The Ryan Johansen Saga: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

The Columbus Blue Jackets should currently be experiencing euphoria from experiencing what’s often phrased as ‘rarified air’. After all, they qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for only the second time in their 14th seasons of existence with a franchise record in points with 93 points.  They also gave the Pittsburgh Penguins all that they could handle in their opening round Stanley Cup playoff series, eventually losing the series four games to two, each game of which was a highly contested nail biter.

They also made a seismic trade during the off-season, acquiring forward Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for disgruntled forward RJ Umberger, a trade which caused consternation in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ and one which most pundits proclaimed a landslide victory for the Blue Jackets.

The Blue Jackets have also reaped the benefits of two outstanding NHL Entry drafts and under the tutelage of one of the greatest talent evaluators in Jarmo Kekalainen, have jettisoned the organization’s prospect pool into the stratosphere of future National Hockey League (NHL) level talent.

However, a large pall has been cast over the organization in the form of the adversarial negotiations between the organization and Ryan Johansen, the 4th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry draft, who enjoyed a breakout season for the Blue Jackets with 33 goals scored and registering 63 total points.  Johansen was pivotal in leading the offense and in often successfully defending their opponents top scoring lines during the regular season and in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It all started in the July time frame, when Johansen expressed his disgust at the offers the Blue Jackets were providing to him, where he and his agent, Kurt Overhardt, no stranger to holdouts and acrimonious negotiations with the NHL organizations he’s previously negotiated contracts with on behalf of his clients, to include such a situation with fellow Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky when he was with the New York Rangers.

Johansen and Overhardt were seeking a long-term deal for his client as well as a hefty annual salary, per season. Basically, both were seeking something that diametrically opposed with what was the standard bridge contract for an initial entry-level contract per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) agreed upon during the lack NHL lockout in 2013.

Although Johansen and Overhardt felt they were entitled to a long-term deal, per the CBA, while they “could” attempt to obtain such a contract, the Blue Jackets and every other NHL team aren’t obligated to award such a contract – rather, are the entry-level player is entitled to is a bridge, or 2-year contract.

As the next two months passed, the silence, in this case, was both troubling and deafening. However, unbeknownst to those outside of the two parties – Overhardt/Johansen and the Blue Jackets – negotiations were being held between the two.

On September 16th, the eve of when the Blue Jackets players were to report for training camp, Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson expressed his absolute distain for the tactics of Overhardt in representing his client, uttering words such as “embarrassing”, “nonsensical” and, the harshest of all, “extortion”.  But it was this statement that Davidson made that captured the frustration that the Blue Jackets brass was feeling, “They have no leverage and they’re trying to take us to the woodshed.”

The belief was that the sticking point were the terms and offers of the bridge contract as it appeared that both parties had settled upon that contract vehicle.

It wasn’t until the annual press luncheon held in Nationwide Arena on September 18th, where afterwards a press conference is held between members of the media and President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen where the greatest shocker of all was revealed by Davidson: that the Blue Jackets DID offer two long-term deals with Johansen and Overhardt: a six-year, $32 million contract and an even more stunning eight-year, $46 million contract – and Overhardt/Johansen turned them down.

The emotion expressed on the part of the usually affable Davidson was palpable by his ‘beet red’ face, his facial expressions and his terse responses to media questions, the predominance of those, as expected, were to ascertain where negotiations were at with the young star center, given his statements made a few days earlier.

It was also revealed that Bill Zito, the Blue Jackets Assistant GM, was the point person on the negotiations. Zito, who previously was co-founder of the Acme World Sports, LLC, and previously represented several well-known NHL players – Tim Thomas, Brian Rafalski, Kimmo Timonen, Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi, among others, appeared to be the perfect person to negotiate the new contract on behalf of the Blue Jackets.  Zito was also terse with his responses to the endless stream of questions about the negotiations with Johansen and his agent.

And this is where the position of Overhardt is ridiculous: if a former player agent feels that an agent’s demands are asinine, then it’s safe to say that the agent is not acting in the best interest of his client.

Davidson and Kekalainen then stated that they’ve made their final offer to Johansen: a two-year bridge contract at $3 million per season, $6 million total. When asked if there were going to be any last-minute discussions between the parties, Davidson confirmed that they were done with any discussions and that Johansen could not report for training camp, also per the CBA.  Thusly, Johansen and Overhardt boarded a flight back to Johansen’s Vancouver home.

Nearly two weeks had passed after the press conference, when it was revealed that negotiations had resumed between the parties; however, the gap between the two remained large: the Johansen camp was looking for a two-year, $6 million per year bridge contract whereas the Blue Jackets held to the two-year, $3 million per year offer, claiming that it rivaled the best offer ever provided to an entry-level player on a bridge contract, that being the two-year, $3.5 million per year contract the Colorado Avalanche awarded star forward Matt Duchene.

Recently, offers to players with similar entry-level, bridge contract situations, with similar production to Johansen, have recently been signed to the likes of Jordan Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues and Reilly Smith of the Boston Bruins, only adding to the nearly nonexistent leverage that Overhardt and Johansen have left, particularly for a player with only one breakout season and who struggled both with on-ice production and maturity, case in point his previously documented sulking while being sent to the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Springfield Falcons for the 2013 AHL playoffs, where then-coach Brad Larsen benched Johansen after going scoreless and registering a -8 plus/minus rating after only a handful of AHL playoff games.

What’s most puzzling in all of this is that several fellow NHL player agents, speaking anonymously, are puzzled as to what Overhardt’s objective or ‘end game’ is in all of this: could it be his carrying a cause based on the results of the previously negotiated NHL agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA)?

What Overhardt and Johansen also fail to realize is that this holdout will affect Johansen’s leverage for the next round of contract negotiations, which, assuming a bridge contract is agreed upon, will be two seasons from now. It is rare that a player can immediately be in both physical and game shape and the usual, precipitous drop in production will only work against Johansen should he feel he is worthy of a blockbuster deal.

No matter the reason, and although Overhardt’s offer has dropped from the $13.7 million total for two years to $9 million for the same time period, the Blue Jackets open their regular season on Thursday, October 9th against the Buffalo Sabres without their potential star forward and no indication that a deal will be reached by or before then.

And, what was previously believed to be the beginning of something special for the Blue Jackets has now, along with the uncertainty of Nathan Horton’s future (degenerative back issues) as well as the broken hand sustained by rookie Boone Jenner, thus opening their season without their top forward line from last season, has now cast doubt on the previously-believed ascent of the Blue Jackets as an Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division power.

Post-Script:  This article was written the day before Johansen and the Blue Jackets agreed upon a three-year, $12 million contract.  Details of this development the subject of an upcoming article.