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Is there any chance Ivan Provorov and the Flyers agree to a bridge deal?

A look at recent trends suggests that when the Flyers and their current top defenseman reach a deal for a new contract, it’s probably going to be a long one.

Buffalo Sabres v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Free agency begins this coming Sunday, July 1, and the Flyers could be active in any number of ways leading up to and after that time as they try and build on a roster that’s moving in the right direction but still may need some help to really take the next step forward in a crowded division and conference.

But Sunday also marks another date: the first day on which players whose current contracts expire next summer can sign contract extensions. For the Flyers, that means that they can formally agree to deals with the likes of, among others, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, and Wayne Simmonds.

With due respect to the other names in that sentence, though (particularly Simmonds, whose current situation is one that needs to be approached very carefully by Ron Hextall and co.), the one that currently figures to be the most important one to the Flyers’ future is that of Provorov, the guy who turned 21 this past January and yet has been the team’s clear number-one defenseman since roughly Thanksgiving of his rookie season.

The topic of re-signing Provorov has come to the forefront in recent days, for a couple of reasons. For one, the topic of “how exactly are the Flyers going to spend this big pile of cap space in front of them?” is one we’ve all been kicking around, particularly as we continue to hear very little about interest in established players currently outside of the organization. Additionally, one big contract signed this past weekend — John Carlson’s eight-year, $64 million extension in Washington — has opened up the question of what exactly the going rate is for a top-pair defenseman nowadays.

Placing Provorov’s situation in proper context

With that said, specific comparisons to Carlson’s deal aren’t really apt for Provorov, for one obvious reason: Carlson, who’s played nine NHL seasons, was set to hit the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market this coming Sunday, meaning that any team would be able to bid on him and give him as much money as they want for up to seven years.

Provorov, who will play the final year of his three-year entry-level contract (ELC) next season, is slated to be a restricted free agent (RFA) next summer. He won’t have UFA rights until he’s played seven NHL seasons, which for him means not until the 2023 offseason. RFA seasons tend to come at a significant discount compared to UFA years, which makes sense** considering that players under RFA control — particularly ones like Provorov who are immediately post-ELC, meaning that they don’t have arbitration rights — only really have leverage by threatening to get an offer sheet (which doesn’t happen anymore) or sit out (which, of course, means not getting paid at all).

So to try and approximate Provorov’s next deal, we should look at players in situations most comparable to his. Provorov entered the league at age 19, in the second hockey season after his draft year. He’ll have four more restricted free agent years after this one.

As such, let’s focus primarily here on young players who got regular ice time in the NHL at young ages, much like Provorov did. And to keep the scope here relatively recent, let’s look primarily at players who have signed their contracts in the last three years.

There are a couple of directions the Flyers can go with this contract, but for the most part, the question teams face when entering negotiations with players like Provorov’s are “do we try and agree to a bridge deal, or to a long-term contract?”

We’ll go over both of those possibilities, and what they’d mean for Provorov and the Flyers, over the next two days. Today, we’ll look at the first of those two possibilities ... and why it’s not a likely one in this particular situation.

The bridge deal

The “bridge” contract is a short-term deal typically given to a young player after his entry-level deal that is meant to eat up a few (typically between one and three) of his restricted free agent years at a relatively low cost. The advantage of this type of deal for the team signing it is that it gives them (typically) a good player at an inexpensive rate for what is usually the beginning of his prime, while still retaining his restricted free agent rights in most cases when the deal is complete. The advantage for the player signing it is that he becomes arbitration-eligible when the deal is up, and that he’ll get closer to unrestricted free agent status without having any of those years “bought out” — essentially, the player gets less in the short-term knowing that it may set him up for more money per-year on his next deal. (The most recent example of a bridge deal given to a Flyer is probably Brayden Schenn’s two-year deal in 2014 when his ELC ended.)

With that, we took a look at short-term contracts given to notable young defensemen whose ELCs began in 2012-13 or later, and tried to cobble together which ones belonged to players with résumés comparable to Provorov’s.

This proved to be a fairly difficult task, because as it turns out, top young defensemen really aren’t getting bridge deals nowadays. But here are the ones we found in the meantime:

Recent Young Defensemen on Bridge Contracts

Player ELC Seasons Second Contract Date Length AAV Age at Start Of Deal Age At End Of Deal
Player ELC Seasons Second Contract Date Length AAV Age at Start Of Deal Age At End Of Deal
Ryan Murray 2013-16 2/11/2016 2 $2,825,000 22 24
Jake McCabe 2013-16 6/30/2016 3 $1,600,000 22 25
Jon Merrill 2013-16 7/1/2016 2 $1,137,500 24 26
Mathew Dumba 2013-16 7/28/2016 2 $2,550,000 22 24
Cody Ceci 2013-16 8/23/2016 2 $2,800,000 22 24
Jacob Trouba 2013-16 11/7/2016 2 $3,000,000 22 24
Nikita Zadorov 2014-17 9/15/2017 2 $2,150,000 22 24

While a few guys there have some pedigree — Ryan Murray and Matt Dumba were both selected in the top-10 of the 2012 draft, for instance — the only guy on that list who one could reasonably argue is a comparable to Provorov is the most expensive one: Jacob Trouba, a top-10 pick who came into the NHL at 19 and logged 22-plus minutes a night in each of his first three seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. And even his situation is unusual: Trouba formally requested a trade after his ELC expired and stayed out of Winnipeg’s lineup after the 2016-17 regular season began, only to withdraw that request and sign a bridge deal a month into the season.

Overall, though, that’s mostly a list of defensemen who came in as somewhat big names (hence their mostly getting early starts to their NHL careers) but were just kind of OK during their first few years in the league. Teams are willing to take short-term dice-rolls with guys like that.

Ivan Provorov, to date, has more or less proven that he’s worth more to his team than these players are. One quick look at some (admittedly high-level) statistics would attest to that:

Player Comparison: Young Defensemen During ELC Years

Player TOI/Game Points/Game
Player TOI/Game Points/Game
Ivan Provorov 23.07 0.43
Jacob Trouba 22.57 0.34
Ryan Murray 21.32 0.31
Jon Merrill 19.10 0.18
Cody Ceci 18.80 0.27
Jake McCabe 18.62 0.17
Nikita Zadorov 18.12 0.20
Mathew Dumba 15.77 0.29

Are average ice time per game and points per game the only ways to evaluate defensemen? Of course not. But I would also guess that any team that currently owns any of those defensemen would trade them for Ivan Provorov in a heartbeat, with the possible aforementioned exception of Trouba.

Essentially, there’s a growing trend towards taking talented young defensemen and locking them up into their UFA years, often on deals of six or more years. It would be very surprising to see the Flyers not go that very route with Ivan Provorov.

If either side really insisted on a short-term deal, maybe they could point to Trouba’s deal and say “let’s give you a little more than that”, based on the idea that Provorov has probably outperformed Trouba’s pre-ELC career and that the cap has gone up since that deal was agreed to. Were that to happen, I could see the two sides agreeing somewhere around a two-year, $7 million deal that would give the Flyers an inexpensive number-one defenseman for the next two years. But given the aforementioned NHL-wide trends, and given the Flyers’ relatively clean long-term cap sheet at the moment which doesn’t really scream “we need short-term relief”, it seems like a long shot that things will go in that direction.

So who are his true comparables in that sense? How much should the Flyers expect to pay for Provorov’s second deal? We’ll take a closer look at that tomorrow.

** It also doesn’t make sense, given the fact that players tend to play their best (and, one would think, most valuable) hockey in their younger years and start to fall off the aging curve as they reach their inevitably-more-expensive UFA years, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.