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“This is worse than we thought.”
That was the immediate reaction from just about everybody when John Davidson went up there at Blue Jackets media day, and detonated the dirtiest of dirty bombs available to a team in ongoing negotiations.
Revealing each of the three substantial contract offers made to Ryan Johansen this summer (two years at $3 million per, six years at $5.33 million per, and eight years at $5.75 million per) and calling his continuing to not-sign with the team “extortion” can be — and in some cases, was — seen in the business as being pretty low, and perhaps more desperate.
But you have to examine why Davidson, who's been around this league in just about every capacity long enough to know all its various ins and outs in just about any situation, went out and pulled the curtain back on all this behind-the-scenes stuff. Basically, he knew exactly what the reaction would be. All of a sudden, a fan base that really wasn't all that critical of either side in particular, but just wanted to see a deal get done started using the word “greedy,” a lot.
And isn't that interesting?
It's long been illustrated that people are more sympathetic toward teams worth hundreds of millions or more than to the relatively little-paid athletes that serve as their face, and the overall driver of whatever success they have. In saying, “Here's exactly what we offered Johansen, who by the way is holding us hostage here,” the Blue Jackets knew they'd get everyone to turn on their once and future No. 1 center, even if they were being unfair in the abstract.
(Please remember, too, that Johansen is not a “holdout.” He is not under contract and is thus not “holding out” from anything. Players — or employees of any kind — owe your employers nothing but hard work when they're under contract, and this player isn't.)
The problem here is stubbornness.
Johansen and his agent, Kurt Overhardt (who it should be noted has done this kind of thing before), aren't willing to move off their $6-6.5 million per annum demand, which is both unreasonable and without foundation. The player has literally no leverage to make this kind of ask, let alone a basis for wanting it. Meanwhile, the team is probably undervaluing him at $3 million and trying to save a little bit of money, probably on principle more than anything else, because cap space now and in the future isn't an issue. Davidson called the numbers from Johansen's “one-sided,” which they of course are. But $3 million in a league with a $69 million cap this season (a little more than 4 percent of the team's total allowable number) is likewise one-sided, and you can see where a player coming off a relatively meager entry-level deal might feel hard done by.
But what Johansen is absolutely not is “greedy” or “selfish,” at least, not any more than he should be.
The people who want him to just kowtow and take the $3 million per have unrealistic expectations for the ways professional athletes should behave. Those now slinging invectives Johansen's way are likely also the kind of idiots who say they'd happily play in the NHL for free, or league minimum, or something like that. Which, probably they would. But one has to keep in mind that though this is a leisure activity for sports fans, one they may pay hundreds of dollars or more per year to enjoy, for Johansen, this is his job. And he's got to earn as much as he can, while he can.
Now, again, his valuation of his own abilities is clearly off the mark. Davidson is right that this kid should not be comparing his second contract to that of Steven Stamkos ($7.5 million per for five years, and 11.7 percent of the cap in 2011-12), or Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews ($6.3 million per for five years, and 10.6 percent of the cap in 2010-11 each).
But what each of those offers Davidson mentioned do, at every turn, is undervalue the player, perhaps more so than Johansen overvalues himself.
Again, look at what $3 million really means to the Blue Jackets this year and next year. It's a little more than 4.3 percent of the team's cap number in 2014-15, and in 2015-16 it's likely to shrink even more. So here's the question Johansen feels like the Blue Jackets need to answer: Is he going to be worth less per year to the team's success than Nick Foligno, who makes a little less than $3.1 million per year?
The answer is obviously in the negative — no one could argue otherwise — and that's even if he regresses somewhat from his 33-30-63 last season.
The good thing about a two-year deal here (which is what everyone seems to have agreed previously was judicious on both sides; it's just the money that was contested) is that it allows Johansen to get paid again, and avoids locking the Blue Jackets into a longer-term deal in the unlikely event that the player proves some sort of bust.
But let's look at those other two contracts now, and consider just what they actually would mean for Johansen.
The first thing to keep in mind about all this is the fact that most people justify what seems like dramatic overpayment up front — Kane and Toews' new deals, which begin in 2015-16, for example — could become absolute bargains by the middle and end: “The cap is going up.” The cap most certainly is going up, and prior to last season, the estimation was that by 2016-17, it could be as high as $80 million.
