The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are currently in a salary cap crunch situation whereby it's almost a certainty Darnell Nurse and Noah Hanifin will be signed to short-term bridge contracts rather than the massive payday of a six-, seven- or eight-year deals. But that's a good thing for the teams, not a bad thing.
The Oilers have $4.98 million in cap space remaining to sign Nurse as well as a 23rd player. If that final roster spot goes to a player on league minimum $650,000, that leaves just over $4.3 million for Nurse. But after a breakout 26-point season for 23-year-old Nurse, one in which he averaged 22:15 time on ice, he and his agent are surely looking for a long-term contract in the $6 million and beyond range. Nurse is at 197 career NHL games now and is a core name on the Oilers blueline.
It's similar in Calgary where the Flames have just $4.54 million remaining to sign one player – Hanifin. But after three seasons and 239 NHL games under his belt, the 21-year-old Hanifin surely has aspirations to eclipse $6 million annually on a deal that is six-to-eight years.
The marketplace for exceptional young RFA defensemen soared in the past couple of weeks with the recent contracts of Mathew Dumba (five years at $6 million AAV) and Brady Skjei (six years at $5.25 million AAV). So why would Nurse or Hanifin settle for anything less than $5 million?
But with scant cap space in Edmonton or Calgary to make that possible, Nurse and Hanifin will be forced into a bridge-contract scenario of one, two or three years (The Flames however do have an out clause. They could still sign Hanifin to a long-term deal that puts them over the cap, then get cap compliant again by buying out the final two years of Troy Brouwer's inflated contract. They have until two days after the final arbitration hearing this summer to make that decision. The Oilers cannot do this on a potential big Nurse deal because they didn't have any players file for arbitration).
So with bridge contracts looming for Nurse and Hanifin, here's why it's actually a beneficial thing for those teams, and was perhaps part of the grander plan when the summer began: It all has to do with the relative uncertainty of the defense position. Just because high draft selections Nurse and Hanifin look to be on a one-way road to NHL top-pair stardom doesn't mean it's certain to happen.
What if their play levels off to the point they're just decent second-pair blueliners, maybe even borderline third-pair guys? Because they're young, dynamic and offer oodles of potential as high draft picks, it seems wrong to consider bad karma going their way. But the fact remains, and history shows it, there is a decent chance they evolve into run-of-the-mill defensemen.
There are scores of defensemen drafted in the top 10 who are NHL stars today – Ryan Suter, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Mathew Dumba, Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones and Aaron Ekblad are the best of the bunch.
But there's also a long list of defensemen drafted in the top 10 the past 20 years who had their best NHL seasons as rookies, sophomores and third-year men, and whose play dropped or levelled off in the years since. And it's a longer list than you think: Dion Phaneuf, Rostislav Klesla, Mike Komisarek, Ryan Whitney, Cam Barker, Ladislav Smid, Brian Lee, Jack Johnson, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn, Jared Cowan, Erik Gudbranson, Ryan Murphy.
With defensemen, it's often said, you don't really know what you've got until they have 250-300 NHL games under their belt. OK, for some guys like Doughty and Ekblad, you do know in Year 1, but they're the exceptions.
For most others, it's a long gestation period. So signing them to two-year bridge deals after their three-year entry-level deals expire gives teams four or five years of NHL experience to gauge what you've got. Moreover, if you’re going to lock up these sure-fire top-pair D-men for seven or eight years, wouldn't you rather do it starting when they're 24 rather than 21 or 22?
Ask the agents and you'll get a totally different answer. But ask a GM and you'll see he has no qualms about paying the young stud the big money after he's proven he's worthy, rather than take a chance when he's younger and could go either way.