Contract Comparables for Evan Bouchard, Thoughts on Bridge Contracts, and more

Photo credit:© Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Cam Lewis
8 months ago
With Ryan McLeod coming to terms on a two-year deal earlier this week, the Edmonton Oilers have just one player left to sign.
Evan Bouchard has reached the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and is a restricted free agent for the first time in his career. Now 23 years old, Bouchard has established himself as the high-quality puck-moving defenceman that the Oilers had hoped for when they selected him with the No. 10 overall pick at the 2018 draft.
Given Edmonton’s tight salary cap situation, they won’t be able to afford to sign Bouchard to a long-term contract this summer, so a bridge deal appears to be inevitable. Let’s look at some other defencemen from the 2018 and 2019 drafts and the deals that they signed following their entry-level contracts to get an idea of what Bouchard will be looking for.

Mar 9, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Noah Dobson (8) handles the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Noah Dobson

The New York Islanders selected Noah Dobson with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2018 draft, just two spots after the Oilers took Bouchard.
Dobson made the jump directly from the QMJHL to the NHL without playing in the AHL and scored seven points in 34 games for the Islanders as a rookie in 2019-20. He followed that up with 14 points over 46 games during the shortened 2021 season.
After two years of acclimatizing to the NHL level on New York’s bottom pairing, Dobson took on a larger role in 2021-22 and put together a breakout performance. He scored 13 goals and 51 points over 80 games while logging an average of 21:28 per game.
Dobson signed a three-year contract worth $4 million annually the following summer. Once that deal ends, he’ll be a restricted free agent with one season of team control left before he’s eligible to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.

K’Andre Miller

With the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 draft, the New York Rangers selected K’Andre Miller from the United States National Development Team. Miller spent the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons with the University of Wisconsin and represented the U.S. at the World Juniors in both years.
Like Dobson, Miller broke into the NHL without playing in the AHL. He scored 12 points over 53 games while logging 21:07 per game on New York’s blueline in the shortened 2021 season and was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie Team.
Miller scored 20 points over 82 games during his sophomore season in the NHL in 2021-22 and then broke out offensively in 2022-23 with 43 points over 79 games. He and the Rangers came to terms on a two-year contract worth $3.872 million annually in July.

Bowen Byram

Moving ahead to the 2019 draft, the Colorado Avalanche selected Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick that they received from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Matt Duchene. Byram spent his post-draft season in the WHL and then made the jump directly to the NHL for the shortened 2021 season.
Byram’s rookie season was derailed by two concussions and a COVID-19 diagnosis and he scored just two points over 19 games. He missed the first part of the 2021-22 season but came back and scored 17 points in 30 regular season games before adding nine points in 20 games during Colorado’s Stanley Cup run in the spring.
The final season of Byram’s entry-level contract was again marred by injury but he set a career-high in both games played and points with 42 and 24 respectively. The Avs signed Byram to a two-year contract worth $3.85 million annually on July 1 based on the promise he’s shown in limited action.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

What does it all mean?

Looking back at the 2018 and 2019 drafts, nearly all of the defenders who have established themselves at the NHL level wound up signing bridge deals following the conclusion of their entry-level contracts.
This can largely be attributed to the lower-than-expected salary cap ceilings from the past few seasons. Teams have less salary cap room to take long-term contract gambles on young players and those players can also be advised by their agents to wait until the cap finally rises by a significant amount before locking into what might be the biggest contract of their career.
The one defenceman who bucks this trend is Quinn Hughes, the No. 7 overall pick from the 2018 draft. Hughes scored 97 points over 129 games on his entry-level contract and the Vancouver Canucks signed him to a six-year, $47.1 million deal in October of 2021.
But while the Canucks were able to get Hughes signed long-term, they could only get star forward Elias Pettersson signed to a three-year bridge contract at the same time. Again, this is the result of the post-pandemic salary cap reality. Pettersson’s bridge deal expires next summer and he’ll be one year away from unrestricted free agency with a huge salary cap increase right around the corner.
Circling back to Bouchard, the Oilers have $4,282,500 in open space for his contract, but at least $775k needs to be set aside so that the team can afford to carry another extra skater on their active roster. With that in mind, the goal for the Oilers should be getting Bouchard signed for $3.5 million or less.
Given what Dobson, Miller, and Byram have earned, Bouchard would be taking a discount if he signs for two or three years at $3.5 million annually. The two sides need to either agree to a cheap one-year deal or another contract needs to be moved out for the Oilers to be able to afford to sign Bouchard for multiple years while maintaining roster flexibility.
While a short-term deal for Bouchard is palatable right now given the context, the Oilers really need to avoid making the same mistake that they did when they inked Darnell Nurse to two different bridge contracts.
Nurse signed a two-year deal after his entry-level contract and he then signed another two-year deal that walked him right to unrestricted free agency. The first of those two bridge deals made sense but the second ultimately gave Nurse a tremendous amount of leverage over the team. He put together a big season in 2021 and the Oilers subsequently signed him to an eight-year, $74 million contract extension so that they wouldn’t have to worry about losing their top defender to the open market the following summer.

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