On Wednesday, the Anaheim Ducks announced that they had signed centre Ryan Kelser to a six-year contract extension. As per club policy, financial terms were not disclosed, but minutes later, Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register had the details:
Kesler had one year left on his current contract and would have been a free agent next summer, which means his new deal will take effect beginning in the 2016-17 NHL season. Kesler turns 31 in August, so he’ll play his first game on his new contract at age 32 and complete it at 37.
It’s a massive risk for the Ducks, and it’s reminiscent of the old days in the NHL, when players didn’t hit free agency until age 31. As a result, many players hit the jackpot contract-wise just as the least effective years of their respective playing careers.
Kesler looks set to follow in that pattern. His scoring is already eroding; his three worst seasons in terms of points per hour at five-on-five since breaking into the league full time in 2005-06 have all happened in the last four years. The lone exception, 2012-13, saw Kesler play just 17 games.
Looking at Kesler’s 11-season career, it neatly breaks into three segments of roughly equal length:
|Ryan Kesler's 5-on-5 scoring over his career|
|Career Segment||Games||5v5 P/60||P/60 Rk.|
|First four seasons||237||1.48||275|
|Middle three seasons||245||2.00||72|
|Last four seasons||252||1.34||264|
The most interesting item on that chart is the final column, which shows where Kesler’s scoring ranks among all NHL forwards (min. 1,200 minutes per segment, which produces 12-13 forwards per team).
As Kesler broke into the league, he produced at roughly a third-line rate, which makes sense as he worked his way up the depth chart from the bottom. In the heart of his career, he was a legitimate first-line forward (30 teams in the NHL equals 90 first-line forwards) in terms of even-strength scoring.
That’s changed over the last four years. At a rate of 1.34 points/hour, it puts Kesler in a tie for 264th among NHL forwards over that span, placing him at the same level of production as Mike Richards, Patrick Eaves and Daniel Briere over that stretch. He’s scoring at a rate typical of a No. 9 forward for an average NHL team.
Now, to be sure, Kesler does other things. He’s an excellent defensive player. He contributes on both special teams units. He plays a gritty, physical game. He is more than the sum of his scoring totals.
But his scoring totals are like the proverbial canary in a coal mine: They warn us that Kesler is not just entering his declining years as a player—he's actually well into them already. The erosion of his scoring is likely to be followed by declines in other areas of his game.
This contract is a massive risk for the Ducks in the sense that the team is committing long term to a declining player. But it’s actually even worse than that. Based on his scoring, a $6.875 million cap hit is an overpay in the here and now. By the age of 37, it may well be an overpay of comic proportion.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.