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Duhatschek: When NHL contract talks turn ugly, neither side wins

Columbus Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen skates with the puck against the San Jose Sharks in an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio.

Jay LaPrete/AP Photo

Because it is happening in Columbus with Ryan Johansen and not in Montreal with P.K. Subban or in Los Angeles with Drew Doughty, the nasty ongoing contract dispute between the Blue Jackets and their star young player isn't getting the same attention that it otherwise might.

But welcome to the reality of operating a hockey team in 2014-15, where NHL teams essentially have contract leverage in only one part of a player's career, and sometimes actually deign to use it.

Generally speaking, the NHL's salary-cap era actively discourages contract disputes because the system more or less dictates what players will earn.

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So you get Sidney Crosby re-signing amicably with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane smoothly coming to terms with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Even Subban's contract extension this summer was accompanied by a limited amount of drama. Two years ago, the Canadiens challenged Subban to prove that he's an elite-level defenceman and he did. Signing a relatively modest – by today's standards – two-year, $5.75-million (U.S.) contract extension, Subban delivered a Norris trophy, plus a whole lot of key goals over that trial period. The net result is the Canadiens were forced to show him the money this year, and they did – eight years, $72-million, which on an average annualized value (AAV) comes in at $9-million a season, third highest in the league.

It is the same corner that the Blue Jackets and Johansen find themselves in now. Last year, Johansen – the fourth overall player chosen in the 2010 entry draft – showed why the former Blue Jackets regime (take a bow, Scott Howson) took him that high. He scored 33 goals, 63 points and showed signs of becoming an elite-level player.

Here's the rub. Johansen wants to be paid as an elite-level player now, after scoring just 33 points in his first 107 NHL games. The Blue Jackets are arguing that the snapshot is too small, and they want to see him do it again before they shower him with riches.

The problem, of course, is there is no fixed solution here, which is why there are still seven prominent unsigned restricted free agents out there, as training camps head into their second week.

When a player completes his entry-level contract, but isn't yet eligible for arbitration rights – which coincide with his second NHL contract – it is the one time his negotiating leverage is minimal.

Sometimes, a team will use their leverage and sign player to what is known as a bridge contract. Other times, teams acquiesce to their players' demands. It happened back in 2011-12, when the Kings were trying to put pressure on Doughty to sign a short-term extension and the dispute dragged into training camp. In the end, Doughty missed some time, but eventually signed an eight-year, $56-million contract. In effect, you had one team saying yes to an elite-level young defenceman (Kings and Doughty) and one that said no (Canadiens and Subban). You look at the numbers Montreal eventually gave Subban ($16-million more over the course of the contract than L.A. gave Doughty) and you wonder if they really did save any money.

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Complicating matters was how this summer the signings were all over the map, providing little guidance to teams or agents. No real template emerged that could guide teams.

For example, the Colorado Avalanche got Tyson Barrie under contract for two years at $5.2-million total; not bad for a player they ultimately project as a front-line defenceman. The Red Wings got Danny DeKeyser for a little less – two years, $4.375-million. The Edmonton Oilers, by contrast, stepped up and gave Justin Schultz $3.765-million on a one-year deal.

All three players are rough comparables. Only Schultz really broke the bank.

But Edmonton, which in Glen Sather's era as general manager went to war with a lot of its stars players, is going in the opposite direction with this new generation. Their three core forwards – Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle – were all given long-term deals coming out of the entry-level system. No bridge contracts for them.

Last week, Columbus team president John Davidson took their negotiations with Johansen public, revealing the numbers they'd offered on short-, medium- and long-term extensions. It didn't help; in fact, it might have hurt.

So far, the two sides are still stuck. Also in the same boat: Boston, with Torey Krug and Reilly Smith; Dallas with Cody Eakin and Brenden Dillon; Nashville with Ryan Ellis, and St. Louis with Jaden Schwartz. All are mired in that second-contract no man's land, and currently, all want to be paid more than what their employers are offering.

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Some are using the threat of playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League as leverage, but until the first really good North American-born young star actually leaves to pursue that option, it echoes mostly as an empty threat.

But what's real is that Columbus, trying to build off last season's playoff qualification, looks as if it could start the season without its most attractive offensive asset – the real leverage that Johansen's camp has in these talks. A year ago, New York Rangers' centre Derek Stepan tried to leverage a nice 44-points-in-48-games season during the lockout-shortened year into a big raise. Talks went right down to the wire before they settled. Stepan, arriving late and missing camp, didn't put up anywhere near the same numbers he did the year before.

If things get really ugly, the relationship between Johansen and the Blue Jackets, which is strained at the moment, could become irreconcilable. And if it spills over into the season, chances are that nobody wins; and everybody loses.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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