George McPhee’s philosophy on bridge contracts for RFAs

September 13, 2013

(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Marcus Johansson arrived in Washington Tuesday, two days after he signed a new two-year, $4 million contract and just in time for the start of training camp. Even as negotiations between him and the Capitals stretched into the early days of September, Johansson said he wasn’t worried about being back in time for camp.

“I was always hoping and thinking I was going to be here when it started,” Johansson said. “I think if it would have come to that I would have dealt with it then. It worked out and I’m really happy it did.”

Not all restricted free agents are in attendance at their respective training camps, though. Derek Stepan isn’t close to a deal with the Rangers, Alex Pietrangelo has yet to sign with the Blues and Cody Franson is locked in a hardball negotiation with the Maple Leafs. In each case, the teams are eyeing a bridge contract for the young player – a shorter term deal that allows a team to keep salary low while continuing to evaluate the player in question.

They’ve become a popular route with RFAs in recent seasons as general managers look for ways to engineer their team in a salary cap world. Capitals General Manager George McPhee has done quite a few, Johansson being the most recent.

While the 22-year-old forward didn’t want to share details about his negotiation process, McPhee explained his philosophy with bridge deals and why it can be a preferred and more cautious option for teams.

“The bridge deal is a little safer route to go for lots of reasons. You want to know exactly what you’re buying if you’re going to go long-term, you worry about long term contracts sometimes because you want to keep athletes hungry, players get hurt sometimes and it’s costly if they’re on a long term deal,” McPhee said. “The bridge deal buys you a little more time to sort out what you have. We’ve done it with a number of our guys now and so it helps you make, I think, a better decision when they’re four, five years into the league instead of three.

“In Marcus’s case we got a deal that worked for both of us it was done before camp, he’s ready to go,” McPhee continued. “It’s the highest bridge deal we’ve done and it buys us some time to evaluate a little bit longer. We think there’s lots of upside there, [it] bides him more time to prove himself and playing on the line he’s playing on now he’ll probably earn a lot of points and be able to get a better deal [in the future].”

Both Washington goaltenders received bridge deals for their second contracts. Michal Neuvirth inked a two year, $2.3 million deal back in 2011 and last year Braden Holtby agreed to a two year, $3.7 million contract. The contract defenseman Karl Alzner signed after his entry-level deal expired in 2011 was also a bridge contract at two years, $2.57 million.

Alzner, 24, agreed to a four year $11.2 million contract this summer. It marked his third career NHL deal and came after he had entrenched himself as a vital part of Washington’s defense. Alzner understood that when he first became an RFA he had little in the way of leverage, particularly as a stay-at-home defenseman, and didn’t mind the incentive a short-term deal offered.

“At that age you don’t have too many rights when it comes to negotiating a contract. Unless you’re putting up 60-70 points as a forward or 30-40 as a D you don’t really have a whole lot of pull,” Alzner said. “Everybody would like to sign the big ticket and be able to be set for life, for your family and all that but it doesn’t come without working. I don’t want to be a guy that gets a big contract and then sits back, just lets it come in. I’m not like that, so I think having that [bridge] contract was definitely added motivation to try and get better try and prove to them that I deserved the next year.”

Will Johansson’s contract provide extra motivation for him? Most likely, even if he’s playing his cards close to the vest now.

“I’m just focusing on playing and playing the best hockey I can,” Johansson said. “When it’s time for the next deal it’s time for it but right now I’m happy to be here, play and do the best I can.”

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