The next time you’re inclined to think about NHL players as pampered and overpaid millionaires with no sense of gratitude, shift your thoughts to Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins. The only box he checks off in that description is millionaire.
Krug led all rookie defensemen in goals, assists and points last season. No first-year player, forward or defenseman, had more points on the power play than Krug’s 19. He was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team and became just the fifth defenseman in Bruins history to record double digits in goals in his first NHL season. His 14 goals were one more than Bobby Orr had in his rookie season.
For all that, Krug was rewarded with an almost $400,000 pay cut. And in doing so, he provided a fascinating study of leverage when it comes to negotiating contracts.
When Krug signed his entry-level contract with the Bruins in 2012, he did so as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State University, where he was coming off a season in which he was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s player of the year and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. As such, he was the most sought-after college free agent that season, so he was able to negotiate a contract that had a bonus structure that paid him a base salary of $925,000 last season, along with $850,000 in performance bonuses for a total salary of $1.775 million.
He had contract leverage and he used it.
Fast-forward three years later and Krug has no leverage. No arbitration rights, no ability to sign with a team of his choice. The only way out of Boston would be for another to give him an offer sheet, which are rare and punitive for the team that signs them. Worse yet, the Bruins couldn’t offer him big money even if they wanted to because they’re so dangerously up against the salary cap. So Krug was basically forced to either accept a one-year deal at $1.4 million or sit out and risk stunting his development.
“I think at some point you’ve just got to get in here and make sure you’re prepared for the upcoming season,” said Krug, who missed 10 days of camp with fellow restricted free agent Reilly Smith before both took identical deals. “It got to be that time.”
Which brings us to Ryan Johansen of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Krug, Johansen has just one very good NHL season on his resume. He has been involved in an ugly, personal stalemate with the Blue Jackets since the summer and is commanding far more in salary than any restricted free agent coming out of an entry-level contract has on a bridge deal in the history of the game. Johansen had been asking for $6.5 million per season, then lowered his demand to an average salary of $4.7 million per season. But even that was a little deceiving. The AAV was $4.7 million, but the second year of the deal called for a $6.5 million salary, which would mean the Blue Jackets would have to give Johansen a qualifying offer on his next deal of at least $6.5 million to keep his rights. Even if they took him to arbitration, the biggest reduction on that salary they could hope to get would be 15 percent.
So what’s the biggest difference between Krug and Johansen? Well, the Bruins don’t have the more than $14 million in cap space the Blue Jackets do at the moment. Had the Bruins not been so dangerously close to going over the cap, they would have been happy to give Krug more money. But they simply could not do that and still keep their team together. Because they did the Krug and Smith deals, they won’t have to trade Johnny Boychuk. And the way Krug sees it, he has one year to go to arbitration and if his numbers remain the same, he’s going to hit a home run.
Johansen, on the other hand, plays for a team that has all kinds of cap space. More importantly, he plays for a team that he believes needs him more than the Bruins need Krug and Smith. Boston is loaded on defense and, while they’re better with Krug in the lineup, they could probably find a way to get along without him.
Johansen, though, was the Blue Jackets leading scorer last season. After a lot of years of struggle, they’re trying to finally build a winning culture and keep the good vibes from last season’s playoff appearance going. If they stumble to a 5-12-2 record out of the gate, then the leverage switches back to Johansen and the Blue Jackets will be under pressure to get their top offensive player back in the lineup. Krug is not at the stage of his career where his presence, or lack of it, would have that dramatic an effect on the Bruins.
Much of the hockey world thinks Johansen’s contract demands are outrageous. They probably are, but as a free agent he has every right to ask for what he thinks he’s worth and withhold his services until he gets it. One of the things that has frustrated the Blue Jackets so much is that they believe they’re being held hostage by a player who has no leverage. (In their defense, they are offering $3 million a year on a bridge deal and up to $5.75 million on a long-term deal.) “When they have arbitration and they have unrestricted free agency, they take us to the woodshed,” said Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson. “Now they have no leverage and they’re trying to take us to the woodshed.”
But Johansen does have leverage. He doesn’t have much, but what he has, he’s using it. The same way the Boston Bruins did with Torey Krug.