All My Children: The Ryan Johansen Episode

The soap opera continues as Ryan Johansen remains unsigned in Columbus. What is the endgame?

So I leave the country for two weeks, expecting that in my absence a new deal would be announced for the Blue Jackets' wayward center, Ryan Johansen. However, the soap opera drama continues, without benefit of any meaningful dialogue from the protagonists. As I've gone on record saying before, the silence is not necessarily a bad thing, as these types of deals tend to go better outside the public eye. However, silence breeds speculation, and speculation fosters anxiety. Having read a bunch of other views on the situation, it's time to chime in with my own take.

It is commonly reported that the two sides have theoretically agreed on a 2-year "bridge" deal, but are far apart on the dollars for that term. Some say that Johansen's camp is as high as $7 million per year in their demands, and some place the Blue Jackets as low as $3 million per in their offer. Most report that there have, in fact, been relatively few actual discussions, and that the current demand/offer configuration has been on the table for a month. There was an early blurb from Johansen about feeling "disrespected", and Jarmo Kekalainen made known his unqualified intention to match any offer sheet tendered. Other than that, it's been radio silence from both camps.

Johansen, of course, is represented by Kurt Overhardt, who has not been shy to use implied threats of holdouts or trade demands to get money into his clients' pockets (and his as well of course). The Kyle Turris and Ryan Kesler sagas are but two recent examples. By the same token, however, Overhardt represents Brandon Dubinsky, who signed a lengthy extension without so much as a cross word being uttered. So, an ugly scene is not inevitable.

Part of the problem is that negotiations like these are highly stylized, orchestrated events, much as diplomatic functions afford considerable substantive weight to matters of form. Send a Second Assistant Undersecretary of State for Internal Sanitation to a state dinner hosted by the First Assistant Undersecretary of State of another nation, it sends a message that you are not please with them, and will not favor them with an official of equal rank. The hosting nation then gets offended, and issues a statement expressing "manifest distress" over the entire affair. And so it goes, on and on, and eventually nobody can remember who became offended first, or what the precipitating event was.

This appears to be precisely the situation here. Let's face it, Johansen's camp has zero leverage in this negotiation. He has no arbitration rights, and none of the 29 other General Managers have been foolhardy enough to tender an offer sheet that would place multiple first round picks at risk. Sure, Kekalainen has said he would match, but what if he doesn't? Gulp. Nobody is going to stake his career on a kid that had one year that match his prior cumulative production at the NHL level. So, express outrage at the way you have been treated, and make a demand (assuming $7 million) that nobody could possibly take seriously. While it is difficult to determine which came first in this scenario, the Blue Jackets have responded with a lower offer than is likely warranted, and have handled the negotiations thus far with Assistant General Manager Bill Zito. Nothing against Zito, but rank is everything in these deals, and Johansen's camp is likely incensed that Zito is carrying the water on this one. The Blue Jackets are effectively saying "If you are going to make ridiculous demands, we're not even going to send the "A" Team in to negotiate with you." Overhardt appears to be saying "If you don't bring the "A" team in, we're not going to talk at all." And so it sits. Childish? Perhaps. Reality? Definitely.

The fact is that parties in negotiations will not move until there the pain involved in not moving exceed the pain perceived to result from making a move. It is part strategy and part ego, but it is real nonetheless. Neither side wants to make the first move, lest it be perceived as a sign of weakness. You see, at the end of the day, all of this posturing is not about this contract, but rather the next one. Overhardt wants to send the message that "Fine. Play hardball on this deal, and we will really play hardball on the next one, and we are not afraid to do it." In this way, he hopefully scares the Blue Jackets into shelling out some more for the bridge deal, hedging his own risk that last season may have been a fluke. Of course, the Blue Jackets are sending the message that "We love your guy, but he has to show he can do it every year to get the mega-bucks. We're not jeopardizing the franchise based upon one season." With $14.12 million in cap space, the Blue Jackets could pay the full $7 million demand and not feel it. But they won't, nor should they.

As many have suggested, the P.K. Subban situation is really instructive here. Subban is 25 years old, Johansen 22. Subban has played 284 NHL games over 4 full seasons, while Johansen has been in 189 in three years. Subban was a 2nd Round pick, who had an entry level deal of $875K per year, plus another $87.5K in signing bonus for each of the three years of his ELC. (All salary and contract information courtesy of the incomparable Johansen had an ELC base of $900K, a signing bonus of $90K per year, and an additional $1.075 million in potential performance bonuses in each year, with the performance bonuses befitting his #4 overall draft position.

In a much-publicized contract battle very similar to the current one, Subban ultimately settled for a bridge deal that paid him $2 million in the first year, and $3.75 million in the second. Of course, in the second year, he won the Norris Trophy, and then took the Canadiens all the way to arbitration, after which they famously paid him $72 million over eight years. He showed he could do it, and accordingly reaped the reward. Even then, while the contract has an annual cap hit of $9 million, the structure calls for $7 million in the first two years, jumping to $11 million for the next two, $10 million for years five and six, and $8 million for the final two years. If something happens during the first two, the Canadiens have options before the really big money kicks in.

The problem for Johansen is that he does not have a Norris Trophy on his mantle, nor anything like it. His stats last season -- while greatly appreciated and hoped for -- were such a major departure from his prior years that any rational person is going to pause and contemplate whether they were "real" -- i.e. repeatable. To be sure, that is why Columbus drafted him as their first pick in 2010, and most observers think he will be a very, very good NHL player. The key part there is "will be". Just as P.K. Subban had to prove his mettle, so does Johansen. While it would likely be ludicrous to expect that Columbus could get a bridge deal for a total of $5.75 million, like the Habs did with Subban, to suggest that a $14 million deal is in the cards is equally absurd.

Make no mistake -- the Blue Jackets hold all of the cards here. Johansen has no UFA rights now -- and will not have them at the end of the bridge deal, either. Johansen could hold out, but from where I sit that would be more harmful to his position than to the Blue Jackets. Sure, they would miss his offense, assuming it is repeatable, but there are some awfully skilled youngsters in the fold. Alternatively, the club could subtly encourage an offer sheet, which would either break the impasse or provide them with a raft of first round picks, which could be converted into present talent. Finally, there is also the trade angle, which could net some prime talent as well. Columbus trails only Calgary in the amount of available cap space, which provides a lot of flexibility --- and leverage.

If I am Johansen, and am confident in my abilities, I follow the Subban example. I sign a deal, play my ass off for two years, then cash in big time. I seriously don't think the Blue Jackets would have a problem with that, and would likely be glad to come up with the mega deal once his worth has been proven. In the meantime, I'd look for a bridge deal in the neighborhood of $9 million to $10 million, with a relatively big jump between the two years. Something between $3.5/$5.5 and $4.0/$6.0 should get it done.

Much depends upon who is controlling the negotiations from the player's side. If Overhardt is fully in control, a deal likely gets done once the grandstanding is over with an each side concedes that the respective points have been made. If, however, Johansen is pulling the strings, things could get more complicated. Emotion is a difficult thing to mix into a business deal, and Johansen has shown that his attitude/emotions can get the better of him from time to time. He was largely able to put those aside last year. Can he do it now? Stay tuned, as this daytime drama continues.

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