The risks of “show me” contracts

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.

  • beloch

    You’re cherry picking contracts with 20/20 hindsight. You should also consider the long, bad contracts that result from betting on a player improving when they wind up doing the opposite. As steep as Subban’s contract may be, at least he’s worth it.

    You should also consider the player’s perspective. A player on a bridge contract is heavily motivated to put in as much extra work as possible. Some players who score a long contract will continue to give good effort while others will slack off. Bridge contracts keep certain players motivated and improving during the crucial, formative years of their career. Giving the wrong player a long contract too early can limit his development.

    Knowing how a given player will respond to a long contract and how they project is a black art. Having too much faith in your players is just as dangerous as not having enough.

  • Slowmo

    I don’t agree that every bridge contract is a show me contract. Contracts can be based upon trust and hopefully the Flames and the kids have a good relationship and they can find way to bridge next year. If either have a good season there is no way to discuss it as a show me contract.

    • beloch

      The Bonino/Sutter trade is a bit of a head-scratcher. Bonino and Sutter are both shut-down centers with similar possession numbers, but Bonino scored at a higher pace and is cheaper, plus he’s signed for two more seasons. Sutter is a UFA after his next season and will be due for a raise on top of his already higher salary. If you swap these two players, you’d expect the spare change to go towards the Canucks to make up for giving up the better/cheaper player. Instead, Benning threw in a fairly decent defensive prospect and swapped a 2nd rounder for a 3rd rounder.

        • MontanaMan

          Do you know anything about hockey other than “possession numbers” which you seem to quote in every blog. Expand your mind a bit and look for other attributes.

          • DestroDertell

            Not sure you noticed, but I was just correcting beloch’s mention of how Bonino and Sutter had similar possession numbers.

            And don’t tell me what to do. I make plenty of comments about various other stats/on-ice attributes than corsi/fenwick but reading your other posts, what you mean by other attributes is size, height, so-called intangible (like you’ve ever been in a locker room), TOI and other useless stats like +/-.

          • DestroDertell

            Your obsessed with Corsi and rarely make a comment without making some reference to it, anyone that reads this site has clearly seen that.

            Not sure why your dancing around it now. Da Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt son

      • Koolmoedee

        My guess is that the Canucks traded for cap space. Sutter’s contract comes off the books at the same time as Vrbata, Hamhuis, Prust, and some other cheaper deals. They’ll have close to $19 million in savings.

        Kopitar, Stamkos, Voracek, and Lucic are all potential UFAs under 30 years of age. Any one of those players would reset the Canucks roster. Not all of them will be available and willing to sign in Vancouver, but the Canucks will have the ammunition ready.

    • beloch

      If you look at NHL forwards currently making $6-7M, the majority produced fewer than 60 points. With that in mind, Monahan and Gaudreau were worth $6M last season. Given their young age and Gaudreau’s rookie status, it’s reasonable to expect they’ll be worth even more after next season. The drive exhibited by these two players is such that I wouldn’t balk at giving them long-term extensions immediately. Treliving is no doubt trying to do just that while their agents are probably happy to wait and watch the magic of the coming season.

  • DestroDertell

    You lost me when you mentioned Brodie’s situation. Had he signed a “long-term” contract instead of the bridge deal, the contract would’ve most certainly ended before he turns 29. Imagine how high his AAV would’ve been for the next contract? At this rate, probably higher than Gio’s will be.

    • Koolmoedee

      Who knows. Are the other Oiler top drafts capable of getting better in a 200 foot game or are they as good as they will get. Hall is going into year 6!!!

  • MontanaMan

    So last year we heard everyone pound the regression drum and now that everyone has been made to look foolish on that by the organization the drum has been changed to Cap space?
    Hola..come on and give a guy a break .

    • Avalain

      Well, technically they haven’t been made to look foolish yet. Everything could go wrong for the Flames this season and we’ll be served I-told-you-so’s all year.

  • zachg

    Well its time to do some payback trolling too our hated canucks, after a 12 hour night shift ive got some doozies up my sleeve. Nothing better but revenge served cold hehe

  • DestroDertell

    We have had lots of angst the last few days talking about these contracts and Flames cap issues for this year and the following year when Johnny, Monny and Gio come due. So I decided to take another look at it.

    This season would the Flames be any worse off carry say this line up: Bouma, Colborne, Johnny, Ferland, Backs, Sean, Stajan, Byron, Bennett, Frolik, Jones, Hudler, Jooris and Shore as your 14 forwards. Sending Bollig and Raymond to the AHL saving $1.8 m on the cap. If someone claims them it is not a significant loss of assets and creates more cap for next year.

    D: TJ,Hamilton, Gio, Wides, Russell, Nakladal, and Spoon. Sending Smid and Engelland to the AHL again saving $1.8m and again if someone claims them what have you really lost.

    G: Ortio and one of Hiller and Ramo. I would keep Ramo. Again a savings of $.9m. If someone claims Hiller well to bad.

    Now let me be clear I would prefer to trade those 5 for assets but if there are no takers I would live with it.

    Would this team be any worse off than having them on the roster. Other than Hiller over Ortio I would say no.

    We are also worried about next years cap and the raises for Johnny, Sean and Gio. If the above team makes the playoffs lets assume we lose the following for nothing as UFA’s: Jones, Colborne, Byron, Russell, Hiller and Ramo(all of whom are likely replaceable from within) for $17m and Hudler for another $4 making a savings of $21m. A $4m pay raise for Gio and a $5.5m raise equals a $15m raise in spending giving Gio slightly more than $8m and Johnny and Sean $6.4m each. That leaves $6m to add an NHL goalie if Gilles is not ready. Poirer replaces Jones, Arnold replaces Colborne, Kylington/Culkin/Kulak replaces Russell as your 5/6/7, Byron from within, and Ortio(cap hit @$2m). The only player not replaceable from within is Hudler and if you bury the other guys as above then you might be able to make it work.

    The following season season when Bennett comes up Smid and Eng’s are off the payroll.

    Boy I am now less concerned about those issues and I can sit back and see how BT deals with these issues.

    • Avalain

      Like it ! You however overlooked Anderson in the Russell replacement. The guy is skilled and with some improvement in fitness will climb the ladder quickly. He just might be a lot closer than people think.

  • beloch

    The author has Cherry picked scenarios (once again) where a long term deal was the better option…of course having the benefit of hind sight all these years later

    There are far more scenarios where locking up players long term was a mistake, see Dion Phaneuf’s deal after coming off his entry level contract. He was never the same player after signing that massive long term Deal at age 22. The list of similar deals like this far outnumbers the opposite.

    In the current salary cap era you simply cannot throw term and dollars around unless you have a slam dunk, no brainer scenario. Excessive term kills teams on their cap structure nowadays, so a more calculated, low risk short term Approach is often the correct strategy in certain situations.

    Context is important, as is every teams scenario with respect to organizational depth and a team’s long term retention strategy

    • beloch

      I agree with much of what you say but when other GM’s loss their minds and destroy the whole idea of bridge contracts it becomes difficult not to do so. Also sometimes you need to take a risk on term to save money. If we could sign Ferland for 3 years at $1-1.3 and he becomes what many of us hope for then we save If we sign him for $1m and he becomes what we hope for then he gets Bouma money next year.

      If he strikes out what have you really lost, not much.