Let’s say you’re a young hockey player, and you show some promise. Not just promise to play in the NHL, but to be an impactful regular. It’s evident there’s something special about you: nobody’s just quite sure what that something is yet, or how it will turn out.
So when it’s time for your new contract, your team isn’t sure just what you’re worth. Hell, you aren’t even entirely sure what you’re worth. So you agree to terms: a short, one or two-year deal at reduced pay, with the promise that if you perform well, you’ll get more on your next deal.
It’s good for NHL teams, because this way, they avoid potentially getting burned on what was really just a flash in the pan, and don’t have to worry about a high cap hit.
It’s also bad for NHL teams, because this way, they potentially get burned by what wasn’t a flash in the pan at all, and they missed out on the chance to lock up what turned out to be an impactful player for much cheaper.
PK Subban vs Roman Josi
PK Subban and Roman Josi are both very good defencemen chosen in the second round of the draft. They both may very well have been the top players chosen by their teams in their drafts; after all, they’re both top pairing guys.
Subban is used in a more offensive role, resulting in a higher career points per game, while Josi is paired with Shea Weber to form one of the best defence pairings in the NHL. Either way, they’re both certainly worth a lot.
What’s really different is how the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators decided to handle their contracts.
When Subban’s entry level contract expired, he had played 160 games, scoring 21 goals and 76 points along the way. The Canadiens elected to sign him to a two-year bridge deal, ensuring they’d have him for a couple of seasons clearly less than his value at the time: a $2.875 million cap hit.
In the first year of that bridge deal, Subban won the Norris. Over the 124 games of his contract, he scored another 21 goals, and put up 91 points.
Montreal got a couple of cheap years with Subban, and because of it, they had to pay: an eight-year deal with a $9 million cap hit. He’s the highest-paid defenceman in the league by more than $1 million.
Nashville, on the other hand, took a completely different approach. When Josi’s entry level contract wrapped up, he had played 100 games, and scored 10 goals and 34 points along the way. He clearly wasn’t quite the same talent Subban was, but the Predators didn’t bother with the bridge deal, instead immediately re-signing him to a seven-year, $4 million AAV contract.
Since re-signing, Josi has played 153 games, and has scored 28 goals and 95 points. He still isn’t as high a scorer as Subban, but he’s probably worth more than the $4 million of cap space he takes up.
It’s a problem Nashville doesn’t have because they didn’t mess around with contract negotiations. Josi took what likely ended up being something of a paycut, but he ensured he’d get his money.
Subban, on the other hand, got his payout because his team wasn’t proactive.
Calgary is a fan of bridge deals
TJ Brodie’s case bore many similarities to Josi’s. By the time Brodie’s entry level contract was over, it was clear he was going to, at the very least, be a top four defenceman. He’d played 104 games, scoring just four goals and 28 points – but his defence was among the best on the team, and he was making his partners better.
Rather than jump like Nashville did for Josi, Calgary elected to give him more time. Brodie was re-signed to a two-year bridge deal worth an AAV of $2.125 million. Brodie played 162 games, scoring 15 goals and 72 points, with a clear leap in the second year of his deal. He was also playing on the top pairing throughout his entire bridge contract.
By this time, it was clear what the Flames had on their hands. Brodie was re-signed to a five-year, $4.65 million contract: a cap hit potentially higher than it needed to be, but still manageable.
Brodie and Josi’s contracts expire at the same time, with Josi making, overall, an additional $498K: but at a reduced cap hit for his better years.
Neither strategy is the wrong way to go about things, but if the Flames had been more proactive, they would have been able to save a bit more cap space: cap space that really starts to add up, and can make a difference.
So what happens next?
The Flames don’t have a Subban-like case on their hands. There’s almost no chance Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan receive bridge deals, especially not when they’re already the leading scorers on the team. It’s more likely they receive rather significant contracts that will take up a fair amount of cap space.
That’s where saving cap space everywhere you can comes into play: so you can pay your superstars the money they’re going to end up getting. And that’s where bridge deals may end up ultimately hurting more than helping.
The Flames could have saved some cap space on Brodie, and didn’t. The Flames likely could have saved more cap space on Lance Bouma, and didn’t.
Coming off of his first full NHL season, it was evident Bouma belonged. His five goals and 15 points weren’t particularly impressive, but he was playing fourth line minutes: not expected to score, but expected to be competent. He was.
For that, he got a one-year, “show me” deal worth $775K: kind of an odd choice, considering the Flames had just acquired Brandon Bollig. Bollig hadn’t ever scored as many points over all 125 games of his career as Bouma had over just 78, and yet he was making $1.25 million.
It was an unnecessary acquisition, and one that made Bouma look even more underpaid. Rather than giving him a reasonable chance, the Flames nickel and dimed their player, and ended up having to pay for it to the tune of a three-year, $2.2 million cap hit.
It’s a cap hit that’s going to look silly if Bouma can’t recreate his offensive production from this past season, and a cap hit that needn’t have happened if they had shown more faith in him from the beginning.
The same could end up happening with Josh Jooris and Paul Byron’s cheap, one-year deals.
Strong depth players are necessary to compete in the NHL, and the cheaper you can get them, the better: preferably with a long term vision in mind, rather than short term.
Maybe, if the Flames had shown more faith in their players, the impending cap crunch wouldn’t look as imposing as it does. It’s a calculated risk to have to take, but the rewards are worth it. Every team has overpaid players, after all: why not at least reward those that come up through your system, rather than mediocre free agents? There’s a far greater chance you’ll end up with a bargain.