In what seems to be the most contentious contract negotiation of the summer, the Columbus Blue Jackets and top center Ryan Johansen appear no closer to a resolution and time is running out. The chances of Johansen holding out seem to get a little stronger with each passing day.
The gulf between the two sides is reported to be as wide as $3.5 million per season and shows no signs of closing anytime soon. It's bad enough now that the Blue Jackets have to at least start thinking about how to head into the season without their budding star.
According to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, that conversation is already happening internally.
At this point, it seems highly unlikely Johansen will be on the ice at the start of training camp. [Johansen's agent Kurt] Overhardt will use that as leverage, as he has many, many times with clients in the last decade, including Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky in 2009 when he played for the New York Rangers.
The Blue Jackets, thus, must be prepared to play without Johansen in the lineup. They've already had discussions to that end.
Their options at this late stage are scant, though as Portzline notes, there is the option of dipping into the somewhat deep pool of veteran players still without contracts. They could invite one or two centers from that group to camp on a tryout basis, but that isn't yet in the plans, according to the Dispatch.
There's also the option of moving Boone Jenner from wing to his natural center position, but there's little evidence that he'd be able to handle a more substantial role at the NHL level. Additionally, moving him from the wing where he really started to find his game last season as a rookie might be counterproductive.
The ideal scenario of course is getting Johansen under contract, but the numbers that have been reported for the two sides makes it abundantly clear why there is a strong likelihood of Johansen holding out.
According to Portzline's earlier reports, the Blue Jackets hope to get Johansen on a short-term bridge deal at around $3.5 million per season. Johansen's camp, at first reluctant to go on a short-term deal, has relented on term, but that raises the price. Johansen is reportedly asking for $7 million per year.
That kind of figure would make Johansen one of the better paid forwards in the league. At $7 million, his contract comparables would be Henrik Sedin, a former Hart Trophy winner, Daniel Sedin and Alexander Semin. He'd also be making more this season than top UFA Paul Stastny, Nicklas Backstrom, Thomas Vanek, Jonathan Toews and a host of others. Among age and experience comparables, $7 million would be off the charts.
The season Johansen had was absolutely remarkable with 33 goals and 63 points. In fact, it was one of the best goal-scoring seasons of a player aged 21 or younger of the last five. But it still is only one year of significant NHL production as a negotiating chip.
Johansen's ability to sustain that kind of play has yet to be proven, which is why the Blue Jackets are well within reason to offer a bridge deal. It very well could burn them in two years if Johansen repeats his remarkable 2013-14 campaign, but if he doesn't, it's a softer blow.
The reported $7 million seems outlandish, but it's a good negotiating tactic if the end goal is to force the Blue Jackets into a cheaper annual deal over a longer term. And this is where the impasse may persist.
The Blue Jackets head into next season with higher expectations after making the playoffs and earning the first two postseason wins in franchise history. Starting the season without one of the central figures to their team is hardly the right way to start the season. But the recent success of the Blue Jackets' is delicate in general.
Though the roster has improved greatly in recent years, it's not among the top tier of the teams in the NHL. No one will confuse the Blue Jackets for a Stanley Cup contender.
Making a long-term commitment at big money to Johansen with one year of proven production could set the franchise back if the performance doesn't meet the dollars. Sensibility and patience is probably the right approach from general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
Johansen may well one day be worth $7 million a season over a long term, but not yet. Finding some sort of common ground still may seem a long way off in the distance, but there will be a resolution at some point. It just might get worse before it gets better.