Ryan Johansen's New Contract: Bridge or Bounty?

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

Ryan Johansen broke out in a big way this season. Now it's time for the kid to get paid.

Finally, Spring is here. Maybe there's still some snow on the ground where you are reading this from, but rest assured, the nice weather will soon be on its way and with that, hopefully a playoff berth for the Blue Jackets.

The Jackets are in the midst of a suffocating fight for a playoff spot in the air-tight Eastern Conference. There's no doubting that Sergei Bobrovsky is the team's MVP, but another player has emerged this season as the team's top skater. It's not the guy who was the prize of free agency last summer. It's not one of the team's highest-paid skaters.

It's Ryan Johansen.

Going back to 2009, the year the Jackets made their (to-date) only playoff appearance, the draft was becoming less and less of a focus for the team's fans. Though the playoffs were over in a blink of an eye, there was a feeling that the team had made it. That June, the Jackets' first round pick was in the middle of the round, and they ended up trading down for John Moore.

Ok, John Moore. Nice defenseman. Now let's get back to the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the season that followed the playoff berth was a disaster, and the Jackets (and their fans) were back to putting major emphasis on the draft. Armed with the fourth-overall pick, the Jackets were looking to add an impact forward. It was the Taylor/Tyler show that year, with Hall and Seguin going 1-2 to the Oilers and Bruins, respectively. The Panthers went defense by taking Erik Gudbranson third.

The Jackets had a handful of options at four. Do they take the Swiss kid Niederreiter, who has some jam to go along with his offensive ability? Maybe go with Brett Connolly, the oft-injured power forward who when healthy, was putting up serious points in the WHL? Maybe even go with the pint-sized Jeff Skinner, who could put up points, but would he survive NHL checking?

Then there was the Johansen kid. His junior team, the Portland Winterhawks, selected him late in their bantam draft because of his stated intention of going the NCAA route. To keep his NCAA eligibility, his 16/17 year-old season was spent with the Penticton Vees. The Winterhawks were able to convince him that the WHL was the best path to the NHL for him, and he joined them in his draft year. Playing with Niederreiter, Johansen had a great WHL rookie year, rocketing up the NHL Draft charts. He finished tenth in the Central Scouting Rankings.

The Jackets liked his size, vision, and playmaking ability. He had a frame that could be built on, and visions of a number one center were dancing in their heads. With that, the Jackets selected him fourth overall.

He was sent back to Portland for the 2010/2011 season to further his development. He had a terrific year, and made the jump directly to the NHL the following season. His rookie season was OK, and his sophomore year was the lockout-shortened 2012/2013 campaign. This season, the third and final of his entry-level contract, he broke out.

With a few weeks left in the season, he's leading the Jackets in goals and points, is the number one center, and is second on the team in time-on-ice per game among forwards. He's been paired with rookie Boone Jenner and Nathan Horton since the latter's return from injury in January, and the trio has been physically overpowering for opponents. Johansen has scored at a regular clip even with Horton struggling, a testament to his truly terrific play. Imagine the assist totals if Horton was putting the puck in the net?

The Jackets have set themselves up nicely in terms of the salary cap. The core forwards are all locked-up; with Derek MacKenzie and Blake Comeau the only unrestricted free agents up front. Corey Tropp and Matt Frattin join Johansen as the restricted free agents. Based on Cap Geek's current projections, the Jackets will have approximately $22 million in cap space next year before decisions are made on the above forwards, Nikita Nikitin, Dalton Prout, David Savard, Nick Schultz, Tim Erixon and Curtis McElhinney.

Basically, the Jackets have $22 million to sign a backup goaltender, shore up their bottom pairing and fourth line, and pay Johansen.

This is where things get interesting.

Does Johansen get a "bridge" contract, something in the neighborhood of two years, at the conclusion of which he remains an RFA and gets a long-term deal? Or does he go right from his entry-level contract (ELC) to a long-term contract?

