Ryan Johansen's contract impasse with the Columbus Blue Jackets lingers as training camp nears, and it's time for the young center to realize he has no leverage. The same hold true for goalie Darcy Kuemper of the Minnesota Wild.
Ryan Johansen can stamp his feet. He can throw a fit. He can hold his breath until his face turns blue.
But no matter how petulantly the restricted free agent behaves, there's nothing he can do to improve his bargaining position with the Blue Jackets ... and that includes staying home when training camp starts later this month.
That option suddenly appears to be on the table now that talks between the two are at a stalemate.
It doesn't matter who's right or wrong here. What matters is who has the system working in their favor. And it sure isn't Johansen.
As a player coming off his entry-level contract, the 22-year-old doesn't have arbitration rights. Nor does he have an offer sheet from another club, the one cudgel that he could use to force the Jackets to acquiesce to his demands. All he can do is point to a career-best 33-goal campaign in 2013–14, pronounce himself an elite center and hope the team agrees.
So far, Columbus isn't biting. No doubt the Blue Jackets recognize Johansen as an exceptional talent who could become the centerpiece of a contending team. But they also see a player who has put together one productive season ... and hockey history is littered with players who had one good year and no more.
In the end, however, it doesn't matter if Columbus believes that Johansen is the second coming of The Great One. The CBA stipulates that the team is in complete control of his NHL future and therefore it can set his compensation at whatever level it wants to. And the Jackets are inclined to reward Johansen with nothing more than a cautious raise and a two-year bridge contract.
That's a tough break for Johansen, but that's the way the system works. And before anyone complains that it always swings in favor of the clubs, remember that it was just last month that Kevin Hayes, an entirely unproven collegian, was able to twirl the CBA around his finger and escape from the Blackhawks in order to get the deal he wanted with the Rangers.
Johansen doesn't have that luxury. His only recourse as an unsigned player is to stay home on Sept. 18. And like so many Kurt Overhardt clients in the past (from Marty Turco to Kyle Turris), that's what he'll likely do.
The problem is, holding out might not be as effective a statement as he hopes. True, Columbus doesn't have anyone who is capable of replacing Johansen. His absence, if it extends into the regular season, could cost them critical points ... points that could be the difference between returning to the playoffs or another extended summer vacation.
But teams muddle through without critical players all the time—anyone notice that the Lightning earned a postseason berth last year even though Steven Stamkos missed most of the season with a broken leg? As with last year's Bolts, there's some versatility in the Blue Jackets' lineup. Brandon Dubinsky could step into the first line role, with winger Boone Jenner sliding into the middle on the second unit. Not ideal, but workable. And Columbus will enter camp this fall with a deeper and more talented array of prospects than it has ever had. Young forwards such as Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel and Alexander Wennberg have the team better positioned to survive the loss of a player like Johansen than ever before.
And with all that young talent watching, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen isn't going to set a contractual precedent now that will haunt him for years to come.
Johansen can hold on to his $7 million a year fantasy or he can come to grips with reality. He can probably do better than the two-year, $3.5 million offer reportedly on the table—maybe two years, $6 million—but a low-dough, short-term bridge contract is his only real option here. And that paycheck sure beats sitting on the couch.
RyJo might want to save some room on the Chesterfield for Darcy Kuemper. The 24-year-old goalie and the Wild are at loggerheads over a new deal, and there's word that he may decide to skip camp as well.
It's hard to fathom where Kuemper thinks he has any leverage here. Granted, Minnesota is in desperate need of some stability between the pipes. Josh Harding's battle with multiple sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom's recurring hip woes make them less than sure things heading into the season. Still, Kuemper is a wild card himself. His resume consists of 32 NHL games and his numbers (13-10-4, 2.37 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage) won't make anyone forget Cesare Maniago.
Kuemper is a promising young goaltender, but that's it. He deserves a modest bump above the $900,000 he made last year, but until he proves he's something more than a guy you can turn to when everyone else is on IR, that's about it.
Silence is golden
Dead silence out of Anaheim regarding the status of restricted free agent Devante Smith-Pelly, which I'll take as good news. The bruising winger made some noise as he completed his entry-level deal with the Ducks last season, scoring five goals in 12 playoff games, and he projects as a top-six winger down the road. For 2014–15, though, he's slotted on the third line, and with minimal pro experience—just 10 points in 26 games over the past two seasons—there's not a lot of evidence to justify a big raise. A deal should be done ahead of camp.
One Western Conference executive says he believes the Boston Bruins will only trade hard-rock defender Johnny Boychuk once they've exhausted all other options. The B's need to shed salary to create enough space under the cap to re-sign RFAs Torey Krug and Reilly Smith, and Boychuk's $3.36 million hit is seen as the shortest route to get the job done. It's also seen as the most painful, as Boychuk's physicality, heavy shot and shut-down ability made him a key component of one of the league's best defenses in 2013-14. If he ends up packing his bags by the end of the month, it's because GM Peter Chiarelli couldn't find a taker for Adam McQuaid or Matt Bartkowski. The same exec also believes another cap-strapped team, the Chicago Blackhawks, will slip under the ceiling without trading top-six defenseman Johnny Oduya. "When the Cup's this close, you don't give up a player like that," he said. The option: a package deal involving a tough-to-move contract (Kris Versteeg, for example) and a pick or prospect. No, it won't be Teuvo Teravainen.