To Bridge Or Not To Bridge: Re-Signing the Youth

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Having talented youth on your team is a huge asset, but what happens when you have to pay them?

The NHL Draft and July 1st free agent frenzy have come and gone, but the offseason beats on.  As the rookie development camp wraps up, Chuck Fletcher and the Wild brass will now look to re-sign their remaining restricted free agents.  Which brings us to an interesting subject: the bridge contract.

Bridge Contracts

Bridge contracts have become popular under the new CBA.  Rather than signing young promising players to long-term deals, GMs have been keen on working out cheap 1-3 year deals to let players "prove" themselves.  When an entry-level deal expires, the player generally only has a few years of NHL experience and can be hard to evaluate.  The bridge contract allows teams to evaluate their talent with a bigger sample size and can then elect to sign the player to a long-term contract down the road.

The bridge contract is a great deal for teams looking to reduce risk and maintain flexibility under the cap.  They can get a player entering his prime years (21 to 24 years) for a reasonable price ($1 to $4 million cap hit).  If the player is a complete bust, the team can let him walk after the contract expires without feeling like he was a complete waste of money.

The Blackhawks were able to extend Andrew Shaw for two years with a cap hit of $2 million.  Philadelphia extended Sean Couturier last summer for two years, $1.75 million.  Both players had promising starts under their entry-level deals, but their future role on the team was still in question.  The bridge deals allowed both teams to retain quality players for a fair price while also allowing themselves to make a more informed decision on the player before their next contract.

The bridge contract can also be a great deal for players, especially those who still have something to prove in the NHL.  Performing well under a bridge deal can lead to a big payday after.  Matt Duchene took a two-year deal in Colorado before playing himself into a five-year, $30 million extension.

However, not every young player has the confidence that they can put up Duchene numbers to earn the big bucks.  Bridge contracts are risky for players.  They are essentially turning down money in the short term with the promise that they will continue to improve and make even more money in the long term.

Players coming off their entry-level deals tend to be severely underpaid when compared to veterans on their team who may put up the same numbers.  Ryan Johansen is currently having trouble working out a deal with Columbus because he feels he is worth more than a two-year, cheap contract.  And in a sense, he is right.  Johansen put up great numbers last year (33g-30a) and is emerging as a talented top-line center.  Yet Columbus knows it can save money by insisting on shorter term, and they will probably get their way.

While bridge contracts are generally low-risk for teams, they can also backfire.  Sometimes saving money in the short term only means spending more in the long term.  Two years ago, P.K. Subban became a restricted free agent.  Subban asked the Canadiens for 5 years at $25 million.  Every team in the league would take that deal today, but Subban's status as a star defensemen was still in question in January 2013.  Instead, Montreal was able to agree to a two-year deal with a $2.87 million cap hit.  Not a bad salary for the team's best defensemen.  The problem, as we all know, is that Subban broke out in his two years by winning a Norris trophy, making the Olympic team, and putting up great numbers.  Now Subban holds all the cards as he negotiates a new deal where he could get anywhere from $6-9 million a year over a long term.  Montreal would have saved money in the long run had they signed Subban for longer term before he could command such a large contract.

Long-Term Contracts

Instead of a bridge contract, teams can try to extend their players for a longer term if they are confident they will develop into a strong player.  This strategy is riskier, but it can pay huge dividends in the long run.  New York has John Tavares locked down until 2018 with a cap hit of only $5.5 million.  The contract will run through Tavares' prime years of ages 21 to 27.  Philadelphia got a lot of heat when they signed James van Riemsdyk for 6 years at $4.25 million.  However, van Riemsdyk has continued to develop into a talented young forward.  Now Toronto has van Riemsdyk until 2018 with a reasonable contract (especially when the team is paying David Clarkson a million more per year).  Alex Pietrangelo and Oliver Ekman-Larsson's contracts seem to be good decisions to retain high-end talent for years to come.

Long term contracts can also fail miserably.  Players can get injured or just fall off the map all together.  Buffalo's Tyler Myers has completely disappeared since signing a seven-year deal in 2011.  Now the Sabres are paying $5.5 million for a very average defensemen until 2019.  Other big contracts, such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' in Edmonton have the potential to be overpays.

Wild Decisions

The Wild's greatest strength moving forward may be its developing youth.  Having talented youth on your team is a huge asset, but what happens when you have to pay them?  Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, and Darcy Kuemper are restricted free agents this year.  Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Marco Scandella, and Jonas Brodin will be next year.  The question is, do you sign them to bridge contracts to let them develop, or do you lock them down long term?

If the Wild sign all of them to short term deals and they put up impressive numbers, chances are the team will not be able to afford all of its players in a few years.  However, the team also cannot afford signing all of these players to a long-term deal.

The player who seems most likely to receive a long-term deal is Granlund.  Playmaking centers are hard to come by in this league and the Wild will want to capitalize on the Finn's talent for as long as possible.  Brodin could be another candidate for a longer deal.  While he had a tough sophomore season, most people still think he will develop into a top-pairing defensemen.  He may not get Pietrangelo or Ekman-Larsson money, but it might be smart for the Wild to lock him down.

For the others, Fletcher may have to be smart and take a few risks.  He'll have to be careful to structure contracts so they don't all end at the same time.  If a player has star potential, it may be better to overpay to keep them long term.  Even if it doesn't work out 100%, at least the Wild would be overpaying a player during their prime instead of getting a player on the decline in free agency.

Overall, it should be an exciting time for this franchise as some of its most important players continue to improve and enter their prime.  What do you think Wilderness?  Which players would you offer bridge contracts and which would you want to lock down long-term?

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