Some comparables:

BRIDGE OPTION

PLAYER

PREVIOUS CONTRACT

NEW CONTRACT VALUE

POINTS PER GAME AT END OF ELC

Nazem Kadri

ELC

2 Years, $2.9 Million/yr

0.92

Marcus Johansson

ELC

2 Years, $2.0 Million/yr

0.65

Tyler Ennis

ELC

2 Years, $2.813 Million/yr

0.71

Derek Stepan

ELC

2 Years, $3.075 million/yr

0.92


These are four examples of players who in the last year of their ELC earned a two-year bridge contract. Johansen is currently scoring at a rate of 0.75 points-per-game in the last year of his ELC. Using production as a comparable, one would expect that Johansen's potential deal would fall between Ennis' $2.813 and the $2.9-$3.075 of Kadri/Stepan. It's worth noting that Stepan's deal was consummated after a contract dispute, so it's perhaps a bit inflated. Regardless, the margin between the two is minimal. It's conceivable that the Jackets should expect to pay him in that range.

The benefit of a bridge contract is two-fold. It gives the team flexibility, as they aren't locked into a long-term commitment. The player benefits because it has the potential to set him up for an even bigger payday, as he is in his prime years at the conclusion of the bridge deal.

IMMEDIATE LONG-TERM DEAL OPTION

PLAYER

PREVIOUS CONTRACT

NEW CONTRACT VALUE

POINTS PER GAME AT END OF ELC

Cody Hodgson

ELC

6 Years, $4.25 million/yr

0.71

Jeff Skinner

ELC

6 Years, $5.725 million/yr

0.57

Jordan Eberle

ELC

6 Years, $6.0 million/yr

0.77

Tyler Seguin

ELC

6 Years, $5.75 million/yr

0.67

Taylor Hall

ELC

7 Years, $6.0 million/yr

1.11


Getting paid right away is of course lucrative to the player, and there is a positive to locking up your young star from a team perspective. The above five forwards were all given long term deals at the end of their ELC. I've included Hall and Seguin for comparison sake, as they were taken in spots one and two the year Johansen was taken fourth overall. Their draft status alone will inflate their contract value. Of note, Seguin was scoring at a lower clip than Johansen is, at the end of his ELC. He was however, on a much deeper Boston team at the time.

Skinner and Hodgson are good comparables. Hodgson scored at a higher rate than Skinner at the end of his ELC, but Skinner had more accolades, such as a rookie of the year award. Both players received six-year deals, but Hodgson's production was closer to what Johansen is putting up now. I think it's fair to say that if the Jackets and Johansen decide to forego the bridge contract, that signing him to a six-year deal between $4.25 million and $5.725 million is likely. Eberle would be on the high end of the comparables because he was far more productive over the duration of his ELC. Even Skinner's production from his rookie year to the end of his ELC was more consistent, so a more realistic number would be Hodgson's $4.25.

Remember- Johansen didn't truly hit his stride until this season, as reflected by his career points-per game average of just 0.49 P/G. If you want to use career P/G as a baseline for contract discussion, he's mixed in with the likes of Johansson (0.53), Colin Wilson (0.46) and Ryan O'Reilly (0.55). O'Reilly is not a good contract comparable because of the fact he was signed to an offer sheet. Wilson's career production matches Johansen's, but Wilson has never gone over 35 points in a season. We looked at Johansson earlier as a bridge comparable.

If the current market is a factor, Johansen is among a group of RFA forwards this season who are looking for new deals. If one of Niederreiter, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn or Reilly Smith signs first, that could be a huge indicator of what Johansen is in line for. Johansen's 0.75 P/G compares with Schwartz's 0.74, Schenn's 0.54, Niederreiter's 0.47 and Smith's 0.65. Keep an eye on what St.Louis does with Schwartz.

Using what I've come up with, I would expect to see either a bridge deal worth about $2.875 million a season over two years, or an immediate long term deal in the neighborhood of 6 years at $4.75-$5.0 million per season. The long term deal would make Johansen the second-highest paid forward behind Horton.

One thing is certain; the Jackets finally have a home-grown number one center.

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