Nazem Kadri's two-year contract that he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday is further proof that Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin changed the trend in the NHL last season by holding firm in negotiations and eventually signing defenseman P.K. Subban to a two-year contract that has become commonly known as a bridge contract.
Prior to Subban signing his contract worth $5.75 million, young players coming off entry-level contracts like Drew Doughty, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner and Tyler Seguin received long-term lucrative contracts despite not holding much in the way of leverage over their teams.
At the time there was a growing concern among executives around the NHL that these deals were proof that the second contract, typically the "show-me contract," was being wiped out of the League.
Bergevin changed that thinking last season by using the power of leverage, waiting for Subban to sit out of training camp and the first six games before finally signing a team-friendly, two-year, $5.75 million contract. Kadri, who reportedly wanted a John Tavares-esque contract of six years and around $33 million, avoided sitting out of camp and any regular season games by settling for a two-year, $5.8 million contract.
Like the Subban storyline from last season, Kadri, who had 44 points in 48 games last season, now has two more seasons to prove to the Maple Leafs that he can be a No. 1 or No. 2 center on a game-in, game-out basis before he is able to receive arbitration rights as a 24-year-old restricted free agent, which will likely lead to a bigger payday. He won't be an unrestricted free agent until he's 27.
Subban proved it last season by winning the Norris Trophy. He'll have arbitration rights if he doesn't sign a contract extension this season, but the more likely scenario has him re-signing with the Canadiens for the long-term, lucrative contract that he has now earned.
The Subban situation also could be an example of the risk involved for teams with the "bridge contract" as well. Subban is now almost certain to sign a more expensive long-term pact than he would have before winning the Norris. While the Canadiens saved salary cap room in the short term, it may cost them in the long term.
The question is what effect will the contracts signed by Subban and Kadri have on four remaining notable restricted free agents?
Let's examine the possibilities:
Derek Stepan, New York Rangers
Center - NYR
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 44
SOG: 108 | +/-: 25
Stepan's situation with the Rangers is different for a number of reasons.
First of all, the Rangers' restricted free agent center has done what Kadri and Cody Hodgson, who signed a six-year contract with the Bufffalo Sabres on Wednesday, haven't. That is prove himself over three full seasons (212 games) in the NHL. He was the team's leading scorer last season with 44 points in 48 games, identical numbers to Kadri. He has also played in 37 playoff games while Hodgson has appeared in 12, all with the Vancouver Canucks, and Kadri has played in seven.
Secondly, Stepan knows the Rangers gave his close friend and teammate, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a six-year, $28.2 million contract earlier this summer. If McDonagh is one of the Rangers top two defensemen and Stepan is their No. 1 center, shouldn't Stepan get paid a similar wage over a comparable number of seasons?
The problem for Stepan, though, is twofold:
1. McDonagh had arbitration rights this summer because he signed his first contract at 21 years old while Stepan signed his at 20. The arbitration rights gave McDonagh more leverage than Stepan.
2. The Rangers have a precarious salary-cap situation now. They have less than $2.2 million remaining, according to Capgeek.com, which is likely not enough to get Stepan signed and be cap compliant without making a corresponding move, be it via a trade, demotion or injury.
If the Rangers want to go big with Stepan, signing him to a six-year contract would also gobble up two years of his higher earning potential as an unrestricted free agent, which he can technically become at the end of the 2016-17 season. A bridge deal for Stepan would give the Rangers a motivated player and more control over their salary-cap situation, but it would provide Stepan with arbitration rights when the contract is up.
A four-year contract doesn't make a lot of sense for the Rangers because it takes Stepan right up until he becomes an unrestricted free agent, which gives him all the bargaining power.
Cody Franson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kadri's contract also has a direct effect on Franson because it leaves the Maple Leafs with roughly $2 million of salary-cap space to sign him. There are ways general manager Dave Nonis can creatively find wiggle room, but no matter what he does there still won't be much more than the $2.1 million that is available now for Franson.
Franson, who earned $1.2 million on a one-year contract last season, when he was fourth in the NHL among defensemen with 25 assists, had arbitration rights this summer but chose not to take advantage of them. He would have arbitration rights again if he signs a one-year contract, and a two-year contract would take him to unrestricted free agency.
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
Defense - STL
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 24
SOG: 93 | +/-: 0
The Blues want Alex Pietrangelo
to be in their organization for a long time, but it appears as of now that they're not willing to go in the direction of a long-term, big-money contract. Pietrangelo, though, doesn't appear willing to sign a bridge contract either, which is why they're stuck at a stalemate in negotiations.
Pietrangelo is likely looking at the Doughty contract (eight years, $56 million) as his comparable. At the very least he has a reason to negotiate away from a bridge contract based on his comparable to Subban. He has done more in his career leading up to these negotiations than Subban did in his career before signing his two-year contract.
Pietrangelo has played in three full seasons, 224 total games and has 121 points with a plus-25 rating. Before last season, Subban had played in two full seasons, 160 total games and had 76 points with a plus-2 rating.
But, like Subban last season, the only leverage Pietrangelo has now is to withhold his services. Subban did for six games last season before signing his contract.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said Pietrangelo will be on the team, but nobody is sure how long it will take to make it happen.
Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators
DEFENSEMAN - OTT
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 1
SOG: 8 | +/-: 1
The issue facing the Senators and Cowen is that there are two reasonable directions to go in but clearly so far the player and the team haven't agreed on the path.
A bridge contract could work for the Senators considering Cowen has played in only 90 games and still has a lot to prove, but a long-term contract similar to the one Travis Hamonic signed with the New York Islanders earlier this summer also has merit if the Senators believe Cowen can be their No. 2 defensemen behind Erik Karlsson for the better part of the next decade.
Hamonic signed a seven-year, $27 million contract which will take him three seasons beyond when he can become an unrestricted free agent. It provides security for Hamonic and a cap-friendly number for the Islanders, who think Hamonic can be their No. 1 defenseman.
If Cowen signed a similar contract, which he reportedly is interested in, it would take him two years past when he can become unrestricted. Provided the salary-cap charge is reasonable, this type of contract has the Senators getting cost certainty with a player they like and it provides security for Cowen, who would also be surrendering some future leverage.
But again, it goes back to what Bergevin did with Subban.
The Rangers, Blues and Senators have to decide if the risk of signing a young player to a long-term contract is worth the reward they could get in performance at a potential cap-friendly cost.
They've got leverage on their side and clearly they intend to use it the way the Maple Leafs did with Kadri.