Which is why two years on this new deal, to knock down the '14-15 and '15-16 campaigns when it's still in the high 60s and low- to mid-70s, is wise for Johansen. And which is why any offer that went beyond two years from Columbus was designed to make a ton of money (and make no mistake, $32 million and $46 million for six and eight years of work, respectively, is a T-O-N ton of money) look like a better deal than it really was. Especially to the fans, which is important because this is now a matter of public relations and not entirely, say, team-building.
Basically, the Blue Jackets were asking Johansen to cost himself money over the life of the deal, and choosing to not write him a $4.5 million check for the next two seasons was foolish on their part. Because let's say the cap is indeed $80 million three seasons from now. Biggest it's ever been in league history by a wide margin (because the current $69 million is the largest ever already), and Johansen taking $5.33 million or $5.75 million would have been between 6 and 7 percent of the cap.
By that point, it's reasonable to assume that he will have established himself as a legitimate second-line center in a worst-case scenario, and second-line centers under an $80 million cap are worth more than $5.75 million max. And if the cap goes up even more (it probably will, but it's tough to say by how much) over the remaining four to six years of these imaginary deals, the cost to Johansen versus his actual value is even greater.
An eight-year deal beginning this season would bring Johansen to 2022-23, by which point, if the cap keeps growing at about 8.5 percent per year (something I doubt; there has to be a plateau for hockey interest in North America) the cap could be as high as $120 million. If Johansen continues developing as all seem to expect, then at 30 years old, he would earning just $5.75 million against that — 4.8 percent of the team's limit — to be one of the better No. 1 centers in the league. He would, therefore, likely be criminally underpaid, to almost the same extent to which he would be now, at $3 million.
Again, Johansen would be a terribly rich man at the end of the contract, but fans have to think about how much richer he theoretically could be. The specter of injury looms not only on the ice during an NHL game, but during warm-ups, and morning skates, and offseason training, and everyday life. Johansen could blow his knee out getting out of the shower tomorrow, and never play again. It's unlikely, but he has to prepare for that eventuality. So again, you can't begrudge a player for trying to get as much money into his savings account while he can.
But negotiations are, at their core, about striking a balance that works for everyone going forward. Johansen's monetary demand was as outlandish as Columbus's. So if you're buying into just one side of the political attack ad on this — The Greedy Player!!!! — please keep in mind that this is a league set up to minimize the employees' benefits as much as possible for the purpose of lining his employer's pockets (we've had two lockouts in the last decade for this exact reason).
The player, really, is under no obligation but his own financial needs to actually sign with Columbus. The league's restricted free agency rules aren't particularly fair to players — insofar as they effectively don't get to choose where they play for the first several years of their careers — which means Johansen basically has no where else to turn (save for the KHL or something, but that seems unrealistic unless this gets really protracted).
He could sign an offer sheet, but if one attractive enough to get him to sign hasn't come yet, it probably won't come at all. The combination of team reticence to engage in this kind of player-sniping in the first place, the cost in immediate cap space and offer sheet compensation Johansen would command over a deal long enough to make signing worthwhile for both sides, and the likelihood of having their own RFAs approached in retaliation more frequently seems to loom large over proceedings.
(Though weirdly, that last one is talked about a lot, and yet there's been no real effort on the part of, say, Nashville to take a run at any of Philadelphia's prospects after the Shea Weber contract. You might be able to chalk it up to Nashville being a small-market club without a lot of money to spend, but then again the Flyers' cap situation being what it is might make them vulnerable to it. This same argument could be made with respect to the Avs running at Flames RFAs after the Ryan O'Reilly offer sheet, or the Blackhawks doing it to the Sharks after Niklas Hjalmarsson got his big-money offer four years ago.)
There's also the fact that Columbus has said it will match any offer sheet for the player, which shows you how much they actually think he's worth: literally anything another team might offer him. And isn't that interesting, too? Not that they wouldn't match grudgingly, and probably making a big show of sighing a lot at the signing itself, but they'd do it. Because they know he's worth it. That, too, effectively means he's trapped with the Blue Jackets, especially because it further seems as though the team isn't all that interested in entertaining your favorite team's trade calls.
So Ryan Johansen's options are essentially these: He can either get himself in line with Jarmo Kekalainen's vision for his near future, or get in line at his local unemployment office.
If you were out of work and those were your only realistic options, you wouldn't be happy about it either. And no one would call you selfish and greedy for wanting to be paid fairly (or even a little more than you're probably worth). So hockey fans would do well to try extending Ryan Johansen, or any future RFA in a similar situation, the same courtesy.