As has been well documented in FlightZone everyday, things are heated between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ryan Johansen. To be more accurate, things are heated between Johansen's agent, Kurt Overhardt, and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The heart of the issue is the bridge contract and what defines a fair deal for a young player. To make matters more interesting, Columbus president John Davidson believes that RFAs without arbitration rights should bend to the teams demands, no questions asked.
Interesting stuff from John Davidson on RFAs coming off of their ELCs. From The Hockey News. pic.twitter.com/Iz3eOJE9Jk— Cara (@HappyCaraT) September 17, 2014
The above quote is interesting because a RFA is a restricted (the team receives compensation if the player joins another team) free agent. The key is FREE AGENT. Unlike other RFAs (namely Torey Krug and Reilly Smith of the Boston Bruins), Ryan Johansen has rights to sign an offer-sheet. Now back to the heart of the issue; is a bridge contract the prudent choice for both player and team.
One other caveat is that John Davidson has the right to believe that a RFA with no arbitration rights should bend to the will of his team, while Ryan Johansen has the right to try to be paid as much as his agent can negotiate on any type of contract.
Ideally, a bridge contract is a method of evaluation that a club can use to judge both the performance and the personality of a player before committing both money and term to that player. When used correctly, both team and player can benefit in the long run because the club will have had more time to become familiar with the player and the player will have been able to better establish themselves in the league and therefore be able to ask for more money.
A good example of a team using bridge contracts to mutual benefit is the Montreal Canadiens and just about every player that they have drafted and have remained with the team. From Tomas Plekanec to PK Subban, the Montreal Canadiens have used the concept of bridge contracts on six current players (with a good chance they will sign four more to them this offseason), the Habs have turned the bridge contract into a right of passage for young players and it seems to be the expectation that players sign a bridge contract and that they will be properly compensated for their performance after a larger sample size has been created. Nowadays, this behaviour can help max out how long a player will play for a team because of the max contract length. Instead of going with a 3 year entry level contract to an 8 year big money deal, the Habs are able to add in another 2 years of service, taking the total from 11 years to 13 years, including a players prime.
The Winnipeg Jets had the opportunity to exercise the expanded sample size when it came to the maligned Zach Bogosian last summer. Prior to this year, Bogosian had played 5 years in the NHL to varying degrees of success (I was looking at war-on-ice for some context) and he had exactly one year of positive relative corsi and that was the year he received his current contract. With 4 previous seasons of bad to middling possession stats, it would have made sense to still not be fully committal to Bogosian and to let him bet on himself and sign him to a contract spanning a single season. If he showed that he had actually taken a step forward, and that his stronger numbers was not the an aberration. Sadly for the Jets, it was just that and now they are stuck with Bogosian making over $5 million/year for 6 more years because of a simple mistake with sample size and betting on a player taking a step forward when it appears as though that player did not take that step forward.
Ryan Johansen is 21 years old. He had a break-out year which may have a lot to do with his even-strength shooting percentage. It is well within his right to try to max out his earnings from his breakout year, especially because his career could end tomorrow from an injury. For a player to accept a bridge deal they are betting on themselves to not only continue improving, but to also remain healthy.This is a major gamble. In most cases, it pays off if the player is talented enough or if the player is a high first round pick. It is a gamble though and some players would rather take a long term contract that is below market value for an extended period of time, rather than risk the bridge deal leading to a large payday. Think a player like John Tavares, whose contract is one of the best in the game.
By signing a bridge contract, the player can also gain arbitration rights; another negotiating tool which, when used correctly, can help lead to a long term contract (again, reference Subban and the Habs). This is important because, as noted by John Davidson, players coming out of their entry level contracts (ELCs) hold no leverage. Leverage can be gained by caving; signing the bridge contract and then effectively holding all the cards in the next negotiation if the player continues to develop as it is assumed they will.
As I already mentioned, a bridge deal can provide a larger sample size on a player and allow them to become that much more comfortable with handing them over large amounts of money. As Andrew Berkshire pointed out last year, the Montreal Canadiens benefited in the short and long term in signing PK Subban to a bridge deal. Over the course of Subban's two year bridge contract the Montreal Canadiens were able to keep their veteran core together and then, when they were ready, they signed him to a long term, massive money contract. The two year bridge not only allowed GM Marc Bergevin to keep his team intact and add Thomas Vanek at the trade deadline, it also gave him extra time to evaluate Subban both on and off the ice. There has to be a high level of comfort between team and player before agreeing to this type of big money contract, unless one wants to be like Paul Holmgren and trade guys as their contracts kick in.
The bridge contract is a key tool in both team and player arsenal. It allows the team to gain two extra years of service from a player, while in the player gains years of service and arbitration rights. If the relationship between the two parties change at any point during the bridge contract, that contract becomes a highly trade-able and desire-able contract because it usually has a low cap hit, the player will be a RFA at the end of the contract, and the worst case scenario is an arbitration hearing at the end of the contract.
Bridge contracts are talked about as a dirty tactic used by teams to underpay young stars, but bridge contracts can be a mutually beneficial tool that allows the player to gain more arsenal for negotiations in the form of arbitration rights and for the team to gain more intel, both on and off the ice, on said player. Before you give a player both term and money, you want to be comfortable with that player inside and out. Teams are signing players to huge amounts of money, and they should want to ensure that the money is going to the type of player that they want to represent their team for a long time.
As for utilizing the bridge contract to its full capacity, I don't think there is any team more consistent at using them or a team that benefits more from them than the Montreal Canadiens. Over the span of three (3) GMs, the Habs have signed almost every young player to a bridge contract and have retained and rewarded the ones who deserve such treatment.