1. Stating the obvious
It was no surprise — to anyone, you’d hope — that Brad Treliving said on pack-up day that his big job this summer was getting Mark Giordano re-signed. And that’s smart and it makes sense because you don’t want the pall of that contract situation looming over the entirety of next season.
Giordano would have won the Norris two years running if he hadn’t gotten hurt, because he’s been exceptional in all parts of the ice for about 120 games. That he got hurt has been extremely damaging to his club, and his ability to pile up awards that should by rights be his. There’s no question that he’s been one of the league’s two or three best defensemen on the balance of these last two seasons, even having missed a quarter of that time.
But as I wrote in my big wrap-up of the Flames’ season and what they’re potentially going to do this summer, I’m not sure about extending him long-term.
That’s not to say he doesn’t deserve to cash in because he’s been a good defenseman in this league for a long time now. But for a team as devoted to being competitive not just in the next three years but over the next 10 as the Flames say they are, giving him a lengthy at the big price point he’s going to seek (and again, he totally deserves it because he is great) might not be worth it for the Flames in the long term.
If he’s 27 years old next year, heading into his contract year, you probably don’t mind giving him six, seven, eight years at whatever dollar value he wants. Even if he starts to slow down in his mid-30s, you at least got a lot of value out of that contract (in theory) and if you have to pay for a few years of middling play or worse, then that’s the cost of doing business.
But instead, he will be 32 years old on Oct. 3. That means that two days after his new contract starts, he will be 33. Most defensemen, even the very best ones, tend to start losing whatever tread is left on their tires around 34 or 35. Many stick around after that point, but few are worthy of being paid what Giordano will almost certainly command.
And that’s the issue the Flames face.
2. What could be good?
Obviously if you sign Mark Giordano to a contract extension of any length, you are getting at least a few years of elite defending. He plays the toughest minutes, and he pushes those toughest opponents around pretty convincingly. Here are the top 20 defensemen over the last two seasons in terms of 5-on-5 minutes per game (the guy who gets cut off at the bottom there is Keith Yandle):
Clearly, this is an elite defenseman (even if he took a bit of a step back this year) and he’s basically worth whatever number he writes down and slides across Treliving’s desk. We’re talking a PK Subban-level contract. Right now, Giordano is worth that, and maybe more.
Almost any number you look at, basically, is one in which Giordano could be considered elite. Offensive production is second only to that freak — and I mean it in the best way possible — Erik Karlsson. Zone starts are sixth-toughest, penalty differential is 10th (and Brodie’s is first at plus-11!), scoring chances against per 60 is ninth (and it’s first relative to the rest of his team, at almost double the second guy), shot suppression per 60 is second. The list goes on and on.
I mean, look at how effectively he suppresses shots against. It’s amazing:
This guy has been flat-out amazing for two years. There’s no other way to say it or spin it.
3. What could be (potentially) (very) bad?
The first thing that gives me pause about extending Giordano, again, is his age. Few defensemen are elite in this league past 34 or 35, and the three who have been since the shootout was introduced are named Lidstrom, Chara, and Rafalski. This is a rare breed of player. By giving Giordano anything more than, say, three years, you’re basically gambling the majority of his huge contract that he is in that group; that he’s one of the four best aging defensemen of the last decade. It’s a huge risk.
The second thing that gives me pause is the aforementioned injuries. What if he can’t play at this level and stay healthy for the full 82 (plus playoffs whenever they come again) reliably? If you have to put a guy on the shelf for even, say 15 percent of the games over the course of the contract — and remember that injuries pile up as you age — that’s a huge chunk of dead cap space to deal with, even if the ceiling goes up over that time, which it may or may not depending upon expansion and things of this nature.
The case really boils down to whether Brad Treliving thinks Mark Giordano at from ages 35 to 38 at the very least is capable of being anything like today’s Mark Giordano. I know that we’re supposed to be mega-enamored of his leadership and everything like that, but if it comes down to, “Well we’re paying a 37-year-old No. 4 or 5 defenseman $8.5 million against the cap for leadership purposes,” then that would be insane.
(Of course, GMs who are put in charge of rebuilds are typically not the ones who stick around for when they’re actually capable of succeeding, so the odds that Treliving would be simply kicking someone else’s financial problems down the road are quite high.)
