.
At this point in his career, and for the first time, Bryan Little has some leverage in contract negotiations. Accordingly, he can steer his career, in whichever direction he deems best.
If Little believes that he will make a lot more as an unrestricted free agent in just over a year’s time, he could elect to file for salary arbitration, a right he holds under the CBA, and accept a one-year contract. In a similar vein, he can try and reach agreement on a one year contract with the Winnipeg Jets, without having to go through the frequently adversarial arbitration route.
Alternatively, Little can look to sign a three or four-year deal that will take him to his 30 year old season. A contract in excess of four or five years seems unlikely for a player who has never eclipsed 0.73 points-per-game.
So, let us assume for the purposes of this article that Little is interested in signing a three or four year contract with the Winnipeg Jets.
A number of players have produced similar numbers to Little. Here are a few of those comparable players and their respective production:
1. David Desharnais;
2. Alex Steen;
3. Mike Fisher; and
4. Frans Nielsen.
All of the above players are center, at least for the most part—as Steen does play some wing as well. Their statistical production and use is fairly similar to that of Little.
Here are the comparables and their respective salaries:
There is a bit of fluctuation with respect to the above players and their salaries, but more or less, this is a group of players that are earning second-line center money.
Option 2: Trade Bryan Little
The Jets have Mark Scheifele in the queue, but aside from Scheifele, the team is pretty thin in terms of centres. Olli Jokinen is coming off a very poor season and Alexander Burmistrov, like Little, is a restricted free agent, with an uncertain status. If the team looks to trade Little then they would likely have to acquire a centre, if not in return for Little, then in another trade or through a free agent signing.
Option 3: Bryan Little Receives an Offer Sheet
This is an unlikely option. Draft picks are a valuable currency in today’s game and a team would have to overpay in terms of both salary and draft picks in order to sign Little to an offer sheet that the Jets would decline to match (as is their prerogative, having given him a qualifying offer at the outset of the free-agency period.) It’s also worth noting that a team needs to own the proper draft picks in order to even sign a player to an offer sheet.
Coming up with an actual value for Bryan Little is an interesting exercise in that, given the role he has been used in by the Winnipeg Jets the past two seasons, Bryan Little’s agent will certainly argue that his client is a bona-fide first-line center in the NHL and deserves a contract, at least, in excess of $4.0 million per season.
From the Jets perspective, it is likely that Kevin Cheveldayoff’s intention is to sign Bryan Little to a contract that will allow Little to eventually slot in as the team’s number two center, and at a rate that is commensurate for a second line centre.
Little’s group will likely propose something like this: Five years for $20.25 million ($4.25 million cap hit per season)
Cheveldayoff and his management team will likely propose something like this: Three years for $10.5 million ($3.5 million cap hit per season)
Let’s assume that both parties understand that they do need each other somewhat. The Jets, given their dearth of centers, need one that can produce offensively. From Little’s perspective, he is getting a tremendous opportunity and showcase, lining up on a top line between Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler—an opportunity that he may not come across elsewhere.
With all of the different factors in mind, a contract with the following terms seems most reasonable given the circumstances:
Duration: Four years
Cap Hit (AAV per season): $3.75 million
Total: $15.00 million