The Ryan Johansen contract dispute is the biggest contract talk going in the NHL as training camps begin, as you might expect. Johansen is young, with a great pedigree (4th overall in 2010), and is coming off a seemingly breakout season that also led Columbus to its first playoff relevance in quite a while. And yet Johansen is unsigned and is unlikely to be so going into camp, with the Columbus front office opening fire this week on Johansen’s agent.
Both sides have seemingly agreed at least to a bridge deal – Johansen at first was seriously against such a deal, but has since agreed a 2 year deal is acceptable. But they are WAY apart on the money – reports have Columbus at 3 to 3.5 Million over 2 years while Johansen is sitting at 6 to 6.5 Million. But what is reasonable for a player’s first two RFA years?
A quick note: This article is considering how much those years are worth in the league’s current economic structure, which is team friendly and makes RFA deals less pricey than UFA ones. You can argue whether this is unfair to the player or not (it’s not), but if a player wants to fight the system is recourse is to either go to the KHL or not sign and “hold out” – see Ryan O’Reilly a few years ago for an example. Since nearly all players don’t want to do that and accept the league’s economic framework eventually, that’s the framework we’ll be using for this post.
The Bridge Deal
There are two types of deals young players sign after their ELC ends: The long term deal or the Bridge Deal. The Long Term deal is most common for top prospects – typically 5-7 years long, such that the deal buys out all RFA years as well as 1-2 (usually 2) UFA years. As a result, the dollars per year is usually a big raise for these guys, with players like Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, Jeff Skinner, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins, etc. all taking around 6 Million dollars per year for this term. These are young players thought of as superstars, and yet this is the value they get for these years, and the # really hasn’t changed much despite the cap being higher than it used to be after the original lockout.
For guys who teams consider almost certain superstars, the long term deal is logical – you want to lock these guys up for years to come right away, and the long term deal maximizes your surplus value by getting UFA years at a way undermarket rate. But if a team isn’t sure a guy is a star, well, they may want a bridge deal instead.
A Bridge deal is a 2-3 year deal comprising only of RFA years, which gives a team time to decide if a player really is a star before rewarding him with a long term deal. If the player doesn’t pan out, the team saves a lot of money. If the player becomes a star (PK Subban), the team pays a ton in the next deal (which is why a team should only do it when the player’s future is uncertain – which made Subban’s bridge deal questionable). A Bridge deal may actually be favorable for some players who aren’t going to get decent money on a long term deal but think they can become stars in the interim – they’ll get more money on the 3rd deal than on a long term 2nd deal if they pan out. But players tend not to see things this way. Regardless, it seems pretty evident that Johansen will eventually sign a Bridge deal at some dollar amount, so let’s try to see what would be reasonable.
The method we’ll be using here is to try and find comparables. The Ideal comparable for Johansen will be a forward coming off a career year, who previously wasn’t a clear potential star, and who has a top 10 pick pedigree. This will be tricky, as a lot of top 10 picks who weren’t busts simply get the long term deal discussed above. But we can find more than a few.
One note: We’re not going to talk possession #s here for a simple reason: There’s little evidence contracts are influenced much by them yet – Anton Stralman aside. Johansen’s possession #s are maybe slightly above average, for what it’s worth, so he’s not getting any bonus points there anyhow.
Matt Duchene: 3rd Overall Pick, 2009. Bridge Deal signed June 2012: $7M/2Y.
CBJ fans seem to bring up Duchene as a comparable for Johansen a lot on twitter – both were top 5 picks and Duchene has become the type of star player who CBJ players see Johansen as being. Moreover, Duchene took a bridge deal above CBJ’s initial offer, but not that far above. CBJ fans argue that with the cap going up, this should suggest a higher deal for Johansen is warranted.
The problem here is that, well, Duchene’s performance differs a LOT from Johansen:
Y1: 24G, 31A, 55 Points
Y2: 27G, 40A, 67 Points
Y3: 14G, 14A, 28 Points (58 Games)
Whereas Johansen had two disappointing years before breaking out this past year, Duchene’s NHL career had two very successful (point-wise at least) years to start, before suffering a drop off in that final year. This is basically the ideal situation for a bridge from the player’s point of view, and it did allow Duchene to get a raise 2 years later he wouldn’t have gotten at the time (although he seemed to leave money on the table).
In short, Duchene was a more proven player than Duchene (so he deserved more than Johansen), but was coming off a worse season (reducing his leverage). It doesn’t really work. Hard to say if Johansen should get less or more given those two contrasting points.
Brayden Schenn, 5th overall pick 2009, Bridge Deal signed June 2014: 5M/2Y
Whereas Duchene may have been overqualified compared to Johansen (although with less leverage), Schenn is definitely a lower player.
Y1: 12G, 6A, 18 Points
Y2: 8G, 18A, 26 Points
Y3: 20G, 21A, 41 Points
His first two years are similar to Johansen’s, but year 3, his contract year, is blatantly inferior. He also is a year older than Johansen during his contract year. Basically he has the pedigree and disappointing first two years, but not quite the same breakout year as Johansen, although 20 goals is nothing to sneeze at. And without the same luck Johansen had shooting in his 3rd year, the goal totals probably wouldn’t be that far off.
So Schenn, also signing just this June, is pretty good for establishing a floor for Johansen’s deal. Any deal Johansen would sign has to be above 5M/2Y.
Nazem Kadri, 7th overall pick 2009, Bridge Deal signed September 2013 (during Training Camp): 5.8M/2Y
Kadri is actually a very good comp for Johansen.
Y1: 3G, 9A, 12 Points (29 Games)Y2: 5G, 2A, 7 Points (21 Games)
Y3: 18G, 26A, 44 Points (48 Games)
Like Johansen, Kadri had two seemingly disappointing NHL point totals before breaking out in year 3. In fact, Kadri had a higher point % in Year 3 than Johansen did. Like Johansen, his 3rd year is clearly fluky thanks to great shooting luck, and was due to regress (which it did in Year 4). And like Johansen, Kadri was unsigned as Training Camp began. Kadri was a slightly lower draft pick (#7, rather than #4) so the pedigree isn’t the same, but it’s close.
Kadri got 5.8M over 2 years, slightly less than what Columbus is offering.
We could go with a number of other comparables than these three:
Nino Niederreiter – same pedigree, worse #s in his breakout year, 8M/3Yrs (a 3 year deal probably increases the dollar value on the deal since they’re buying out a 3rd RFA year but keeping control after the contract ends) – Johansen should obviously get more.
Chris Kreider – worse pedigree, Who had inferior boxcars in his contract year, but had the big playoff #s in rookie and contract year, aiding two long Ranger playoff runs. 4.95M/2Yrs – Johansen should get more, although the gap isn’t as huge as you’d think.
Derek Stepan – Much Worse Pedigree, but much better first two years, although a worse contract year than Johansen. 6.15M/2 Years – Basically a slightly lesser version of Matt Duchene by boxcars, not really a good fit for a comp, as you could go either way on where Johansen is in comparison.
All of these contract you’ll notice, even the ones signed recently, are in the 2 to 3.5M range. That’s basically the limit on Bridge Deals and it’s much closer to CBJ’s offering than Johansen’s reported range. I think getting in between Kadri and Duchene makes the most sense, so something like 6.5M/2Y. This would also put him ahead of Nino, Kreider, and Stepan, which makes sense.