What We Learned: NHL bridge contracts and their many evils

Ryan Johansen signed an eight-year extension on Friday that will pay him $8 million per season.

This is one of those contracts where you say, “Ah maybe it’s a little high for now but if he keeps developing along this path then it won’t be for long.” Johansen is awesome, and a clear No. 1 center on a team that desperately needed it. Moreover, the Preds didn’t exactly have a cap crunch to consider, so you pay your best players basically whatever they want and, as suggested last week, ensure you have a mid-20s core locked up for at least three or four years going forward.

But make no mistake: This is a big contract, and some will try to say that it’s a sign the NHL is moving in the perfectly logical direction of simply paying good young players what they’re worth when they first come up for a new deal.

The problem with this idea is that it’s simply not true. This isn’t Connor McDavid — arguably the best player in the world already — coming out of his entry-level contract and immediately becoming the best-paid player in the league. This is a 25-year-old (as of today), six-year veteran, who in addition to only feeling young because he only recently got the role he deserved, also just wrapped up what was by any measure a three-year bridge deal.

Johansen signed that extension, which paid him a $4 million AAV, a few years back and the bill came due for his new team. David Poile happily paid it, and why wouldn’t he? To old-school NHL front-office types, this is how the system “should” work: Guy plays his full ELC, guy earns a “second contract” that still inexplicably withholds his full dollar value from him. Then, when the guy is aging out of his prime, that’s when you pay him. The question is whether this is a responsible or fair way of going about things.

“Fair” of course has nothing to do with it, really, I’m just a worker’s rights guy. But it doesn’t seem particularly responsible for teams to pursue the bridge-deal route in most cases. Certainly if you’ve got a promising young talent coming out of his ELC and you’re not totally sure what you have on your hands, a bridge deal might make sense.

To some extent, it might have been reasonable for Columbus to kind of force his hand there, simply because he went from 5-7-12 with rotten underlying numbers in 40 games during the lockout-shortened season to 33-30-63 with solid (but not great) possession the next season. If you’re trying to determine what a player “is,” choosing between a season in which he shot 6 percent versus one a year later in which he shot 14 percent isn’t necessarily easy.

Three years is probably on the long side of what you’d expect a bridge deal to look like though. Most are a one-year prove-it contract, or two years at the maximum. Johansen immediately showed why going three was worth it for Columbus, netting 97 points over his next (and last) 120 games with the Blue Jackets before he got run out of town. He’s picked up another 95 in his last 124 with Nashville. This means it’s a reasonable bet for Poile that, in the next four or five years, he’ll probably produce somewhere in the 60-to-65-point range with the Predators, and that’s probably worth $8 million a year when you lump in the fact that Johansen and his recent linemates have become impactful possession players as well.

While Poile didn’t sign the Johansen bridge deal, it’s worth wondering whether it was a good idea for Columbus to have signed it, rather than locking down the player for the past three years and then another three to five afterward. Obviously they weren’t totally sold on the player but given the total lack of pragmatism they’ve exhibited in giving out other contracts for that roster it’s weird to draw the line at slightly overpaying for a guy everyone thinks has the ceiling to become a franchise center.

This gets a little hypothetical, obviously, but if you can have Johansen for six years at $5.5 million or $6 million, locking him up from age 21 to 27 (his entire prime), is that not better than having him for three years at $4 million then eight years at $8 million? Obviously it’s nice to have a player controlled for 11 seasons total, but you end up overpaying on the back end there. The odds that Johansen, who’s very good now in the prime of his prime years, will be this kind of contributor at 31 or 32 years old aren’t exactly great. But if he’s coming due for a new contract when he’s 27 — or hell, if you go eight years right out of the ELC, 29 — then you can have a more realistic discussion about what his true value is.

The same is true for another guy Poile acquired in a big trade: PK Subban. Subban signed a two-year bridge deal for the lockout year and the season following, signed a big eight-year extension with a $9 million AAV, and got traded for political reasons two seasons later. Would Subban still be in Montreal if Marc Bergevin had given Subban a more judicious, lower-AAV, longer-term deal? Tough to say given the behind-the-scenes machinations, but he just wrapped up what would have been the fifth season of any long-term deal with the Canadiens, and the value he would have provided at, say, $6 million would be tremendous.

(Although, frankly, unless you’re Poile the odds that you’re going to still have your job a decade down the road are negligible.)

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The Predators obviously aren’t the only team in the league dealing with bridge contracts. They’re still fairly standard practice around the NHL and one team in particular that deploys them liberally is Tampa Bay. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson just wrapped twin three-year deals that paid them $3.33 million per. The circumstances with both of them were a lot like Johansen’s: they went from fringe performer to 50-point guys in a single season (at age 22 and 23, respectively) and Steve Yzerman likely wanted to see what he really had before committing even bigger money. Nikita Kucherov is currently working his way through a similar deal at a similar age (but with a little more AAV since that cap keeps going up).

Here, too, it helps because Tampa would have been in a bit of a cap crunch if it had given guys longer-term deals for bigger money, since they would have been buying UFA years in bulk. But it takes a guy like Yzerman, who’s an expert at wheeling and dealing, and finding suckers to take his various bad contracts (of which there are still too many), to maneuver out of it.

There are plenty of other bridge deals around the league, but it’s hard to find too many that definitively worked out for the teams in question. There aren’t a lot of examples where teams got deep into the playoffs or had phenomenal regular seasons because they used the free cap space a bridge deal provided to go get a great player, but there are several examples of bridge deals that became big, long contracts, the results of which are still very much up in the air.

This is a League where we love to talk about cost certainty in all its various forms. If you think you have a young potential superstar on your hands, it seems wiser to gamble that he’ll work out than to gamble that he won’t.

