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What We Learned: On the merits and drawbacks of a ‘bridge contract’

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

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On Saturday, the Philadelphia Flyers successfully re-upped promising forward Sean Couturier to a two-year deal with a cap hit that, at $1.75 million per season, can best be described as "bafflingly low."

This is perhaps the latest in what appears to be a re-emerging trend of "bridge contracts" that are a potentially great way for teams to keep prices low after the expiration of entry-level deals. This kind of contract all but evaporated under the previous collective bargaining agreement, largely because of what Kevin Lowe did in its early days to target players with what Brian Burke would rightly call predatory offer sheets. These essentially eliminated the ability of teams to sign good, young players to relatively affordable contracts.

It must be said that bridge contracts were never especially fair to those players because they were not getting the freight that players with similar production levels and an additional few years in the league regularly pulled simply because they were veterans. However, it was a cost-effective way for teams to keep young guys for longer periods of time, and if just about everyone in the league was getting such deals, then at least they were all in the same boat at one point in their careers. But when things went out of control, so too did expectations of payment for young guys.

One need look no further than the James van Riemsdyk contract, which was never all that good of an idea for Philadelphia, to see where the new trend in re-signing RFAs landed everyone. Teams had to run pretty tight against the cap if they wanted to keep their promising players and also have enough proven veterans to be at least somewhat competitive in the league. The simple economics of the NHL largely dictated that some teams could not do this.

But what the Couturier deal and Colorado's hardline stance against Ryan O'Reilly's demands last winter (before that Calgary offer sheet) show is that teams simply aren't going to be making such concessions to guys still on their ELCs under this latest CBA. The Couturier deal also shows that players and their agents are starting to accept it somewhat, rather than go through the holdouts of O'Reilly and P.K. Subban.

It's worth noting that lots of people value Couturier a little more than they probably should, given that he has just 42 points in 123 career NHL games, and that overvaluing him is probably because of the idea that he "shut down" Evgeni Malkin in that one playoff series two seasons ago. And the only reason anyone thinks this is any particularly great bargain now is that teams and players alike are approaching a point at which it's widely agreed that the prospect of paying for potential, which is what teams had been doing in trying to gobble up a year or two of unrestricted free agency in exchange for more dollars than the players probably earned, is now no longer en vogue.

This is, all things considered a nominal raise for Couturier, and now he has ample motivation over the next two seasons to put in some serious "prove-it" performances in his age-21 and -22 seasons so that he can cash in on a much bigger deal going forward.

But with such contracts should come a bit of caution. The counterargument to signing these types of deals, though, is the foot-stomping and breath-holding in Montreal prior to the Subban contract. Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was insistent that the ultra-promising young defenseman sign for just two years, which allows him to begin negotiations again this summer, and eventually kept his cap hit at $2.875 million per season. Great savings for the team in the short term, but the long-term effects could be troubling.

Subban wanted $5 million a season for five years, and didn't get it. That's how things go in the New-New NHL. But what he got instead was a Norris Trophy, and the ability to extract at least $7.5 million a season from Bergevin and the Habs for the next five years at least, and probably more. And the thing is, Subban likely outperformed his admittedly prodigious abilities in winning the Norris — through a combination of soft competition, favorable zone starts, and a high PDO, as well as 26 of his 38 points coming on the power play — which is the risk Bergevin should have known he was running.

Teams might save a little bit of money in the near-term, especially with the cap the next two seasons likely being well below the levels to which it climbed before the latest lockout. However, player spending is going to explode two or three years from now, and these guys who got "bridge contracts" in the last season or two before that could be in line to receive almost ludicrous amounts of money.

The Subban case is the shining example of a cautionary tale here: the Habs could have paid him $25 million over the next five seasons, but once they chose not to do so, instead committed themselves to spending as much as $30 million over that same period. That's assuming Subban gets in the neighborhood of $8 million a year on his next deal, which is well within the realm of possibility.

This is not to say that every restricted free agent whose ELC expires will instantly turn into one of the best at his position in the entire world, as Subban did through a decent amount of good luck. However, the question that has to be asked is how likely it would be for O'Reilly or Couturier or anyone else who signs such a contract to start having their production go through the roof for any number of reasons when they go from 21 to 23. Forward production tends to peak around age 25, so teams can expect to pay a lot more for those age-24-through-32 seasons (assuming the max eight-year deals, which obviously not everyone will get), and it's going to be to their detriment to do so. It'll be even worse for guys who don't make the NHL at 18, because teams would theoretically pay more for post-peak years on "bridge" deals.

The idea of paying for potential is galling in some ways — the guys simply haven't "proven it" at the NHL level — but it's a great way to keep costs depressed somewhat and not overpay for years when guys are near or even into their 30s. Bridge deals therefore seem like something that should be extended only to middling young players (and maybe you count Couturier in that group).

You're always going to have to pay through the nose for stars. You have to ask yourself whether you want to pay that much for them at 24, or 30.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Emerson Etem is looking to improve in his sophomore season, and the five points he had in seven games in the playoffs is a pretty good indication that he won't be sent down again to start the season.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins re-signed Jordan Caron over the weekend to replace Rich Peverley Cap savings on that change-out is a little more than $2.6 million, but hockey savings is negative-a-lot.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres have a lot of defensemen under contract for next season, so where does that leave late-season college free agent signing Chad Ruhwedel? Well, he and five other guys are competing for two spots to round out the Sabres' top-six, so that's a tough draw.

Calgary Flames: Calgary has been scooping up its RFAs with nice short-term deals, but not T.J. Brodie, who's by far their best young defenseman. The team's looking for a bridge contract, but there's no progress to report there.

