For some time now, the landscape of NHL contracts has been changing, trending away from short and relatively inexpensive contracts for young restricted free agents. These “bridge deals” had long been used by teams to keep promising young talent on a reasonable price tag after their entry-level contract expired. While teams have been complicit in the movement away from bridge deals, players have simply begun to produce at a much higher level far sooner than in the past and, in turn, agents have demanded more term and salary than they ever had the leverage to command previously. The bridge deal is not yet extinct, but players and their representatives are having a much easier time landing expensive, long-term deals as early as possible in recent years.
While the beginning of the end for affordable youth can be traced back to superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – whose cap hits now look like bargains some years later – it is within the last few years that young players of a lesser caliber than the all-world exception have been able to land similar pacts. The architect of multiple recent deals of great length and value has been Mike Liut of Octagon Sports. A former NHLer himself, Liut is the director of Octagon’s hockey division. Forbes reports that Liut manages 22 clients and over $325MM in player salary. His efforts to eliminate the bridge deal have played no small part in that impressive total. Liut negotiated the eight-year, $60MM contract signed by the St. Louis Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko back in 2015, when Tarasenko had less than 200 NHL games to his credit. He then put together the eight-year, $49MM contract of the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele in 2016, before he became the point-per-game player he is today. However, the crown jewel of Liut’s collection has to be the massive eight-year, $68MM contract belonging to the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl. Signed last year, Draisaitl’s deal carries an $8.5MM cap hit that is among the top fifteen players in the league. Yet, Liut somehow landed Draisaitl that deal after just two and half seasons, only one of which was truly impressive.
Now, Liut has a chance at a repeat performance of the Draisaitl deal not once, not twice, not even thrice, but with four different prominent players this off-season. Liut counts Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brock Boeser, and Jake Guentzel among his clients and each of those four is set to have their entry-level contract expire this off-season. Winnipeg’s Laine has finished in the top ten in goal scoring in each of his first two seasons and was second only to Ovechkin for the league lead last year. Colorado’s Rantanen recorded 84 points in 81 games last year and currently shares the NHL lead in points and assists. Vancouver’s Boeser finished second in Calder Trophy voting last year and led the Canucks in scoring. Pittsburgh’s Guentzel is a Stanley Cup champion and a proven clutch scorer. Liut has shown an ability to bypass the bridge deal before and has an excellent chance at landing each of these players an expensive long-term deal. Other restricted free agents like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Sebastian Aho are also certain to land similar deals. As such, in an off-season with an abnormal amount of high-profile RFA’s, each one could end up with an expensive, long-term extension. The effect, as Liut hopes, that the bridge deal dies as a result.