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What do you pay a man like Andreas Johnsson?

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Everyone loves you until it’s contract time. Now suddenly they want to point out all your faults.

Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs
He chews his mouthguard, that’s got to be worth a few thousand on its own.
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Andreas Johnsson is one of the now eight Maple Leafs RFAs who need a contract this summer. His won’t be the biggest, but it is a contract where what the player wants and what the team needs to achieve might not line up very well.

Pre-contract history

Johnsson, back when he only had one S, was drafted in 2013, 202nd overall. Just by draft position, he has already wildly outshone expectations just by ripping up the AHL and making all the other teams cry.

But his prospects weren’t always so rosy.

In the season before he was drafted, he played in the SuperElit, and had a good season, coming second in the league in points to a guy even I’ve never heard of. However, if you sort by points per game, he was 20th, and 10th among players who had at least 10 games.

Johnsson was born in November, so at the time of the draft he was 18, but turned 19 before the end of the year, making him older than most of his peers by enough to depress his draft position and put an asterisk by his junior production of the season that had just ended.

The list of ten is interesting as a lesson in draft evaluation:

  1. Oskar Norlöv - 1.97 p/gm - 1994 birth date - now plays Div 1 in Sweden
  2. János Hári - 1.82 - 1992 - now plays in the EBEL in Hungary
  3. Filip Sandberg - 1.61 - 1994 - Signed by the Sharks as a UFA this season, played in the AHL
  4. William Nylander - 1.59 - 1996 - I’ve seen him somewhere, just can’t recall where
  5. Johan Johnsson (no relation) - 1.47 - 1993 - After years in Allsvenskan just signed to an SHL team
  6. Thomas Spelling - 1.36 - 1993 - Drafted by the Rangers, plays in Denmark
  7. Johan Porsberger - 1.33 - 1993 - Plays in Allsvenskan
  8. Rasmus Holmén - 1.31 - 1993 - Played in Div 1 until this year where he played Div 4!!
  9. Anton Weden - 1.29 - 1993 - Plays in Allsvenskan, and his team was promoted for the coming season.
  10. Andreas Johnsson - 1.29 - 1994 - Has met number four on the list

Johnsson’s closest peer on this list is Filip Sandberg. But at the time, aside from that baby with the ‘96 birth date ripping up the league, you’d be forgiven for thinking Norlöv, who was the outright points leader as well, was the best draft-eligible player.

Post draft, Johnsson played a few more junior games, and then put in nearly a full season in the SHL doing well for a young guy, while also playing in the WJC and some tuneup games. He had six points in seven games in the WJC.

In his 2014-2015 season in the SHL, Johnsson upped his production to 22 goals and 13 assists in 55 games. The Leafs signed him to his first contract in the summer of 2015, but loaned him back to his Swedish team for one more year, a season with very similar numbers, and a really bad playoffs tacked on the end, where his team won the championship, but he just didn’t seem to have any gas in the tank.

That’s hard to believe now that he’s become a playoff stud in two leagues, but it’s how it was. He’s currently at 15 points in nine games in the AHL playoffs.

The First Contract

Given his draft position, his first contract has to be seen as having been earned by Johnsson’s SHL play, and rightly so. At that point, he was clearly a real prospect, but there were genuine questions about how much of his points totals were driven by power play time on a team with the best power play in the league.

His deal had an AAV of $925,000, made up of a base salary below the maximum with some performance bonuses that started out large and dwindled to $82,500 in the third year, the season just ended. A Dubas-style contract, just like Nikita Soshnikov’s or Jesper Lindgren’s.

Obviously, Johnsson never earned anything but his signing bonuses, his $70,000 AHL salary for two years, and the prorated bits of his NHL rate for the time he spent on the Leafs roster in the regular season this year. You don’t get paid for the playoffs in either league.

The Qualifying Offer

That contract structure Dubas seems to favour, which has pros and cons to it as outlined in the discussion of Lindgren’s deal linked above, does work out well at renewal time. Johnsson’s base salary is only $750,000 this season, and that’s the number that determines the qualifying offer amount that the Leafs must offer to Johnsson by June 26.

His QO will have to be at least $787,500, and can be a two-way deal. If Johnsson accepts that deal (he won’t), that is his contract for one year. If he does not, he’s still an RFA and the Leafs still hold the exclusive right to negotiate.

But the QO is where negotiations start, and his is low, which works in the Leafs’ favour.

The Next Contract

Comparables

Johnsson is not in an ideal position to negotiate, despite how exciting his AHL season has been.

Connor Brown was. Brown signed his ELC at age 19, but it slid one year, making him 23 last year when he needed to re-sign. But Brown had just played a full season in the NHL, not nine games. By making the jump to the NHL one year earlier, he had a body of work (and a really inflated goal performance in his full season) to base his new deal on.

He got three years at $2.1 million per year, and Johnsson is not going to get that. He will want to get to the place where he can get that on his next deal, but that takes a full NHL season of successful games.

Seth Griffith signed his ELC at 20, like Johnsson, and he didn’t have a contract slide, so he re-signed at age 23 with the Bruins. Griffith had played a very few NHL games the season before he re-signed, but the Bruins had played him 30 games the prior year. He had okay results, but the four most recent games held no excitement.

He had, however, ripped up the AHL and made all the other teams cry. He signed a very interesting deal. It was a one-year, two-way deal, below his qualifying offer amount, but with a guaranteed salary of $225,000. His AHL salary on the deal was $150,000.