Carolina Hurricanes: Undrafted Sergey Tolchinsky was invited to Hurricanes development camp and scored two goals in a scrimmage. Kirk Muller was duly impressed. "He’s probably the biggest surprise or explosive guy this week who made people look at him,” Muller said. “He didn’t get drafted — let’s be honest, probably people said it was his size." Also because his name is Sergey.

Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews took the Stanley Cup wakeboarding but it wasn't even on Toews Lake so I feel like that was a total waste.

Colorado Avalanche: Get ready for a lot of insufferable coverage of the Avalanche/Predators game on Oct. 4, Seth Jones' first game in Denver since the Avs didn't pick him. The coverage will likely be slightly less insufferable than the actual hockey in the game itself, however.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Who will be the Blue Jackets' rival in their new division? The Rangers, obviously. They each have so many of each other's old players I wouldn't be surprised to see guys join the rush for the other team at least a few times in that first game.

Dallas Stars: Jim Lites says Lindy Ruff is one of the best "Xs and Os" coaches alive but you'd say that too if your two most recent coaches were Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan.

Detroit Red Wings: Martin Frk looked really good at the Red Wings' development camp which means it'll only be another seven years before they let him play on the NHL team.

Edmonton Oilers: Taxation-wise, it might be wise for Sam Gagner to take a bit of a hometown discount in Edmonton, and possibly avoid an acrimonious arbitration hearing, but you gotta wonder whether that's how a player thinks in this kind of situation. (Hint: probably not.)

Florida Panthers: Kevin Dineen on the new schedule, which has the Panthers playing four games away from Sunrise to begin the year: "I love starting on the road." Of course, his team, which won just seven games and scored a league-low 45 goals away from home in 2013, seems to not like finishing there.

Los Angeles Kings: I know this happened before the weekend started but I'm still sitting here perplexed by why on earth the Kings would trade for Dan Carcillo.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild see "a lot to like" about their new schedule. Such as a bunch of games against bad Eastern Conference teams.

Montreal Canadiens: Does this Canadiens roster look like it's capable of repeating as a division champion over 82 games? Yeah, I don't think so either.

Nashville Predators: Matt Cullen on the top line? No thank you.

New Jersey Devils: Seriously, are the Devils going to sign Jaromir Jagr or what? Someone's gotta replace David Clarkson's production and why not have it be a 41-year-old who now fizzles out 50 or so games into the season? Hell, that's like three times longer than Clarkson lasted in 2013.

New York Islanders: Frans Nielsen thinks Peter Regin can be a star in this league, which leads me to believe that they have a different definition for that word in Denmark.

New York Rangers: You know what I always say about what makes a good NHL team win a lot? Their toughness. Gotta be tough to play against. Look how well it works in Calgary.

Ottawa Senators: The Sens recently extended AHL coach Luke Richardson and his assistants for one year but you gotta think other teams are going to come calling after Binghamton went 44-24-1-7 last season.

Philadelphia Flyers: Yeah, you can go ahead and start the doomsday clock on Paul Holmgren's career in Philadelphia.

Phoenix Coyotes: Shane Doan is entering his 18th season with the Coyotes franchise, making him the most tenured Phoenix-area pro athlete ever. Will Diana Taurasi, now in her 10th season with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, be able to chase him down?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sid Crosby will have "minor" work done on his jaw later this summer. Gotta wonder if Darren Dreger will be there to show the surgeon what big meanie Zdeno Chara did to it.

San Jose Sharks: The San Jose Sharks will travel the most of anyone this season, covering 57,612 miles. In 2011-12, before conference and division realignment, they traveled just 43,994.

St. Louis Blues: Ken Hitchcock did his homework on Magnus Paajarvi before the team traded David Perron for him, including studying tape of how he did against similar teams to the Blues (i.e. good ones). Can't have watched too many Oilers games against the Northwest then.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Who's the third-highest paid defenseman on the Lightning in terms of salary? After Matt Carle's $5.75 million and Eric Brewer's $4 million, it's Mattias Ohlund at $3.75 million. (After that, it's Sam Salo at $3.5 million, and that's gotta be the worst use of a combined $16.5 million I've ever seen in my life.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The only thing the Leafs do to determine whether they've been successful is track scoring chances. In that respect, they were pretty close to the Bruins in seven games. In nearly all other respects, though, not so much.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks will play 32 of their games in back-to-backs this season, of which 20 will be on the road. But compared with the last Olympic season, when the team had to take all those long road trips, they're practically dancing in the streets over this one.

Washington Capitals: Here is a list of non-Ovechkin Capitals who are going to make Olympic teams: Nicklas Backstrom and Martin Erat. That's it.

Winnipeg Jets: Remember Zach Redmond, who had his femoral artery and vein cut by a skate in practice? He's re-signed with the Jets over the weekend and has been skating since about the beginning of April.

Gold Star Award

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Reports circulating that Hockey Canada will name its preliminary Olympic roster today. A great chance to get an early peek at what a roster of non-medalling losers looks like. USA Hockey will also announce its roster but it's all a formality because they could win gold with just about anyone ever born in this great nation.

Minus of the Weekend

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Go check out that Sharks link about travel again: It says the Red Wings will travel 35,324 miles this year. Down from 42,865. The NHL realigned the entire league so the Red Wings could travel 7,500 fewer miles. Good lord.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

I wonder what team user "bruins2011" supports.

Boychuk or mcquaid [to Edmonton] for a first round pick, a high end prospect and a 3rd liner.

Signoff

If your sorority has to sell jam to buy beer, you're drinking too much.

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness almost never over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don’t you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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