Entry-level contracts last a maximum of three years after which a player becomes a restricted free agent. But what type of contracts/deals are opened to players when they become RFAs? This article will look at Bridge Deals – a deal/contract open to restricted free agents before they become unrestricted free agents.
What Is A Bridge Deal Contract?
A bridge deal or bridge contract is a contract agreement a player signs with the ice hockey team that owns his rights while he is a restricted free agent. It is a contract between the period after a player completes his Entry-Level Contract (ELC) and ends while they are still a restricted free agent.
They are called bridge deals because in the sense that they span from when a player is a restricted free agent (RFA) to when he becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
Bride deals are short-term contracts usually last less than four years. However, bridge deals always end while a player is still a restricted free agent and does not extend to when he is an unrestricted free agent.
Bridge deals usually have a minimum of a year and can last for up four years (in very rare instances).
ELC To Restricted Free Agent
A player’s first NHL contract must be an entry-level contract (ELC). However, an entry-level contract has a maximum length of three years for players aged 18-20.
The length of entry-level contracts differs with the age of players when signing their first NHL contract. However, once a player is 25, he is ineligible to sign an ECL and automatically becomes a restricted free agent (RFA).
This lasts until he qualifies for the status of an unrestricted free agent.
For example, if a player is drafted at age 18 and signs his first entry-level contract at 18, by the time he is 21, he will be close to ending his contract.
Once he ends his ELC contract, he becomes a Restricted Free Agent because he does not have the necessary years of experience or age to become an unrestricted free agent.
As a restricted free agent, the player’s rights are owned by the team that gave him his entry-level contract. This is where a bridge deal comes into play.
Bridge Contract As A Restricted Free Agent
Now a Restricted Free Agent, a player can not move to the rank of an unrestricted free agent until:
- A player is 27 years or older as of September 15, or
- A player must have played in the NHL for seven seasons.
If a player completes his ELC at 21, he is an RFA and has about four years before he becomes unrestricted (7-season of experience). But, in this position, he can sign offer sheets from other teams and move to another team if the offer sheet is not matched (however, offer sheets are matched 99% of the time).
Possible Contract Offers After An Entry Level Contract
After the end of an entry-level contract, a team can offer the following contract offers to a player.
- A one-year contract deal
- A multi-year annual contract that is less than four years
- A 4-year contract deal
- Multi-year contract deal that exceeds four years
The three contract deals that fall under bridge deals in ice hockey are: one-year, less than four years and four years contract deals. This is because most deals above four years when a player is an RFA will continue after the player has become an unrestricted free agent.
Considerations When Making A Bridge Deal
Bridge deals are not just made; there are considerations made by an ice hockey team and the player before signing a bridge deal. Their consideration range from the effect on the team’s salary cap to the skill prospect of the player.
Here are the considerations made from a player’s and team management’s eyes.
When it comes to a team’s management, there is much to consider before offering a bridge deal to a player. These conditions evaluate if a player is valuable enough to receive such a deal and the impact on the team and its salary cap in the long term.
The first factor is usually the size of the salary cap. A team must consider whether its salary cap is large enough to accommodate the bridge contract of an extra player. Since salary caps limit what a team can spend as players’ salary, a team would not want to exhaust its cap limit over a player it has second thoughts on.
Next, teams must evaluate and predict the player’s performance level and growth potential. The management (coach) will have to consider:
- The current playing level of a player
- How well a player has developed over the years
- How much development can the player have over the period?
- Possibilities of an increase or decrease in player’s output, among other things
This helps a team determine if it should put big money on a player and its impact on the team.
And finally, a team has to decide just how much it is willing to invest in a player.
Are they willing to go for a one-year bridge deal, less than four years or four years deal? Or they are willing to lock up the player in the team by offering a long-term contract (5-8 years).
All of these depend on a player’s value and projected growth over the years.
For players, the considerations are a bit different.
Firstly, a player has to decide if he wants a short deal (1-3 years) or a long-term lock-up guaranteed contract. If a player goes for a short-term bridge deal, he has to bet on himself getting better.
This is because if a player’s quality of play reduces drastically or does not match the expected results, he might not be able to bargain for higher contracts. And if he is not a UFA at the end of that bridge deal, he might not get another deal from his team.
Also, players must consider if they are looking forward to a future with their current team. If a player wants to sign with another team as a UFA, he is likelier to sign short bridge deals.
Why Make A Bridge Deal In Ice Hockey?
Bridge deals are beneficial to players and teams in different ways. The opportunities open to the team after making a bridge deal differ from those of players. Here are the reasons why bridge deals are used by both teams and players.
Benefit For Players
When players negotiate their contract offer after the end of their ELC, they usually go for bridge deals instead of long-term deals because signing a contract as an unrestricted free agent gives room for higher bargaining than an RFA.
One key thing about bridge deals is that they pay less to players compared to if they were unrestricted free agents. So instead of a team giving a player a 5-8 year contract while they are an RFA, the player can negotiate a bridge deal.
So what players do is they look for a one to three-year contract deal that will expire while they are still restricted free agents. They are simply betting on themselves that they will get better, giving them more command over the value of their contract when they become unrestricted.
A player can also sign multiple short terms bridge deals till legible as a UFA.
In summary, players go for bridge deals in their RFA years to maximise their earning potential when they become unrestricted free agents.
Benefit For Teams
For a team, a bridge deal gives teams enough time to assess a player’s value, giving them enough data to decide if they see a future with such a player. Bridge deals allow evaluation of players in the short term so a team does not put big money on a player it doesn’t need. This, in turn, makes the team prudent with its cap space.
Also, bridge deals help to lock a player in a team. Some teams in the NHL first begin with a bridge deal for a valuable player before signing a long-term (8-year contract) contract.
This is done because the NHL stipulated that a contract can not last more than eight years. After eight years, the contract can be renewed. Therefore, bridge deals ensure the player’s prime is spent in a team.
For instance, a team might sign a bridge deal with a 24-year-old player on a three-year contract. Then once the player becomes an unrestricted free agent and signs a six-year contract, this means the player’s contract would expire at the age of 33.
Examples Of Bridge Deal Contracts In The NHL
Travis Sanheim (Philadelphia flyers)
On the 24th of July 2019, the Philadelphia flyers signed a two-year bridge contract valued at $6.5 million AVV. The breakdown of the contracts is valued at $3.25 million annually.
Sanheim was drafted in 2014 as the 17th overall draft pick and first draft pick of the Philadephia Flyers. After his three-year ELC contract ended, he was offered a bridge deal because of his performance in the 2018-19 seasons and previous seasons.
Andrei Kuzmenko (Vancouver Canucks)
The Vancouver Canucks signed a $5.5 million per annum bridge deal with Andrei Kuzmenko. Andrei Kuzmenko entered the NHL as an undrafted player and had to sign a one-year entry-level contract. This was because he was below the age of 27.
After the entry-level contract, the Vancouver canucks later signed a 2-year bridge deal with Kuzmenko. The $11 million 2-year contract was signed on 26 January 2023.
Mattew Tkachuk signed a three-year bridge deal with a cap hit of $7.5 million annually with the Calgary Flames. However, in the last year of his bridge deal, Tkachuk bridge deal states that he receives a $9 million actual salary.
This brings us to the end of bridge deals in ice hockey. At this point, you should understand the concept of bridge deals and the reasons and benefits bridge deals present to players and teams.
Bridge deals are beneficial to both teams and players. It saves teams from an unnecessary contract with a player who isn’t that good and gives players a chance at a higher contract value.
However, it all comes down to a player’s performance while he has a bridge contract.
Thanks for reading.