After months of negotiating through the media on either side, it seems that there's finally a light toward which we can all turn, hopefully, in the case of "Ryan Johansen Wants To Get Paid" v. "Yes But Is He Worth It?"
Even calling what's gone on for the last couple of months “negotiations” could best be described as overdone at this point, because neither side has budged very much from their asks of the other. The Blue Jackets still want two years at $3 million (or $3.5 million, depending upon whom you believe), and Johansen wants two years at $6-6.5 million (also depending upon whom you believe).
Only this week — with training camp looming — has the talk of a potential long-term deal cropped up once again, quite some time after both brushed the other's valuations off as being outlandish. One can't imagine there would have been much changed since then, at least in terms of the likelihood for acrimony if they actually want to venture down that darkened road again.
But this time, Jarmo Kekalainen has drawn a line in the sand, essentially saying that if Johansen doesn't want to sign before camp, then he probably just won't play this season unless he comes hat in hand. Is it a bluff? Probably; principled low payment or not, a team cannot afford to lose its top center for an entire year, especially if it has designs on repeating or even improving the success that it found both on the ice and within its local market for the first time in years.
It's important at this point, too, to review the sides of the argument here. You'll note how far apart they aren't, at least over the long haul, and thus how narrow the argument really is.
The Blue Jackets' feeling is this: Ryan Johansen has enjoyed one really good season in the NHL at this point, after three more or less full campaigns. He is prototypical No. 1 franchise center material. He's a 6-foot-3, 200-plus-pounds player who clearly drives possession and whose skills are off the charts pretty much across the board, and who's just barely 22 years old. He's going to be in this league for a long time, playing at a high level.
With that having been said, they look at the 33 points he scored across his first 107 NHL games, then how he nearly doubled that number this past year, and say there's reason for concern. The Blue Jackets are smart and clearly have a handle on the kinds of metrics that are strong predictors of success. Johansen shows them in most in most instances, but the numbers also point to the fact that he had an absurdly high on-ice shooting percentage in getting to 33 goals last year, meaning the odds he does that again aren't necessarily super-high. And that he therefore might need another year or two to prove he's going to be the kind of player they 100 percent believe he's going to be.
If he does repeat his success, then he's not paid peanuts even in the team's ideal scenario, but will still provide significant value to the club in terms of cap flexibility (not that they really need it; they're currently 29th in the league in obligations, with more than $14.1 million in free space). After that, they'll be more than happy to pay him full value for years to come.
The player's feeling, meanwhile, is this:
“I enjoyed one really good season in the NHL at this point, after three more or less full campaigns. I am prototypical No. 1 franchise center material. I'm a 6-foot-3, 200-plus-pound player who clearly drives possession and whose skills are off the charts pretty much across the board, and who's just barely 22 years old. I am going to be in this league for a long time, playing at a high level.
“And I already proved all that by scoring 33 goals last season, so just pay me what I'm due. In fact, you know what? Even the $6.5 million I want would be a discount, because the going rate for young 30-goal scorers is probably a little higher than that, isn't it? So really, I'm doing you a favor anyway. And after I prove it over the next two years of this contract, you better back up a bank truck to my garage, to make sure I stick around for years to come.”
We have, of course, seen hardball of this type before. Players have held themselves out of training camps and even real, regular-season games as they continued to work toward a resolution with their clubs on a new contract. But if Kekalainen doesn't get an answer before next Thursday, he claims he'll just start camp without his best player and end negotiations altogether. That is, suffice it to say, the nuclear option. But it's one to which more and more teams could find themselves resorting in the coming years.
Here, too, you have to look at it from both sides: The examples set by Colorado and Montreal in recent years showed teams that they might be able to bully their players into taking less than market value for their services, simply because of their restricted free agent status. It is, again, a matter of principle and, to some extent, a type of collusion. Johansen doesn't have many options in this case if he wants to make what a 30-goal scorer makes in the NHL; he can accept an offer sheet (not likely to be forthcoming, because this league is hilarious) or he can theoretically sign a KHL deal for a bunch of money but suffer deplorable conditions. He can also just sign with Columbus for their low-ball offer, because that's what so many of his forebears have done.
This is, however, not the common thing in recent memory. While the relatively low-value “second contract” was a staple of the league for years, it went away in the latter years of the 2005 version of the collective bargaining agreement; lots of guys coming off their entry-level deals signed big-money, long-term deals, and a lot of them ended up being bargains anyway. One need only look at the freights for James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Seguin to see that guys could get paid good money if they were strong enough in their first three years in the league. That they have cap hits of just $4.25 million through 2018 and $5.75 million through 2019, respectively, worked out pretty well for both club and player, even if neither wound up staying with the teams that signed those deals (which is weird, and doesn't speak too well for the cap and asset management of either).
And so we come back, really, to the idea of paying for performance versus paying for potential. Teams would like to do the latter, players would like the former. The flexibility from those positions either side shows in the Johansen case could go a long way toward shaping future negotiations as well, because if the PK Subban situation in Montreal (in which he was shoehorned onto the roster with an absurdly small contract, then rewarded with one that's probably a little too big for his troubles, I guess) didn't break the bridge contract system, and this doesn't either, then it really will be proven as bulletproof.
The nature of this league and its CBA is that, for the most part, even long-term deals with dollar values that seem absurd at the time will, over their length, become reasonable or perhaps even bargains. Teams want players to show them what they can do before paying for it players want teams to pay them to do it first. Maybe it leads to hurt feelings, but no one has ever had the right to feel more hard-done by than Subban, and as of this summer, he gets to sleep smiling on a pile of money.
Neither side is really wrong here — it's very easy to see things both ways — but it's something the league as a whole is going to have to figure out soon. Or the Blue Jackets and Johansen could just meet in the middle, call it $4.5-5 million for two years, and both walk away feeling like they lost something, and no one learns anything at all.