That kind of thinking probably saves you a few headaches and a lot of cap space five, six, seven, eight years down the road.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: I think you’d have a hard time finding 15 defensemen in the entire league better than Hampus Lindholm, but here’s a blue ribbon panel that thinks he’s not even a top-20 player under the age of 25 for some reason.

Arizona Coyotes: Yeah yeah Rick Tocchet new to the job seems excited blah blah blah. They really need to bring back the acid-trip Coyotes jersey.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins shouldn’t pursue another undersized college UFA defenseman because they… already have Torey Krug? Am I getting that right? We’re talking about the Torey Krug who’s currently Boston’s second-best defenseman? The thing with these kinds of takes is pretty simple: How many times has a naysayer — or indeed, a supporter of acquiring a Will Butcher or Jimmy Vesey or Kevin Hayes — seen the kid in question play? I saw Butcher plenty of times over his four-year college career, whether on TV or, very occasionally, live. Point is: If you have reasonable expectations for what a player can be (i.e. not writing Vesey into your top-six in ink because he scored 25 goals in the ECAC) then you’re not going to end up disappointed with an asset that costs you nothing but money. Is Will Butcher an NHLer? Probably a decent depth puck-mover, if I had to guess. But the idea that you could get a guy like that for basically nothing and your take is, “Pass,” that’s just silly. Especially if you couldn’t pick the guy out of a lineup. I’ll have more on this in mid-August, when Butcher can actually hit the free agent market, but I can tell you for sure: This is another thing I’m right about.

Buffalo Sabres: I heard not a word about the new Lehner contract this past week. That’s weird. I think it’ll work out for the Sabres. Lehner’s a player.

Calgary Flames: If your answer to this question isn’t “Jarome Iginla” why not go ahead and log off.

Carolina Hurricanes: This rules.

Chicago: Well, this take is tough to disagree with: If Corey Crawford isn’t .920-plus next season (and he almost always is) this team is in a lot of trouble.

Colorado Avalanche: Wow, Rocco Grimaldi!

Columbus Blue Jackets: I wonder how many more season tickets the Avs sold after the Save By Roy year. No particular reason this comes up now.

Dallas Stars: Now that the Stars are hosting the draft next year, I wonder who the best-ever NHLer from Texas is. Brian Leetch doesn’t count, but that means it’s probably, like, Stefan Noesen.

Detroit Red Wings: Smart take from Dellow on why Ken Holland’s belief he can conjure another Cup contender while not-tanking is foolish.

Edmonton Oilers: What’s the ceiling on this team, you think? Last year’s success was heavily dependent on extremely good goaltending, and I’m not sure how repeatable that is. Connor McDavid obviously takes things a few steps forward, but I dunno. Are they even the third-best team in the West?

Florida Panthers: The Panthers allegedly said they would offer Jagr a contract and then just didn’t do it. Very strange.

Los Angeles Kings: I keep meaning to write about the Kings and their offense and then I keep forgetting. But the thrust of this is correct: They need more goals. I’m just not sure who scores them.

Minnesota Wild: Can we please leave Bruce Boudreau alone with this “playoff disappointment” thing? Like, one year, just everyone let him go a whole summer without talking about it, with the implication always being “You must know what a loser you are.” At this point it’s perverse.

Montreal Canadiens: Didn’t I just write this take?

Nashville Predators: If Mike Fisher comes back as your No. 3 center on a short-money deal I think that probably works out okay for all involved.

New Jersey Devils: I always thought Mirco Mueller was better than he’s shown so far. Hopefully he becomes a decent contributor this year.

New York Islanders: Oh yeah they’re gonna get that new arena baby wooooooo.

New York Rangers: The Rangers have an incredibly rich pipeline of goaltending talent. It’s pretty amazing. Doesn’t help ’em this year, but y’know…

Ottawa Senators: Who on earth is signing Chris Neil in 2017? Good lord.

Philadelphia Flyers: Is the implication here that Claude Giroux was in some way at fault for the Flyers missing the playoffs last year? He didn’t have a great season (fewer than 15 goals???) but c’mon.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Oh man, yeah, why wouldn’t Will Butcher go to Pittsburgh? That would be an awesome fit. The Penguins have a ton of former college guys.

San Jose Sharks: The answer to this question could be pretty scary for the Sharks.

St. Louis Blues: What leads one to say something like this? I don’t understand it.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Vladislav Namestnikov is good at what he does. Tampa has a lot of guys like that, I guess.

Toronto Maple Leafs: At this point I tend to agree: Why not keep Tyler Bozak as your (slightly overpaid) No. 3 center? He’s okay there.

Vancouver Canucks: How many times has this type of story been written?

Vegas Golden Knights: The team is looking for an inspirational message like “Play like a champion today” or “Just win, baby.” For now, let’s go with “Don’t get your hopes up.”

Washington Capitals: No one doubts the Capitals have “a good team” but the question is “How good?” and the answer is “Probably not good enough.”

Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck is one of those goalies who’s going to get out of Winnipeg and see his save percentage go up like 10 points immediately.

Gold Star Award

Sign Jagr.

Minus of the Weekend

A really very cool and great thing the Golden Knights are doing in looking for an ice crew is asking for applicants’ height, weight, and hair color. Originally (before some blowback) they also asked for marital status. Radical.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “letsgooooooojackets” leads me to wonder how many centers the Leafs actually need.

To NYI:
Morgan Rielly
James Van Riemsdyk
1st round pick 2018
Conditional second round pick
3rd round pick 2019

To TOR:
John Tavares
Nick Leddy

Signoff

That’s the worst name I ever heard.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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