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Bridge deal most sensible option for Blue Jackets, Ryan Johansen

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Ryan Johansen is coming off a major breakout season in 2013-14. (USATSI)
Ryan Johansen is coming off a major breakout season in 2013-14. (USATSI)

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One of two vitally important negotiations remaining for the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer might have taken a rather positive turn. According to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, "significant progress" has been made in contract talks between restricted free-agent forward Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets.

More from Portzline:

Johansen's agent, Kurt Overhardt, recently extended a second contract offer to the Blue Jackets, sources have told the Dispatch. It's a two-year contract, or a "bridge" deal -- the type Johansen called a "slap in the face" late last month.

The term of the contract -- the player demanded a long-term contract, the Blue Jackets insisted on a shorter deal -- was the major stumbling block in these negotiations dating back to April.

"Ryan wants to be a Blue Jacket and he wants to be in Columbus," said Overhardt, who declined to discuss the negotiations. "That has never been an issue in any of this. He loves it there.

"He was very excited to see the club wrap up Brandon Dubinsky with such a long-term contract [earlier this month]. That's the kind of player he wants as a teammate, the kind of player he wants beside him."

Earlier in the summer, Portzline reported the two sides were "galaxies apart."

Significant progress from galaxies apart is a good thing, but it doesn't necessarily mean a deal is close at this point. That said, if the term was a major hang up, the fact that there may be more of a common ground at least on one aspect of the deal is a good thing. Portzline reported that Overhardt's first offer was for a four-year deal, which was a non-starter for the club.

On Saturday, Blue Jackets president John Davidson addressed the future of the organization and specifically the situation regarding Johansen in a Q & A with Blue Jackets commentator Jim Rimer.

From BlueJackets.com:

At the moment, Columbus must reach a contract agreement with Johansen, a restricted free agent who has yet to re-sign. Davidson made it clear general manager Jarmo Kekalainen wasn't willing to mortgage future cap flexibility in order to lock up the 21-year-old.

"Jarmo is still working with Johansen's camp. We're a team that feels if we have players that earn it, we will certainly respond with appropriate contracts," Davidson said. "We're working with their camp trying to figure out what exactly is the right thing to do. We like Ryan Johansen; who wouldn't? But we have to be responsible regarding long-term contracts."

What Davidson alludes to may closely mirror the Blue Jackets' stance on the situation regarding Johansen. How much is one good season worth and how comfortable does a team feel about that one season being a sign of things to come?

Considering the 21-year-old forward had a career year in 2013-14, his third in the NHL, there's leverage for the player. But it's the fact that his 2013-14 season is pretty much all he has done in the NHL where Columbus has a strong argument in a short-term, bridge deal.

In going short-term, the team assumes the risk that Johansen continues down the path he set for himself last season with 33 goals and 63 points and is owed a bigger annual salary than he is commanding now after the bridge has been crossed.

In a two-year scenario, however, the Blue Jackets still afford themselves the protection of Johnasen remaining a restricted free agent upon the completion of the deal, leaving them in a situation where they still have control of his rights and can match any offer sheet thrown his way, should other general managers be so bold.

And really, the offer sheet is the only thing that could throw a wrench in the Blue Jackets' cranks in the current negotiation. Kekalainen has already said he will match any offer sheet thrown at Johansen, basically warning other GMs not to waste their time.

Really, the Blue Jackets are doing the sensible thing here by insisting on a bridge deal and making Johansen "earn it." Johansen showed the promise that made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft last season, but his first two campaigns in the league were up and down at best.

In his first season, Johansen put up 21 points. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he put up just 12 points in 40 games and even earned a temporary demotion to Springfield of the American Hockey League at one point. Due to the lockout and his brief stint during the NHL campaign, he played the first half of the season in the AHL and played a total of 40 games in the NHL's top farm circuit. He had 33 points including 17 goals, a pretty good showing for a player his age in that circuit.

The explosiveness of Johansen's 2013-14 campaign was certainly eye-opening, though. Over the past five seasons, only two players aged 21 or younger have scored more goals in a single season than the 33 Johansen put up last season. That is Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos (twice) and Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle. Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes had as many as Johansen last season at the same age.

Other players in Johansen's company among the top 12 on that list include Logan Couture, John Tavares, Evander Kane, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene and Taylor Hall. All of those players remain important pieces for their current teams, so there's definitely an indication that Johansen has some incredible things ahead of him.

Among the players in that group, only Couture and Duchene ended up receiving what would be considered bridge deals from their teams upon the completion of their initial entry-level contracts.

The Avalanche gave Duchene a two-year deal worth an average of $3.5 million per season. Couture, who had the first two years of his ELC slide due to remaining in junior -- and thus delaying his ELC clock by two years -- signed a bridge deal worth an average of $2.875 million over two years. Both signed five-year extensions worth an annual average of $6 million before their bridge deals expired and will start playing on those new contracts in 2014-15.

When combining the bridge deals with the new contracts for both players, Duchene will have made $37 million over seven seasons, while Couture will have claimed $35.75 million over the same span.

Compare those financial figures to every other player on the list, aside from Stamkos (who is in a league of his own salary wise), and the Avalanche and Sharks got both for at least one more season at a cheaper average annual commitment than the other players.

San Jose and Colorado took on the risk and didn't get burned despite continued production from those young players over the course of the bridge deal. They also had more manageable cap hits for those two seasons before the pair stepped up to what their peers were making, and in some cases, more.

Couture may be the most comparable situationally to Johansen, considering he had put up a great season at age 21 with 32 goals and 56 points before being signed to his bridge deal. It was his first full season in the league after 25 appearances the year before. The main difference, however is that Couture still had a year left on his ELC after signing the bridge.

That's where Johansen has more leverage in his case as he has to be re-signed before the season and very well could hold out until he and Columbus can reach an agreement. That could end up showing up on the deal's dollar amount, which appears to be the next bridge to cross in the negotiation if the two sides can agree on a two-year pact.

Teams have to tread carefully with youngsters and the Blue Jackets are only being extra cautious with Johansen. There are certainly pros and cons to Columbus' approach, but leaving some RFA years gives them at least a little bit of a safety net, which has worked for some teams recently.

Should Johansen put up two more 30-plus goal seasons while playing on the bridge, he'll definitely be due a large raise, probably much bigger than the one he could currently command.

That said, if the Blue Jackets have to pay more later, they'll do so gladly for a 24-year-old player with two additional seasons of top-level production as a track record, assuming they haven't over-extended themselves against the salary cap. The Montreal Canadiens are about to experience something similar to that with P.K. Subban as he earned a Norris Trophy over the course of his two-year bridge deal.

But more importantly, if Johansen does not perform up to the standard set last season, the Blue Jackets are not paying big money on a long-term deal for an underperforming player. It's the knowledge of that risk that is making the Blue Jackets more cautious, and appropriately so.

However they have to get it done, the priority at this point is getting Johansen under contract before the season begins. He appears to be a big part of their future and offering a bridge deal doesn't change that fact. Plus after that negotiation is completed, the Blue Jackets can turn their focus fully onto the next hugely important task ahead: re-signing goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who will be playing on the last year of his current contract and is looking at quite the raise.

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