Forecasting the future of Nate Schmidt

<em>He’s back. But how’s that shiny new contract going to look?</em>

Your national nightmare is over.

Nate Schmidt has now returned to action for the Vegas Golden Knights. While much of the focus is geared towards his play this season, there is also a comfort in knowing that No. 88 will be manning the Vegas blue line for another six years beyond this season thanks to a $35.7MM (6x5.95) contract that keeps the 27-year-old in town through the 2024-25 season.

Folks, I haven’t seen a more influential 88 since the titular rocket from Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.

However, it’s better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality, which is often difficult in the world of sports. The question as we look ahead now is: Will Nate Schmidt play at a level commensurate with his contract? While we cannot answer that right now, what we can do is look at how his historical comparables fared following receiving a similar contract.

For the sake of this exercise, I’ve pulled all defensemen who received a contract similar to Schmidt, that being +/- 2 years of his (so, 4 to 8 years), +/- $1.5MM AAV (4.45 to 7.45) and +/- 2 years in age (25 to 29). Since the beginning of this decade, that’s exactly 40 players, from Paul Martin and Dan Hamhuis on July 1, 2010 through Nate Schmidt on Oct. 25 of this year.

For this exercise, we’re using Wins Above Replacement (WAR), specifically Corsica.Hockey’s model. WAR takes into account shot rates and quality (both for and against), as well as shooting ability, zonal transitions and penalty differential.

Before you close the article in anger and shake your fist at another spreadsheet boy, let me point out that I do not believe WAR is a perfect stat and the limited availability of research done on microstats (like Ryan Stimson’s Passing Project) and their specific impact keeps us from getting a fully accurate read on a player. That being said, if I’m looking for just one number to judge a player overall, I’m taking WAR every time.

Taking a look at the arc of these players’ careers, well, it does not look particularly rosy for No. 88.

Does this mean that Schmidt will follow the same arc as this group of players? No.

In fact, if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, consider that Schmidt’s age-25 and age-26 WAR are above the average for players in this cohort, so even if he diminishes at a similar rate, he will not hit the bottoms that some of his peers might. But giving a player with just one year of performing somewhat above average with top pairing minutes a six-year contract for his age-28 to 33 seasons is more likely than not a rough move.

Paying for past performance is as innate to the sport as the pre-game nap, facial hair in the spring and looking the other way when it comes to off-the-ice issues. A defenseman’s peak in the modern game is between 25 and 28, despite tired claims that it comes later, and that’s why contracts like Torey Krug’s four-year, $21MM deal signed shortly after turning 25 are playing out so much better than Jay Bouwmeester’s five-year, $27MM deal signed just before he turned 30. Through the first two years of Krug’s deal, he has posted 2.23 WAR, while Bouwmeester has limped to a mark of -3.39 through the first four years of his.

It’s hard to predict the future. For every Brent Burns (five-year contract, $5.76MM AAV, 6.44 WAR total), there’s a Jason Garrison (six years, $4.6MM AAV, -3.24 WAR). Schmidt should fall somewhere in the middle of these two, but whether he’s closer to Chewbacca or one of the less notable inaugural Golden Knights relies on myriad factors. His health, his deployment, his partner, his willingness to learn a different move in the offensive zone besides the head-fake will surely contribute to how well Schmidt lives up to his contract.

Of the seven players in the study to have signed a contract that would kick in prior to their age-28 season like Schmidt, only one has shown notably positive results even within the first two years (Jeff Petry, 1.64 WAR), while the likes of Jason Demers, Erik Johnson, Andrew MacDonald, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle and Dan Hamhuis ranged from -0.64 (Demers, MacDonald) to 0.13 (Garrison).

This is not to bring your spirits down after witnessing a fan favorite return to the ice. Instead, it’s a word of caution against late-20s extensions. With few exceptions, the player’s best days are behind them the moment that contract kicks in, and hoping for former glory is a fool’s errand.

Could be worse, though. Could be the Jack Johnson deal.