How Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen's "Prove It" Bridge Deals Stack Up to Long-Term Deals

By Kyle Morrison on October 10, 2017 at 9:05 am
Cam Atkinson shoots a puck versus the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nationwide Arena

Russell LaBounty - USA TODAY Sports

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Jarmo Kekalainen during his Blue Jackets tenure, it’s that he is a cold-blooded negotiator.

We saw it last week when Josh Anderson ended his stalemate, taking the deal that was on the table after holding out for just a smidgen more, and not getting it. The justification? The Jackets wouldn’t overpay for one year of production. This contract – like so many other Blue Jackets before – is one of Jarmo’s trademark “prove it” deals.

One week later, a player with even fewer games (albeit at a different position) signed a maximum-length, eight-year contract with a high annual salary. And, since he’s not a household name, people collectively lost their minds.

We'll fight to the death on this one, Hot Take Twitter.

Here’s where we go into disclaimer mode: I worked with Mike Matheson in Florida. I think that contract is a steal because I’ve watched every single NHL game he’s played, and because he’s one of the hardest-working athletes I’ve been around.

The current NHL landscape seems to be hellbent on having a roster chock full of bargain deals, like the ones the Nashville Predators rode to the Cup Final last year and those the Florida Panthers hope to ride to national prominence. Kekalainen has gained notoriety for being a fearless negotiator – a real-life Jack Donaghy – by waiting out players like Anderson and Johansen until they accept “prove it” deals.

There are three recent exceptions: Brandon Saad, Seth Jones and Alexander Wennberg. One’s gone now, but the other two, as Blue Jackets fans tell it, are going to end up being bargains. That’s a bold claim, but a reasonable one.

We’ve seen similar deals for young stars like Sean Monahan, Mark Scheifele and Aleksander Barkov (who is ridiculous and someone you need to watch). It’s also a pretty safe bet that Zach Werenski will get much more than a bridge deal when the time is right. These are elite players, and those deals don't carry much risk. Bump the bar down to “very good” and the story changes.

The Avalanche gave Gabriel Landeskog a big contract, and were rewarded with a career year before getting diminishing point totals, leading to a full-season career-low 33 points for the big Swede last year. The Red Wings put their money on Danny DeKeyser, a deal that looks awful now, and the Panthers rewarded Nick Bjugstad for a breakout year, but he’s been plagued by injuries since.

Then there’s Cody Hodgson, who signed a six-year, $25.5 million deal after a 41-point season, and is out of the league just four years later.

Many will point to Nashville as the paragon for nailing extensions for pre-breakout stars. Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis all look like steals now. They pulled more of the same sorcery with Viktor Arvidsson this offseason. Florida’s seemingly gone with the same playbook with Vincent Trocheck, Bjugstad, Reilly Smith (albeit a pending UFA at the time) and, now, Matheson.

The Blue Jackets front office has typically only given long-term deals to players who have firmly established their stardom (Jones) or are somewhere between stars and “very good” players (Wennberg, Saad) who are trending towards becoming stars.

The only player who has clearly outplayed his “prove it” deal so far is Cam Atkinson, who signed a three-year deal after settling in as a 40-point player, then exploded over the last two seasons. He’ll get a substantial pay raise this offseason.

Boone Jenner signed his bridge deal after a 30-goal season, and ended up with two years at $2.9 million per to show for it. A longer-term deal might have looked a lot like Bjugstad’s. That bridge for Jenner looks pretty good by comparison, no? And Ryan Murray would presumably be in that same boat.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would certainly appear that the Blue Jackets have been wise when it comes to bridge deals versus long-term pacts. But there are some interesting opportunities over the next few years.

Oliver Bjorkstrand’s deal expires this offseason. Is he worth the long-term bet? He’s scored in bunches at every stop so far, but has had limited success at the NHL level. Sonny Milano’s deal is up the next offseason, and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Gabriel Carlsson after that.

Is the next Trocheck or Josi in that group? That’s a bet for Kekalainen to make, and fate to decide.

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