The structure took away any financial incentive for his team to stick him in the minors and pick some other guy to call up. They had to pay him over the $150,000 anyway, might as well give him some NHL games. (His team turned out to be the Leafs and the Panthers most of the time, but at the time he signed, he couldn’t have anticipated the waivers circus he would embark upon.)

Griffith was trying to force a team to give him a chance, Brown had nothing to prove. Johnsson is somewhere in the middle.

A guy who was where Johnsson is now is Chandler Stephenson. If you just said, “Who?” then I know you’re not watching the Stanley Cup Final.

Stephenson signed his ELC at 20, and it was structured almost identically to Johnsson’s. He finished with the same base salary after playing just four games for Washington (and nine the year before). He did not play in the playoffs last season, so Leafs fans didn’t see him.

While all that is broadly similar to Johnsson, his results were not as exciting. He looked like a plausible call-up at the time, but he wasn’t knocking fists after goals or outskating everyone but Kasperi Kapanen.

Stephenson’s deal was a two-year deal that was similar to Griffith’s in the first year (this season) with $125,000 in the AHL, but $140,000 guaranteed, and a minimum NHL rate of $650,000. Like Griffith, he was also trying to nudge the Capitals into playing him in the NHL more, since they had to pay him over his AHL rate anyway.

Stephenson’s second year of the deal, next season, is a one-way deal at $650,000, which is even more incentive for the team to make him a regular roster player. I don’t think they need it, however, as he’s gone from a tepid 18 points in 67 regular season games to seven points in 21 playoff games, playing on an effective high-energy fourth line. He played only six AHL games, as it turned out.

He’s a bargain for the Capitals, and therein lies a tricky decision for a player who hasn’t yet made the big time — shave a few thousand off the NHL salary, and you’re a better deal for a cap-strapped team than the guy with a higher-status contract. If you’re on a two-way deal, you might end up making more money, and playing in the NHL, than the guy who signed a “better deal”.

For the Leafs, who are almost certainly going to be operating in LTIR space, that’s even more important. Johnsson is not waiver exempt, and should expect to be on the roster. His situation is a little bit different to Stephenson’s, but not by much. He hasn’t absolutely proven himself — for all the thrills, he only has five points in 15 NHL games — but like Griffith, it’s unlikely he’d ever clear waivers.

Johnsson does not have arbitration rights, so this will get argued in private, but we can speculate. They can’t take that away from us!

The Leafs Position

Given that the Leafs will be unlikely to sneak Johnsson through waivers or want to try, the Leafs can magnanimously agree to any guaranteed salary clause and a generous AHL salary. They would be expecting to pay him his NHL rate for the season.

They might even just outright give him a one-way deal, but that’s a financial risk, because if he flames out really badly, the waivers situation could change. Teams also like to make players earn a one-way deal, which is likely to be a bigger consideration for the Leafs than something trivial like mere money.

The Leafs will want him to take the kind of term Stephenson took. Two years at bargain rates is better than one, and another contract negotiation next summer, this time with arbitration as a possibility, is a thing they may well want to delay by a year.

The team has a heavy incentive to keep Johnsson’s salary low for two years, not just one — the tightening salary cap situation in 2019-2020, as all the big three will be on their new deals and Patrick Marleau will still be on the books.

Johnsson’s Position

Johnsson should not take term. Under no circumstances should he take a two-year deal. His one and only play here is to bet on himself being in a strong negotiating position next summer. He doesn’t need to care about one-way or two-way either. His agent and Dubas can negotiate all of that for form’s sake, but this contract is nothing but a stepping stone for him to his next contract.

He should dig his heels in a little on the salary, you don’t want to be a pushover, but he could end up taking something that looks shockingly low. The one troublesome issue the Leafs have is the really strange Josh Leivo deal sitting there setting a baseline for what you pay a guy you aren’t even going to play.

Leivo, who was on a two-year, bet-on-himself, low-salary, one-way deal, has a one-year extension that kicks in next year for $925,000. That sets Leivo’s cost at the equivalent of someone on an ELC.

Johnsson is not going to want less.

In the rest of the hockey world, teams have a handful of players paid somewhere between league minimum and the ELC rate who can move up and down through waivers, and they do that by rote to fill in for depth need. That was Stephenson’s role on the Capitals before he carved himself a roster spot. In Toronto, it now seems impossible to pass anyone of note through waivers (thanks Frank Corrado). The Leafs also don’t have a stable of older, useful depth players to call up and send down. All of their NHL-probable players older than Johnsson are European UFAs on ELCs.

So, unlike Stephenson, Johnsson is not going to the AHL at all.

The Final Compromise

Unless he has a bad agent, I don’t think Johnsson will take a two-year deal. I think he might take less than Leivo’s inflated amount to show he’s a good soldier who plays ball and because he has to give up something in return for the lack of term he wants.

I don’t think it matters if the deal is two-way or not, but it might end up as one, depending on how much fun they’re having arguing about it all.

Any one-year deal is fair for both sides. If the Leafs get him to sign for two years, they will have an asset value win that could turn out to be very meaningful in the short term. They’ll pay for it later, of course; the truth is, you always do.

Next time around is when Johnsson gets to really fight for money and term, that is if he puts up the numbers to back it up in the coming season.