The wheels really can fall off at any time with defensemen, and particularly those whose trademark is, at least in part, physicality. Giordano is a guy who’s not fun to play against, certainly, but that might also be contributing to these injuries the last two seasons. Suppose he has to fundamentally change the way he plays to avoid injury as he ages; does he carry the same value?
4. Decent comparisons
I was talking to Thomas Drance about this yesterday, and a guy to whom he compared the risk of a Future Giordano who gets broken down relatively quickly is Kevin Bieksa. It’s a little silly on the surface because Bieksa was never in the conversation for a Norris, let alone two.
But because of how quickly Bieksa rose to prominence in the league, and then how quickly he fell out of it again, it’s easy to forget that for a period of a few years there, he was dominant. Here’s Bieksa’s CF% for his entire career:
Note where he spikes. From 2009-10 to 20011-12. He was on a bit of an
upward swing before that but then he dropped off a cliff. I didn’t show
it here but that also lines up pretty well with his spikes in scoring
both individual and for his teams, and other factors. Not surprisingly,
that was when the Canucks were at the height of their powers, just before they collapsed. His ages for those three seasons: 28, 29, and 30.
Now let’s compare that with Giordano’s possession numbers across his entire career:
You have to keep in mind that this isn’t relative to the team, but overall, and that accounts for some of the poorer stretches of late. But here I see a guy who performed a lot like Bieksa overall for a lot of his career (except in the early days, when Giordano was being used selectively on much better Flames teams, and therefore could sustain higher levels of possession). Giordano’s ages for his most effective recent seasons were 30 and 31.
He played at a higher level than Bieksa, but there’s a non-zero chance that he drops as far, relatively, over the next two or three years, let alone six or seven. Remember, this is the Bieksa who got frickin’ crushed this season, and shouldn’t have even been on the ice in that series against Calgary a few weeks back. Will Giordano ever fall that far? Maybe, maybe not. I’d lean toward no, but the point is that you can’t be certain. By the time he’s 38 and still getting this kind of money — and remember, that’s only on a five-year deal — I’d think it more likely he looks like Bieksa this year than not.
Put another way: Only 12 defensemen since 2005-06 played into their age-37 season. Five didn’t make it to age-38. Only three survived to 39. And to a man, not one of that lucky dozen was worth anything close to an elite-level contract. Save for Nick Lidstrom, because he is a cyborg.
5. The ideal situation
I mean, IDEALLY, what happens here is Brad Treliving says “Five years at $5.5 million per,” and Giordano says, “Where do I sign?”
But they’re going to have to roll out the big bucks for him, and rightly so. I could never begrudge a player of Giordano’s quality, who has never in his career enjoyed a big payday, for wanting to get paid major money. He’s more than earned it. What I’m not convinced of is that Calgary should be the team that gives it to him. Will they? Almost certainly. Should they? Probably not.
Taking into account all the reasons I outlined above, plus the fact that large paychecks are also going to be due to guys like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sam Bennett within the next two to five years (the latter if you account for any shorter-term, low-cost bridge deals they might sign), you have to consider the possibility of trading Giordano.
Letting him walk is not an option, but if you can’t keep the years down on this deal — anything beyond four seems onerous to me; I would barely accept paying a 37-year-old Giordano huge money as “the cost of doing business — you absolutely must start making phone calls.
The asking price would be enormous, but there would certainly be some teams who would be very interested. In much the same way guys of this caliber almost never hit free agency (Zdeno Chara might be the only elite defenseman to do so in the modern era), so too do they almost never hit the trade market. Calgary could very easily demand a raft of picks, prospects, and potentially even some younger roster players to even out the money, and be justified in doing so.
The odds that any of them become a Giordano-level elite contributor at any position would, of course, be quite low. But if you’re serious about competing when the four obvious young long-term contributors on this club (Brodie is of course the other) are in their prime or just past it between four and six years from now, overpaying an aged defenseman is very, very likely to be detrimental, no matter how good of a guy he is in the room.
If Giordano can be convinced to take a decent-sized hometown discount in years (and maybe dollars, but you can be flexible there if you get the term down), compared with what he would get on the open market, I’m all for it. But the odds that this will happen are almost zero. And so Treliving has a huge decision to make: Either significantly hurt his team’s long-term flexibility with a guy who’s likely to drop off big-time in the next few years, or trade his superstar defenseman captain and hope this rebuild continues to work out.