Bridge contracts have often been back-loaded in the past to ensure a higher starting point for a qualifying offer. For example, a player making $2.5MM in year one and $3MM in year two would have a qualifying offer of $3MM.
That element was used more liberally last summer with several players taking significantly lower payments up front to crank up the salary in the final year to yield a higher qualifier down the road. San Jose’s Timo Meier is the most notable of those as he has a $6MM AAV on his four-year deal but a $10MM salary in the final season that becomes the required offer to retain his services (barring an early extension beforehand).
That caught the attention of the league and they are changing the rule as a result. Thomas Drance of The Athletic reports (subscription required) that the Memorandum of Understanding for the CBA that is currently working its way through the ratification process includes a tweak to the qualifying offer rules. Instead of being based on the salary in the final year of the contract, it will now be based on the lower of the salary of the final season of the deal or 120% of the AAV. For Meier’s situation, had his deal been signed under this new policy, his qualifying offer would be $7.2MM (120% of $6MM) instead of $10MM, the final-season salary. However, this does not overwrite the qualifying offer rules on current contracts so for players like Meier, the old rule will still be in place.
It may seem like a small move on the surface but this has the potential to really affect short-term deals being signed off of entry-level contracts. Given the decreasing escrow percentages in the CBA, players are likely going to show more interest in back-loading deals. Under the old system, that means even more players with inflated qualifying offers and with the salary cap progression expected to slow for a few years, this had the potential to do some damage to a team’s cap structure down the road.
Now, players will still have the ability to back-load contracts to shield themselves as best as possible in the new escrow structure but teams will have a bit more protection from a salary cap standpoint if 120% of the AAV checks in lower than the salary in the last year. It also may result in an increase in short-term bridge deals rather than the three-year and four-year pacts some have chosen to sign in recent years as well as without the buffer of the much higher qualifying offer at the end, the temptation to go with those should be lessened. The change itself is seemingly rather small in nature (from salary to AAV percentage in only some cases) but it could certainly shift how things are done in restricted free agency as soon as this offseason.