Malarkey: Bridge deal could become a money-making tactic for confident RFAs

‘Bridge deal’ used to be code for ‘show me you’re worth it.’ Now it’s a gateway for that second colossal contract
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The Nashville Predators did some brilliant speculating in the 2013 off-season with a relatively obscure young defenseman named Roman Josi. He’d just completed his second NHL season, a lockout-abbreviated 48-game sample. His ice time had jumped from 18 to 23 minutes a night, and he’d snagged a plum role alongside Shea Weber on Nashville’s top pair.

Blessed with great skating, poise and smooth hands, Josi had tremendous upside, but it hadn’t yet translated into big offensive totals. GM David Poile, however, understood what he had. He locked Josi up for what may have looked like an overpay at the time: seven years at a $4-million annual cap hit.

It didn’t take long for that “gamble” to become hockey’s biggest bargain. Within three years, Josi had two top-five finishes in Norris Trophy voting. He’s worth at least double his cap hit today, yet he’s still under contract for two more years. Dallas followed suit after John Klingberg’s stellar rookie season in 2014-15, giving him a seven-year pact with a $4.25-million AAV, good for about 6.16 percent of the cap, similar to Josi’s 6.22 percent. Among D-men the past three seasons, only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman have more points than Klingberg, and he’ll remain underpaid through 2021-22.

When finalizing those contracts, it’s as if the GMs had more confidence in the players than the players had in themselves. That’s why the players chose long-term security over betting on their own play to determine higher value. Josi, 28, will get P.A.I.D. on his next contract when he’s 30, but left a lot of money on the table through his prime years.

Are players starting to rethink the Josi contract model? Nikita Kucherov had established himself as a crucial part of Tampa Bay’s future by October 2016 when he was 23, but signed a “team-friendly” bridge for three years at $4.77-million AAV. Over the next two seasons, he was a top-three forward in the NHL. He qualified for an extension as an RFA by 25, smack in the middle of his prime. Then came another crack at a long-term deal – and a jackpot AAV of $9.5 million. It kicks in next year, so he’ll be 34 when it ends. He’ll still have value as a scorer then and secure another multi-year deal. By betting on himself to explode his value on a bridge deal across his peak years, Kucherov set himself up for multiple monster paydays.

Is it a coincidence Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey used a similar strategy this summer? He landed a two-year bridge at a $3.15-million cap hit. The next day, Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse signed a similar deal. In both cases, the teams’ cap crunches necessitated the bridges. “If a team wanted to sign a player to a long-term deal that was reasonable, I think any agent would take that deal, but sometimes the team’s not quite in that spot,” said Gerry Johannson, Morrissey’s agent. “But a bridge is a really smart move, generally speaking, for good players. Carey Price signed a bridge deal as I recall. It’s not a bad move for a player that believes in his game.”

If it was long-term deal or bust, a player like Morrissey could’ve held out. Instead, he, Nurse and others are understanding that, as much as a bridge does help the team, it helps certain players in the long run, too. Morrissey’s next deal will come when he’s 25 and, theoretically, playing at his top level. Morrissey, like Kucherov, has set himself up for two “set for life” contracts. Price parlayed a bridge into two mammoth deals paying him $123 million across 14 years.

Could the Price/Kucherov/Morrissey/Nurse route become the new en vogue way to negotiate? It means deferring unrestricted free agency until into one’s 30s but, from a financial perspective, essentially gives a player “UFA” market price on his second RFA contract in his mid-20s, when he’s worth the most he’ll ever be worth. Bridge deals are nothing new, but it’s time for players to think of them as the smart and selfish thing to do, not just taking one for the team. It’s good business for any player who believes in his skills enough to take the risk.

This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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