Jonathan Huberdeau (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jonathan Huberdeau is the latest NHL prospect to sign a "bridge contract" this summer. Was it the right move for the Florida Panthers?
Wasn't P.K. Subban's contract last summer, paying him $9 million annually, supposed to be a cautionary tale about bridge deals?
The Montreal Canadiens didn't lock him down as a restricted free agent in 2012, opting for a two-year extension. He ended up winning the Norris Trophy in 2012-13 and, boom, the bridge deal didn't look so good anymore. The Ottawa Senators, on the other hand, nabbed Erik Karlsson on a seven-year extension that same summer after his entry-level deal and have him for four more seasons at $6.5 million per, which is a steal. Drew Doughty walked out of his ELC into an eight-year contract with a $7-million cap hit. He's a steal, too, for four more seasons. John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews all signed long extensions for their second deals that turned out to be massive bargains.
The Habs went the short-term route with Subban on his second contract, and he now makes more money per year than all but four NHLers on his third contract, with seven years left on an eight-year deal. You'd think it would scare teams into avoiding the bridge, but that hasn't really happened. Ryan Johansen has just two years left on his deal after last summer's arduous negotiation. And this summer has been rife with bridge contracts, from Mika Zibanejad's to Elias Lindholm's to Mikael Granlund's to Alex Galchenyuk's to Brock Nelson's and, most recently, Jonathan Huberdeau's.
The Panthers have inked their first-line left winger, a restricted free agent, to a two-year, $6.5-million contract carrying a $3.25-million cap hit. It's a bridge deal if there ever was one.
So why agree on a short-term deal like this one when we've seen how much better the long-term extension worked out with a bevy of big names? Well, that's the thing. Big names. Karlsson already had a Norris when he inked his extension. Doughty was a Norris finalist and Olympic gold medallist. Tavares had broken out for an 81-point season in 2011-12. Kane and Toews had just won their first Stanley Cup.
This summer's bridge brigade of Zibanejad (two years, $5.25 million), Lindholm (two years, $5.4 million) Granlund (two years, $6 million), Galchenyuk (two years, $5.6 million), Nelson (three years, $7.5 million) and Huberdeau are all first-round draft picks with strong pedigree, but they haven't approached real NHL stardom yet. None has scored more than 20 goals in a season, and Huberdeau is the only member of that group with a 50-point campaign so far. He's also the only one with a major NHL award, having won the Calder in 2012-13, and that surely played a part in him landing the third-highest two-year contract since the 2004-05 lockout. He finally clicked on Florida's first line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr in March and April, racking up 21 points in 20 games, but didn't produce like a star before then. The sample size of "really good Huberdeau" remains small.
Meanwhile, another youngster whose entry-level deal freshly expired, Vladimir Tarasenko, got a massive extension paying him $7.5 million annually. The key difference? He's the proud owner of a 37-goal explosion last season. Even his 21-goal campaign the year prior bests everything the aforementioned group has accomplished. Tarasenko has reached a different stratosphere of production.
So before we warn GMs about bridge deals, it's prudent to stop and ask what inspired the short-term contracts. It's two words: "prove it." These young guns haven't done quite enough to command long-term financial commitment yet. We'll thus continue to see more of these contracts than the big ones for guys whose resumes don't yet glow with accolades. Of course, there are exceptions. Just ask Sean Couturier and Adam Larsson, who each landed six-year deals this summer. Did they do enough to earn that kind of investment?
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin