On Monday, the Winnipeg Jets re-signed restricted free agent defenceman Zach Bogosian to a 7-year deal, continuing an interesting trend this off-season. Bogosian is the fifth RFA defenceman to sign a long-term deal over the last couple months and it’s also the richest of the five deals. Roman Josi, Slava Voynov, Ryan McDonagh, and Travis Hamonic have all signed for 6+ years with their respective clubs
Like those four players, Bogosian is a very good young defenceman with the potential to be a cornerstone of his team’s defensive corps in the future. Bogosian’s contract, however, has been criticized in some corners by those who don’t think he deserves either the term or the money. I also saw a number of people making understandable comparisons of Bogosian with the four aforementioned defencemen who also signed long-term deals, wondering why he received more per year than any of them.
Some of the criticism is rooted in underestimating Bogosian, who has played for teams that could be generously described as mediocre and in front of goaltending that doesn’t even deserve that generosity. But a fair portion of the criticism seems to stem from missing the differences between his situation and those of his RFA defencemen contemporaries.
Josi, Voynov, McDonagh, and Hamonic all have a lot in common. For starters, they each signed three-year, entry-level contracts that kicked in during the 2010-11 season, with each of them running out this past season, necessitating new contracts. That means that for each of those four, the 6-or-7 year contract they just signed is only their second NHL deal.
In the past, it was uncommon to see a player sign a long-term deal on their second contract as an RFA, with such contracts generally reserved for franchise players and their ilk. While Josi, Voynov, McDonagh, and Hamonic are all good defencemen, none of them fit that description. The more common practice would be to sign such players to a one or two-year “bridge” contract that would bring them closer to unrestricted free agency before signing a bigger contract if the player proved themselves in that time.
Their respective teams, however, are taking a gamble that they will save money in the long run with these deals. $4.7 million for McDonagh is a pretty good contract now, considering the minutes he plays; if he continues to improve with more NHL experience, that will seem like a massive bargain.
I call it a gamble because there is a fair amount of risk involved, even with steady defensive types like McDonagh and Hamonic. Those two have both played three seasons in the NHL, while Josi and Voynov have both only played two. While there is every indication that all four will be very good NHL defencemen in the future, two or three seasons isn’t really the type of sample size that leads to handing out six and seven-year contracts.
With that said, one of the main benefits of going with a long-term deal with a young RFA is that you are able to buy up some of his unrestricted free agent years. Since UFAs have significantly more leverage in contract negotiations, they inevitably get paid more than RFAs, though it also helps that they tend to have more NHL experience.
There are a few different ways to become a UFA, but the ones that matter for this discussions involve age and the number of NHL seasons played. Once a player is 27 as of July 1st of a given year, they can become a UFA. Alternately, if they’ve played in seven NHL seasons, they can become a UFA earlier.
That’s where Bogosian comes in. Unlike the other four, Bogosian’s three-year, entry-level deal kicked in during the 2008-09 season as he made the jump directly to the NHL from junior. That means that Bogosian already has five NHL seasons under his belt. Also unlike the others, Bogosian’s 7-year, $36 million contract is his third NHL deal thanks to starting with the Thrashers as an 18-year-old.
This means that while Bogosian is basically the same age as Josi, Voynov, McDonagh, and Hamonic, his contract situation is significantly different, even though it superficially looks similar.
While the contracts the other four signed buy up two or three years of UFA eligibility, Bogosian’s buys up five years. Since Bogosian has already played in five NHL seasons, he would have had only two more to go until he became a UFA. That differs significantly from the others, who would have become UFAs by turning 27. McDonagh had three seasons remaining, Josi and Voynov had four, and Hamonic had five seasons before he could become a UFA. Is it any wonder his contract has the lowest cap hit?
It’s easy to look at the Bogosian and McDonagh deals side by side and scoff, but in the context of their respective situations, the Bogosian deal definitely makes sense. The extra UFA years included in the deal help explain the difference in the annual value of the contract.
If the Jets had signed Bogosian to a shorter term, they would have risked losing him in free agency in just two seasons. By signing him for seven years, they get five of his UFA years with cost certainty, avoiding having to outbid the market in the future.
There are two significant RFA defencemen who may receive the same treatment, signing a long-term deal to ultimately save cap space during their UFA years: Alex Pietrangelo and Cody Franson. Pietrangelo is a bigger potential star than all five of the players previously discussed, so could be in for a much bigger payday, while the Leafs appear to be hemming and hawing over Franson, with rumours that they may try trading his rights rather than attempting to re-sign him due to cap issues.
Pietrangelo is coming off his entry-level deal, so his situation is closer to those of Josi, Voynov, McDonagh, and Hamonic, with four seasons until he is eligible to become a UFA. Franson, on the other hand, is negotiating his fourth contract and has played four NHL seasons. He’s also older, so has just two seasons before he can become a UFA, making his situation more like Bogosian’s.
The difference will certainly come down to money: Pietrangelo will come in north of $6 million, likely way north unless a longer term reins in the dollars, while Franson will likely come in around $3 million.