When a player signs a contract or a team is contemplating signing a player you will here the term bridge contract thrown around. It is one of the different styles of contracts that are potentially on the table for a player to sign with a team.
What is a bridge deal in hockey? A bridge deal in hockey is a contract a player signs as a restricted free agent that has a short term (typically 2 to 3 years) and ends while the players is still a restricted free agent and not when they become an unrestricted free agent.
Let’s take a closer look at the bridge deal in the NHL and how the above definition plays out.Embed from Getty Images
When looking at bridge deals in the NHL the first thing we need to do is identify we even need them. So why would a player or team sign a bridge deal?
The Problem: 4 Years after Entry Level Contract ends and UFA starts
Really a bridge deal is all about the 4 year gap of restricted free agency that happens between the time when a players initial 3 year Entry Level Contract comes to an end and the seven year mark of when they can become an unrestricted free agent.
Most players enter into the NHL through the NHL entry draft. When you are drafted by a team they will hold your rights for the first seven years of your NHL career or until age 27, whichever comes first.
A team holding your rights means that you are exclusive property of that team for that time period, and basically control your movement in the NHL.
Let’s look at Entry Level Contract, Unrestricted Free Agent and Restricted Free Agent times in a players life more closely.
Entry Level Contract
The first contract they sign is called an Entry Level Contract (“ELC”). There are different pay grades available for entry level contracts, but for this discussion the most important thing to note is that an ELC is for 3 years.
Unrestricted Free Agent
There are a few different ways a player can become an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA), which gives the ability for the player to sign with any team of their choosing, but for the most part a player’s rights are controlled by the team that drafted them for 7 years.
For our discussion here the most important thing to note is that there is a gap of 4 years between the end of the ELC and becoming an unrestricted free agent
Restricted Free Agent
This four year gap between the ELC and UFA is what is termed restricted free agent status. You can sign with another team, but the team holding your rights can match any offer, which always happens. So basically you are their property.
So for the four years between your ELC and becoming a UFA, what type of contract are you allowed to sign?
Possible Scenarios for contracts after Entry level is done
- A one year deal
- Sign to a multi-years less than 4 years
- Sign 4 years to reach your UFA status (rarely signed)
- Sign between 5 and 8 years get those UFA
For our purposes here the two most relevant contracts to discuss are the 2 or 3 year contracts or the 5 to 8 year contracts that will end up taking a player past the start of their UFA period and end up ‘buying’ UFA years.
There are a number of factors involved when making the decision of what type of contract to sign for both the player and management that include overpaying vs underpaying vs perceived upside to the player vs giving up UFA years vs team salary cap situation.
Let’s look at some of these factors from both sides.Embed from Getty Images
Factors for management in deciding on a bridge contract
The management has to weight a bunch of different factors when deciding on length and size of the contract:
- What is our salary cap situation?
- How much better will this player get? Will their production increase or plateau?
- How does this player fit in with the current team?
- Should I sign this player to a long-term contract while I can
- Do I want to sign the player over UFA years which will increase the cost of the contract
- Is our NHL city a desirable location and do people want to come here? (Some cities have to overpay players to come)
Analysis: If you think the player is going to be fantastic and you can fit them under the salary cap you need to sign that player for as long as possible. The team will pay more upfront but hopefully will get value out of the contract towards the end. Some teams are forced to sign players to shorter term contracts because a long-term contract would put them over the salary cap.
A bridge contract makes sense for teams who do not want to commit long-term to players but still see them as making a valuable contribution.
Factors for players in signing a bridge contract
The player is also going to weigh a number of different factors:
- Do I sign a long-term contract to get guaranteed money?
- If I sign a long-term contract it will be longer before I am a free agent?
- Should I sign a short-term contract betting that my production will increase and therefore be able to sign a more lucrative contract later on?
- Do I want to be with this organization after my restricted free agent years?
- Am I willing to take less to stay here if the team has a tight cap situation?
Analysis: If you can get a long-term contract most players will go for it. Who doesn’t want to have a guaranteed contract for 6 to 8 years that will pay you millions? A bridge contract is good for players that want to bet on themselves. If they can increase their value to the team over those 2 years then they can command a really high
Examples of Bridge Contracts
1) Matthew Tkachuk of the Flames signed a bridge contract for 3 of his 4 remaining restricted years.
The contract was structured as such:
Analysis: The amazing thing about this contract is that it increases to 9 million dollars in his last year, which means the Flames will have to offer him 9 million in that last year to keep him. So, essentially, he has guaranteed himself another year of making 9 million, unless his play drops off a cliff and the Flames decide to not qualify him.
2) Travis Sanheim of the Philadelphia Flyers signed a 2 year bridge contract at 3.25 million dollars per year. He will still have two restricted free agent years when this concludes before he becomes a UFA.
Analysis: Sanheim was coming off his entry level deal where he scored a very respectable 35 points in 82 games. Now he does not have the same recognition and star power of others who were negotiating contracts at the same time, but it is interesting that he took a 2 year deal.
If he continues to develop and progressing his next contract will be very, very big. Basically, I think what Sanheim was doing was say, “I’m going to be on myself”. He didn’t want to lock himself into a long-term deal in the 4 to 5 million dollar range because if he becomes a core member of the team in the next 2 years he will be signing a contract for multiple years that starts with a 6 or 7.