Michael Arace commentary: Time is ticking away for Jackets, Ryan Johansen

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen is not a holdout. He is a vacationer for 27 more days, until training camp opens on Sept. 18. At the moment, he is not holding out on anything.

Also, technically speaking, the term holdout does not apply to him. Holdouts are players who have contracts and refuse to report. That is not Johansen. He is a restricted free agent, and it is his right to negotiate a contract any way he sees fit.

Of course, if you are a Blue Jackets fan, nomenclature means little. Johansen is an important piece of a young and improving team, and he is out of contract. Training camp is creeping closer, and the No. 1 center has yet to sign. His situation is a wrench in the gears of an engine that should be humming.

If the impasse drags into training camp, then it is a problem. It will hurt Johansen and the team, and it will alienate their fans. Of all the people who have a stake in this particular negotiation, the fans are the most helpless, and they will be the most hurt if this gets truly ugly.

Johansen’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, and Jackets assistant general manager Bill Zito have been negotiating on and off, mostly off, since July 1. How far apart are they? “Hectares” was a description given three weeks ago to our Aaron Portzline by someone with knowledge of the talks. The descriptor still holds because the last offer and counteroffer have been sitting on the table for a month.

They have nominally agreed to a two-year term. They are some $3 million apart per year on the value. Johansen’s side is asking for something around $7 million per season, and the Jackets are offering something in the neighborhood of $4 million.

Johansen’s side argues that he is one of the top dozen centers in the NHL. They claim leverage in the fact that they can solicit an offer sheet from another team.

The Jackets argue that Johansen has had one good season out of three, and the kid still has something to prove on a lot of fronts, including the motivational front. They claim leverage in the fact that Johansen has no arbitration rights. They say they will match an offer sheet if one happens to appear.

Johansen has every right to ask for whatever he can get, but I do not think he has the better argument here. It is true that he is coming off a sterling season (33 goals and 30 assists in 82 games). Yet, it is also true that his three-year totals (47 goals and 49 assists in 189 games) are, in terms of points per game, about the same that Derick Brassard had when his rookie contract expired.

Johansen is asking for Jonathan Toews money, and he has not earned it. Not yet. Can he ask for it? Sure, he can. I hope he squeezes every penny he can out of his next contract. But if this pursuit causes him to miss one day of training camp, then he will be acting selfishly.

We have all heard players say “it’s just business” when it comes to contract negotiations. Business changes, though, when it’s time to go to work.

If Johansen is turning down a reasonable offer and sitting during training camp, he will be doing himself, his teammates and their fans a disservice. The Blue Jackets will begin preparations with a hole on their top line. Their growth, and Johansen’s, will be stunted. Slow starts have hurt the Jackets in recent years. Do they want the brakes on in September this year?

Bobby Ryan in 2010 broke an impasse with Anaheim Ducks management by negotiating his own contract so he could get to camp on time. He told the The Los Angeles Times:

“What you ultimately play for is the guys in the room. The fans and the coaches and all that, they’re separate. I think hockey is a brotherhood more than any other sport. If you can’t look guys in the eye and say you’re doing the right things by them, you don’t deserve to be in the room.”

Ryan had 71 goals and 131 points in his first three seasons. He signed a five-year contract worth $25.5 million, and the Ducks went high to buy him out of his first two years of unrestricted free agency. Arguably, Johansen has a lesser value coming out of his entry-level deal. Yet, I can still see a two-year deal getting done for something approaching $5 million per season.

We shall see. There is enough time to work something out, and time enough to worry. If Johansen is not signed a month from now, holdout will not be a term that applies to him, but it would be justified nonetheless.

Michael Arace is a sports reporter for

The Dispatch.

marace@dispatch.com

@MichaelArace1

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