Something Sather became known for post-lockout was forcing RFAs coming off their entry level contracts to take a bridge deal before getting a more lucrative contract later. I talked about this last year when the Columbus Blue Jackets were dealing with their Ryan Johansen holdout.
From that article:
The Rangers have set a long precedent with these negotiations. RFAs coming off entry level deals get bridge contracts. It's the one and only time a team has almost all the leverage, and Sather uses it almost every time.
I say almost because Ryan McDonagh most recently bucked the trend. Way back when,Marc Staal also bucked the trend. Aside from those two, the list of players who have accepted bridge deals are long and extensive. Artem Anisimov, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky are a few players no longer with the team who accepted them. Stepan, Carl Hagelin, John Moore, Henrik Lundqvist (it took arbitration but it happened), Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarrello are all current players who at one point accepted them. J.T. Miller is just one of the many players who will have this offered to him in the future.
The main benefit to this strategy is having a solid foundation to point to when RFAs complain they're being low-balled or that the Rangers were negotiating in bad faith. The precedent set didn't stop some negotiations from getting ugly (see Stepan, Dubinsky and Staal to name a few) but it did allow the Rangers to take a "this happens to everyone it's not just you" stance.
The current Stepan negotiations, however, show the risk of such a strategy. The Rangers bit the bullet and locked down McDonagh long term (avoiding a bridge deal he would have been in line for under the current precedent) and it ended up being an enormous steal for the organization. Forcing players to take bridge deals might keep them cheap in the short term, but it makes them far more expensive in the long term -- just wait until Kreider is up for negotiations next season -- because the players feel they did their time at a lower salary in order to be compensated more the next time negotiations begin.
This has already become an issue this summer; with the Rangers moving Carl Hagelin who was looking for a more lucrative contract coming off his bridge deal and now having to deal with the Stepan negotiations (where he will get a contract he deserves).
Which brings up my big question here: Is it worth moving away from bridge deals to lock players down long term at cheaper contracts?
There is a level of risk to this ideology, obviously. Had the Rangers locked up Del Zotto to an extensive deal worth far more money after his 40-point rookie season, they wouldn't have been happy campers today (although it wouldn't have been nearly as bad as some think).
I understand the need to treat most RFAs this way, especially those who have yet to prove themselves. But the Rangers could have saved themselves a big headache by locking up Stepan long term (I would have to assume he would have taken a $5-millionish deal at the time) back then rather than giving him a bridge deal.
I'm not sure there are any players in the Rangers upcoming RFA crop that are eligible for a bridge deal -- Emerson Etem and J.T. Miller specifically -- who should buck the trend. If Miller or Etem are willing to sign on a four year deal at $1.5-million, then I think it's a risk the Rangers need to take. Granted, my guess is neither player wants to box themselves into that type of a deal, but it's worth putting it on the table.
James Mirtle did a really good piece of the decrease of bridge deals in the NHL which is seeing younger stars making more earlier. The reward, however, is players being paid more today to be on better contracts tomorrow (in their prime). The highlight from his story:
What the cap has forced GMs to do is find as much value for their $71-million and change as they can. That means eliminating overpays, which means eliminating legacy contracts for veterans who are paid for their name more than their production.
It also means targeting players entering their prime rather than those leaving it. The NHL is becoming much more advanced analytically speaking, with at least a dozen teams now employing a full-time staffer charged with crunching numbers. Again and again, these analysts have shown that peak performance in the NHL is between age 22 and 27, earlier than many in the game previously believed ...
The "smart" money is on young players such as Saad and Hamilton, who have established themselves at a young age and who will play all six years of their new deals in their prime. They're still getting better, even as their cap hits will decrease relative to a rising cap.
The Rangers hit a home run by doing exactly the above with McDonagh, and currently have him on a contract that's so favorable to the team it's almost unfair. They elected not to make the same decision with Stepan two years ago and they will be paying the price (again, a price Stepan deserves) for that choice. Stepan is a little different, since he's 25 and a max deal would only take him until he's 33, but the point remains the same: this could have been avoided.
Like I said above, I'm not sure a situation like this makes sense for Miller or Etem. The player does need to show a significant upside (or have enough of a foundation to make him worth the risk) to strike a longer term deal coming off their ELC, but those players quite obviously exist on the Rangers even if there aren't any this year.
Next year, for example, Kevin Hayes will be in line for a bridge deal. Well, he would have been in line if Sather was still the general manager.
Let's see if Gorton follows that trend first.