There’s always one. Every summer, as we all get settled into the NHL offseason doldrums, there’s always one young superstar who drops a mid-summer contract bomb on our sleepy little hockey hamlet.
Last year it was P.K. Subban. This year, it’s Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues winger just signed a massive extension, one that largely redefines the market for young players.
What does it all mean? Let’s figure it out.
The St. Louis Blues announced the signing of Vladimir Tarasenko to an eight-year, $60 million contract. The deal carries a cap hit of $7.5 million, making Tarasenko the Blues’ highest-paid player in terms of average annual value.
The deal comes on the heels of a breakout season in which he scored 37 goals and recorded 73 points in 77 games, good for tenth in overall league scoring. He had been a restricted free agent, meaning he was free to sign an offer sheet with any team. Instead, the Blues locked him up for eight years, which is the maximum allowable contract length under the current CBA.
Is $60 million a lot? It sounds like a lot.
It’s a lot. The annual cap hit will be among the top 20 in the league, and makes Tarasenko the seventh-highest-paid winger in the game.
More importantly, the deal is almost unprecedented, in that it’s only Tarasenko’s second NHL contract. After just three seasons in the league, he was still years away from reaching unrestricted free agency. Similar deals to players like Phil Kessel or Corey Perry came with UFA status looming, giving the players leverage to demand a big deal or walk away and hit the open market. Players in Tarasenko’s situation have typically had to settle for signing a bridge deal before going long-term; we’ve never seen a player this young get this much money.
Sorry, what’s a bridge deal?
This is a question that’s often asked by hockey fans who are relatively new to following contract negotiations; these days, it’s also one asked by smirking player agents, feigning confusion while getting ready to shake a GM upside down and collect all the money that falls out.
When the NHL entered the salary cap era, the players agreed to accept restrictive rules around entry-level contracts that basically guaranteed that teams would get to keep young players for the first three years of their career at a very cheap price point, typically under $1 million annually. In return, the players got earlier access to unrestricted free agency, which meant they could hit their big payday as soon as seven years into their NHL career.
That left at least a four-year gap between the entry-level deal and UFA status, during which players could become restricted free agents and qualify for arbitration rights. For all intents and purposes, the player was still under team control, meaning he had to negotiate his second (and sometimes third and fourth) pro contract without having much leverage beyond being willing to sit out.
Enter the concept of the “bridge deal,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: a meet-in-the-middle contract that would take a player from ELC to UFA, giving him a nice raise on his entry-level salary while still dangling the carrot of a bigger payday down the road. The deals came to be viewed as a sort of “prove it” contract — you want to hit the jackpot, kid? Show us what you’ve got.
That sounds reasonable. Why shouldn’t players like Tarasenko have to prove their worth?
Bridge deals have been falling out of favor in recent years, with good young players often skipping the “prove it” phase and going straight to hitting the jackpot. The deals aren’t extinct — Evgeny Kuznetsov signed one just a few days ago — but they’re no longer a mandatory step toward a future big payday.
That’s been a frustrating development for lots of hockey people, especially those in front offices around the league who can no longer rely on below-market deals for young stars to keep their caps manageable. But there are good arguments against bridge deals. For one, they can backfire on the team that signs them; that’s essentially what happened to the Habs with Subban, who signed a “prove it” deal and then went out and proved it so decisively that he became the league’s highest-paid defenseman.