Earlier this week, we had a good, earnest look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the three-year contract extension that Elias Pettersson was reportedly considering. At the time, we mentioned that a long-term deal still might be on the table for Quinn Hughes.
Now, a few days later, contracts for Pettersson and Hughes don’t seem any closer to completion, but there are increasing whispers that Jim Benning and Co. would prefer to sign both of them to bridge deals.
And as was the case with Pettersson, there are some short-term benefits and some long-term detriments to consider when it comes to an extension of three years or fewer for Hughes.
The Good: Enough cap space to extend Brock Boeser
Choosing to offer Hughes a bridge deal instead of a long-term extension has one primary and obvious advantage, and that’s saving cash and cap space in the present day.
The recent three-year, $6 million AAV contract signed by Rasmus Dahlin looks like a fine and reasonable comparable for Hughes.
Contrast that with Miro Heiskanen’s eight-year, $8.45 million AAV extension from earlier in the summer, one that was frequently trotted out as Hughes comparable.
Any way you shake it, a bridge deal for Hughes should come with about a $2 million cheaper cap hit than a long-term deal, and that’s $2 million that the Canucks could desperately use.
In September of 2021, that extra space is all the Canucks need to get comfortably under the cap before training camp with a full 23-player roster, avoiding any unnecessary waivings. Then, it becomes increasingly valuable through the next couple of offseasons, starting with the summer of 2022, in which the Canucks will hope to extend Brock Boeser.
The cap saved on short-term deals for Hughes and Pettersson should be more than enough to accommodate a raise for Boeser, allowing the team to keep its core together at least a little bit longer.
The extra $2 million probably can’t be stretched far enough to allow for the further extension of Bo Horvat and JT Miller in summer 2023, but it’s not going to hurt, either.
In the era of the flat ceiling, cap space is one of the most valuable assets around, and a short-term Hughes extension provides it in a not inconsiderable quantity. That, for now at least, is undoubtedly a good thing.
If only it were that simple…
The Bad: The out-of-control market for NHL D
We’ve written about this one before, but it bears repeating.
The market for high-end NHL blueliners has exploded this past offseason, and it doesn’t seem to be a one-off occurrence. An unexpected consequence of the flat cap appears to be the emergence of an inequality gap in league salaries, with low- and middle-tier players feeling the financial squeeze while the price for elite talent continues to climb.
Seth Jones at eight years, $9.5 million AAV.
Cale Makar at six years, $9 million AAV.
Dougie Hamilton at seven years, $9 million AAV.
Zach Werenski at six years, $9.583 million AAV.
Darnell Nurse at eight years, $9.25 million AAV.
The market now dictates that blueliners who contribute heavily to their team’s offence will be paid accordingly. And, as some of the names on that list clearly indicate, being an effective defensive player is not necessarily a requirement for a big payday.
Some believe that Hughes will improve his two-way play starting with 2021/22. Some don’t believe he ever will. But either way, there aren’t many who don’t think he’ll continue to pile up points for the Canucks. There’s a good chance he scores more points in 2021/22 than any defender has before in franchise history, and that sort of raw total is impossible to ignore during contract negotiations.
If Hughes keeps scoring at a clip of around 0.75 PPG, or higher, over the two or three years of a bridge deal, he’ll be looking at an extension thereafter for which the bidding starts at $8.5 million AAV and only climbs from there.
Keep in mind, too, that several other big-ticket blueline signings will occur over the next few years, each of them boosted by the comparables listed above, and then each, in turn, serving as comparables to further jack up Hughes’ asking price.
In fact, the situation actually gets downright unmanageable if Hughes doesn’t develop much more defensively. Then the Canucks are stuck in an awkward situation where they have to pay Hughes what he’s worth and seek out another, more defensively responsible high-end defender — one that will be prohibitively expensive, thanks to the very same out of control market.
There might not be room for both, and speaking of hard choices…
The Ugly: Impossible choices in the years to come
Bridging Hughes and Pettersson now, and then giving them long-term extensions when those bridge deals are up, is a pretty simple equation in terms of cost/benefit. You save money and cap space today on years one-through-three, but you definitely end up paying more for years four-through-eight than you would have if you signed them to long-term deals right now.
This avoids the difficult situation of having to trade someone during Training Camp 2021 in order to get under the cap. But it also creates some difficult, nigh-impossible, choices in the offseasons to come.
The Canucks should be able to extend Boeser after bridging Hughes and Pettersson, locking up their core for at least two seasons. But then it gets dicey. Horvat and Miller need new contracts in 2023, and even if the Canucks manage to afford both, they’ll find themselves tight up against the cap again, with no room available to improve the rest of the roster.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson isn’t going anywhere. Tyler Myers’ big, tall contract expires in 2024, which is right around when a short-term Hughes contract would expire. Benning and Co. could essentially split Myers’ $6 million cap hit in half and turn that into raises for Hughes and Pettersson, but then who replaces Myers?
Most would agree that the Canucks’ blueline is not contender-quality in the present day, and this could put them into a position where improving it is not possible.
And where does the money come from when it’s Jack Rathbone, Nils Höglander, Vasily Podkolzin, and others looking for new contracts?
Hard decisions would have to follow, and that would be especially heartbreaking as the team finally entered a competitive window.
Conversely, long-term contracts for Hughes and Pettersson would cost more right now, but save the Canucks some cap from 2023 onward, which is when they’ll need it most — to not just maintain the current roster, but to transform it into a true contender.
Unfortunately, the reality of the Canucks’ cap structure today means that those long-term deals are no longer feasible. And so, Vancouver fans will probably have to live with the consequences of extending its star players for three seasons or fewer — good, bad, and ugly.