Sam Reinhart has become a polarizing player for the Buffalo Sabres. Many fans have differing views on the former second overall pick and the contract he deserves going forward.
We’re not going to discuss how good of a player he is today. Instead, we’re going to focus on what his next contract could look like. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer and arguably the most important deal to get worked out in the offseason.
This time around the 24-year-old winger carriers a bigger hammer in his contract negotiations with the Sabres. Not only has he had a linear growth in production throughout his career, but he’s arbitration-eligible.
In most restricted free agent contract negotiations the team has the upper hand because they have the exclusive rights of the player and there are no real threats of an offer sheet. However, a player with arbitration rights does carry more power than your normal restricted free agent. A non-arbitration eligible restricted free agent has no recourse besides sitting out if negotiations are not going their way.
Restricted free agents with arbitration rights can just file for salary arbitration and get their contract for the following season that way if the two sides cannot come to an agreement. The benefit to that for players in Reinhart’s situation is that they can slow-walk their team to unrestricted free agency at a young age. Reinhart could take two arbitration awards and enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2022 at 26-years-old.
It’s important to treat these types of negotiations as different from regular restricted free agent situations and understand it’s possibel that the term and annual average value will come in higher than non-arbitration eligible RFA’s.
Alright, so let’s start to work our way to finding out what the market value should be for Reinhart this summer. I went to one of the best resources in the sport, Cap Friendly, to pull the players that signed contracts in the last four years (2016-2020) that were restricted free agents with arbitration rights with an annual average value of around $7 million. That list yielded 24 players worth of comparable contracts to put up against Reinhart.
The first thing that jumped out in the comps was the contract term. Below you’ll see a histogram that breaks down the contract lengths of these 24 contracts.
The overwhelming majority of players (41.6%) signed deals with a contract length of five years. The second-highest term length was four years. If the Sabres signed Reinhart to a five-year deal it would take him to age 29.
Cap Hit Percentage
Figuring out the term was the easy part of this journey. Now, we’re going to move onto the meat and potatoes.
First, it’s important to understand when comparing contracts you want to use cap hit percentage (C.H.%) as opposed to looking at straight cap hits. The reason for that is because of the inflation of the salary cap. It goes up every year, therefore, a contract carrying a $5.9 million annual average value back in 2016 is not the same in 2020.
Most teams and agents still utilize points and goals as the baseline for determining the contract worth of a player. Thus I’ll do the same here. The chart below breaks down how the 24 contracts I’ve mentioned plot out when looking at cap hit percentage and points per game for each player at the time they signed that contract. The size of the circle represents the number of games played. The larger the bubble the more games the player participated in leading up to signing the current contract.
I made sure to notate Reinhart with the red dot so he’s easier to find on the chart. For the charting above I projected him to have a $7 million cap hit with a salary cap of $83 million which would make his cap hit percentage 8.43%.
The Vancouver-native ranked fifth among the 24 players in this grouping in points per game (0.69). That number could change of course as the season moves on, but I decided to use his point totals up to this point in the season. The average C.H.% of the four players above him is 9.24% and the four below him are 7.55%.
Looking at the data, the most comparable contract to Reinhart may be that of Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau. He signed his contract back in 2016 at 23-years-old. Huberdeau agreed to a six-year deal that carried a cap hit of $5.9 million. At the time, that was a C.H.% of 8.08%. He was a high pick similar to Reinhart and scored at slightly lower points per game clip of 0.63.
If Reinhart was given a new contract with an 8.08% cap hit percentage on an $83 million salary cap that gives him an annual average value of $6.71 million. Taking into account some inflation and other comparable contracts recently signed you can begin to establish a window for Reinhart. The fair value for him on a new deal to carry a cap hit between $6.7 to $7.1 million on a five-year deal.
You can debate amongst yourselves if you feel he’s worthy of a contract of that magnitude. For me, it’s an easy decision to lock up a player of his caliber to the type of contract that we concluded above.
Any fears of Reinhart slipping up towards $8 million are overplayed at this point. If the Sabres agree to a contract close to $8 million it’ll be a failure on their end to negotiate down to the proper market value of the player.
We’ll see how this shakes out over the summer for Reinhart and the Sabres. He’s one of a handful of players that are restricted free agents that Jason Botterill or a new general manager will have to deal with.