The real reason Johansen won’t get paid

Ryan Johansen. Paul Vernon/AP

There are any number of NHL teams that would happily pay Ryan Johansen what he wants, or seems to want.

Don’t buy the nonsense that he still needs to prove what he is as an NHLer. Columbus knows what he is, agent Kurt Overhart knows what he is and every other club in the league knows what he is. He’s a blue-chip, 22-year-old, 6-foot-4 inch centre who was the fourth overall draft pick in his year and who has blossomed into a front-line player with 33 goals last season.

He’s the kind of young, franchise centre so many teams don’t have and would dearly love to find. But those teams can’t acquire Johansen’s playing rights, not really.

And anyways, that’s not the issue.

The issue is this increasingly awkward area that exists between the time a player like Johansen can be dictated to as far as what he earns, and the time when he does the dictating. Teams look to “bridge” contracts as a way to get from the first place to the second; players and agents look at those contracts as unreasonably restricting salaries and are chafing under these restraints.

See Subban, P.K., for a handy reference.

Layered on top of this, meanwhile, is the reality that the manner in which the NHL pays its players continues to make little sense, particularly for the talented and very good players, like Johansen.

Next season, the NHL’s maximum salary will be closing in on $14 million, and only Nashville’s Shea Weber ($14 million) is at that level. Sidney Crosby ($12 million) is close, while seven others make more than $10 million and the rest of the league is below that.

Less than 30 players make 50 per cent of the league max, an interesting figure which suggests that it’s not that the Blue Jackets can’t afford to compensate Johansen. It’s that they can’t afford to pay him within the budget they’ve had to set because of the money-losing seasons the team has experienced of late in a small market, and because players of much less impact and importance on their team are paid too much.

Columbus can’t, or won’t, pay Johansen $5 million or $6 million because it’s paying Nick Foligno, to pick one player, more than $3 million.

Elsewhere, Boston is also struggling to fix it’s payroll problems caused by a variety of issues, including the fact Marc Savard’s salary is still on the books, but also because Chris Kelly is making $3 million and Johnny Boychuk more than that.

Every team, not just Columbus, has to deal with this. The Maple Leafs had to squeeze Nazem Kadri last year because they were paying Nik Kulemin and David Clarkson far too much. The Oilers have joined this group by paying substantial salaries to players like Nikita Nikitin and Benoit Pouliot, which will create a tricky problem for Edmonton when it comes to figuring out Nail Yakupov’s salary next summer.

The middle class, as a general rule, is simply paid far too much in the NHL today. It’s not that these players aren’t good athletes or quality teammates, but they are generally replaceable, and they don’t contribute anywhere close to that which the top players contribute.

So teams like Columbus have to hold the line with players like Johansen, and they’ll demonize the agent while trying not to alienate the player to do that. The Canadiens pretty much knew what they had in Subban – he won the Norris Trophy in the first year of his “bridge” deal – but needed to suppress his earning power because they, like all other clubs, are paying too many non-star players in that $2-4 million range.

To the public, and to the player, teams sell the notion that the best must take less in order to help the team be more competitive. The correct and sensible model for the NHL would be to have more players at the max or close to it, and more players below $2 million. Why should Crosby take less so Nick Spaling, for example, can make $2.2 million?

Few players can do what Johansen does. Many can do what Foligno does, not to pick on him, but to use him as an example.

But salaries in the NHL, as a general rule, don’t differentiate nearly enough between the special players and the ordinary ones.

Which is how we got here with Johansen.

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