Vladislav Gavrikov's new contract with Kings could be trendsetter in NHL offseason

The veteran defenseman's short extension with the Kings might have some free agents reconsidering prioritizing long-term security.

It's not surprising the Los Angeles Kings re-signed defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov on Wednesday.

After all, they liked him enough to acquire him at the trade deadline at the cost of their top draft pick in 2023, and he thrived for the team in a top-four role down the stretch.

What was eye-opening was the specifics of the contract. As a 27-year-old who'd proven himself capable of eating significant minutes, Gavrikov could've commanded a lengthy deal that ran into his thirties. Instead, he opted for a two-year pact.

Vladislav Gavrikov only signed a two-year deal with the Kings instead of opting for a long-term pact. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Vladislav Gavrikov only signed a two-year deal with the Kings instead of opting for a long-term pact. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In theory, negotiating a short-term deal that maximizes AAV and trying to hit free agency multiple times is a reasonable strategy for maximizing a player's income. In practice, the vast majority of players who can command a lengthy contract aim for the longest term and highest total value they can get.

You could call that risk aversion or the wisest course in a contact sport where career-ending injuries are a real risk. Teams like cost certainty and players like stability. The typical result is relatively long contracts.

Right now, Gavrikov looks like a significant outlier. That might not be the case by the end of the offseason, though.

That's because the trajectory of the salary cap is playing a significant role here. The salary cap for 2023-24 is estimated to sit at $83.5 million, a $1-million jump from 2022-23 — and just $2 million higher than it was back in 2019-20.

It makes sense for Gavrikov to avoid negotiating a deal that runs through his entire prime at a time when team's budgets aren't growing in a meaningful way.

With the cap projected to reach $92 million in 2025-26, he will become a free agent again at a time when 32 NHL teams will have significantly more money to throw around after years of struggling with a flat cap. That scenario is likely to result in a player-friendly free-agent market.

Going this route isn't a good strategy for every player. Some prominent free agents like Patrick Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Max Pacioretty are deep enough into their thirties that this is their last, best, chance to cash in.

Other players have accumulated relatively minimal career earnings prior to free agency, and may not feel they have the financial security to pass up the largest available total payday. Winger Michael Bunting, for instance, has approximate career earnings of $2.28 million. He could justifiably believe that a short-term gamble wouldn't be in his best interest as a result.

Gavrikov had earned over $10 million prior to his deal with the Kings thanks to a three-year bridge contract he signed in 2020. If deciding to pass up a long-term commitment ends up being a poor decision, the consequences wouldn't be as dire for him as they would be for some players.

While his model might not work for everyone, there are a few candidates to break the mold and follow his example this offseason:

Ivan Barbashev, LW: Golden Knights

Why a short deal could work: Like Gavrikov, Barbashev is 27, which is the perfect age for this maneuver. If the winger signed a two-year deal he could hit the market again before his 30th birthday and still land a significant payday.

Barbashev has also only produced at a top-six level over the last two seasons after generating just 0.33 points per game in the first five years of his NHL career. Two more years of quality production in the best setting he can find on this year's free agent market could have his track record looking stronger by 2025-26.

Why Barbashev might go long: This is a situation where there might be a benefit to striking while the iron is hot.

Barbashev has been outstanding for the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs and he could go down as a Stanley Cup champion's key in-season addition. That's a strong negotiating position to land a lucrative deal from.

Max Domi, C/LW: Stars

Why a short deal could work: Domi has over $20 million in career earnings, which could inspire him to take the riskier course of action. He's also bounced around a lot in recent years, and might find that two years of stability could do his resume some good — as long as he produces.

Hitting the market as a 30-year-old top-six option with the versatility to play centre if needed could have Domi in line for a sizeable contract in 2025-26.

Why Domi might go long: After a trio of middling seasons after his 72-point campaign in 2018-19, Domi finally put everything together last season and may see now as the right time to cash in.

Like Barbashev, he was an important in-season addition for a Stars team that made a deep playoff run, and there's a solid chance his stock is higher now than it would be in two years.

J.T. Compher, C: Avalanche

Why a short deal could work: Compher took on the biggest role of his career in 2022-23, skating 20:32 per night as the Colorado Avalanche's second-line centre. Because he's mostly been a bottom-six player in the past, teams may not be willing to pay him at last season's level of production just yet.

If he's able to put together two more years as a quality second pivot he could hit the market at 30 with a lineup of suitors knocking on his door. He also has some security coming off a four-year contract with a $3.5 million AAV.

Why Compher might go long: Any player coming off a career year has to strongly consider going for the biggest guarantee on the table.

Compher has also dealt with a few injuries in the past, as 2022-23 is the only season he's played 82 games. That could color his thinking.

Ryan Graves, D: Devils

Why a short deal could work: Graves just turned 28 and he has a rock-solid track record as a stabilizing defensive force with the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils. Over the last four years he's skated between 18:57 and 20:43 with a point total ranging from 15 to 28.

He's been a prominent penalty killer each year and posted slightly positive total possession metrics despite starting the majority of shifts in the defensive zone.

His value would seem to hold as long as he is consistent over the next two years, and he won't be too old to land a big deal in a better environment. Because he stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 220 pounds, teams are likely to be confident that he'll age well.

Like Compher, he's coming off a relatively lucrative bridge deal. He's made $9.5 million over the last three years.

Why Graves might go long: The best argument for Graves to cash in now is the scarcity of trustworthy blueliners available on the free-agent market — especially with Gavrikov off the board.

Graves may feel like he's among the very best players available at his position, and he's younger than alternatives like Dmitry Orlov (31), Shayne Gostisbehere (30), and John Klingberg (30).