Luca Sbisa Extension is a Bad Bet

Yesterday it was announced that 21-year old defender Luca Sbisa has signed an extension with the Anaheim Ducks. The surprising part about the news is the price of the contract: $8.7 million over the next four years for a cap hit of $2.175 million per year. That’s a lot of coin for a player that has proven nothing at the NHL level.

Sbisa was a first round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers back in 2008 and he made the team briefly as a teenager immediately after the draft. He struggled as most kids do and was eventually sent back down to the WHL where he spent most of his time over the next season and a half. Sbisa then struggled with consistency and injuries during his re-assignment, enough to convince the Flyers to include him in a deal that saw Chris Pronger arrive in town.

The Ducks thin blueline more or less guaranteed Sbisa’s place on the team this season, particularly after a few injuries thinned the herd and Brendan Mikkelson was plucked off of waivers by the Calgary Flames. The youngster has appeared in 52 games this year for Anaheim, scoring just two goals and eight points. His average ice-time has settled at 16:23 per game, good for sixth amongst Ducks defenders that have appeared in 30 or more games this year.

His underlying numbers are similarly underwhelming: only Sheldon Brookbank has faced easier competition for the Ducks this year and Sbisa’s zone start ratio of 58.8% is the easiest amongst regular defensemen on the team. Despite the buttery-soft circumstances, Sbisa’s possession rate (-15.23/60) and production rate (0.43 ESP/60) are abysmal. In short, he’s being set-up to succeed – or at least keep his head above water – but he isn’t.

As such, beyond his impressive draft pedigree and the concurrent assumption that he will eventually develop into a functional NHL defender, there was no reason for Duck GM Bob Murray to commit that much money for that long to this player. There’s absolutely no evidence right now that he will eventually become a player worthy of his current cap hit.

Even granting the assumption that Sbisa’s development curve is going to go on a steep incline over the next four years, the truth is Murray still overpaid Sbisa, a player who had next to no leverage thanks to completely lackluster results during his entry-level contract. A pending RFA with just 99 NHL games and 15 points under his belt, Sbisa had no power at the bargaining table; particularly since he is currently getting eaten up by third and fourth-line opposition. So even if Sbisa eventually turns into a player worth $2.175 million in cap space, it means Murray could have garnered far more value out of the contract by paying a market-appropriate price.

To put it another way – pretend no one knew that Luca Sbisa was a former 19th overall draft pick. If Bob Murray had to base the extension negotiations exclusively on the kids abilities and current performance, would he have bet $8.7 million over four years on him? I highly doubt it. Imagine instead that Sbisa was a former fifth-rounder, but with the exact same physical abilities and results  – does he get a big payday for appearing on the Ducks third pairing for 52 games this season? Again, probably not, because the draft pedigree anchors future projections. So even when the current results are shrug-worthy, it’s easier to fantasize that a former first-rounder will eventually become a valuable player than it is a fifth-rounder.

Unfortunately, the list of young guys with promise who never turn out is much longer than those who make the leap. As a result, extending a player for big dough over a long-term strictly on the basis of “potential” is a low-percentage gamble. As mentioned, the contract is also bad from the other angle as well since Murray should have been able to garner a far cheaper cap hit given Sbisa’s ho-hum results. The Ducks therefore lose on this deal either way – in the first, Sbisa proves to be as limited as his results suggest this year and then his contract becomes a bit of a boat anchor. In the second, Sbisa becomes a capable top-four defender, albeit one the Ducks could probably be paying far less for. He’s either going to be a poor value contract or an at-value contract rather than a high value player. Bad news in a cap environment where young guys represent the best area to provide bang for the buck.

What’s even more baffling is that Murray didn’t even purchase any of Sbisa’s UFA years, meaning the extension carries the kid to the edge of his RFA status. Usually the primary reason to extend a young guy long-term is to capture some of his UFA seasons, both because the player will likely be in his peak as an NHLer at that time and because it garners the team a year or two of potentially “below market price” seasons since the open market is where players prices tend to take a big leap forward. But the Ducks didn’t even do that.

Yeesh. Probably the only, truly commendable party in this affair is Luca’s Sbisa’s agent. Luca owes him a beer or ten I’d say.