Johansen impasse looms over Columbus

Where did the summer go?

First day back on the job as I catch up on what I’ve missed since checking out in early July, and what piques my attention is what’s playing out in Columbus.

Young franchise center Ryan Johansen remains unsigned as camp approaches this month, a delicate and incredibly important situation that doesn’t seem close to a resolution at this point.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com on Tuesday there’s been next to no dialogue for a while as both sides remain more than $3 million apart per season on a proposed two-year contract.

That’s a sizable gap to be sure.

The sense is that the Johansen camp is willing to go longer on term but the team at this point is more fixated on a two-year bridge deal.

There are different layers to this squabble. From 10,000 feet above, there’s the baggage that this organization carries and the danger of alienating a core fan base that has been so, so patient through all the down years. An ugly fight with perhaps the young star most popular with the fan base is not the kind of thing you want when you consider the history here with Rick Nash, etc.

It comes at a time when things have looked so good in Columbus. A well-deserved playoff berth last spring comes on the heels of what’s been going on off the ice, where an important culture shift occurred after the hiring of John Davidson as team president. Things are done the right way under Davidson and it shows. This team is on the rise and I think it will continue to surprise people this season.

But a contract squabble with the team’s young scoring leader has the chance to undo so much of the goodwill that was earned in the market last season.

The nuts and bolts: It’s believed the Johansen camp, led by veteran agent Kurt Overhardt, wants the 22-year-old paid like some of the higher-end, young centers in the league (I’m guessing north of $6 million a year) and why not after a 33-goal campaign. Not to mention the drop-off at center on this team if Johansen isn’t playing. There’s leverage there for the player to be sure.

On the flip side, Johansen’s standing within the parameters of the CBA is fairly clear, too. As a restricted free agent with no salary-arbitration rights and still four years away from unrestricted free-agent status, he falls under a more tightly controlled universe in terms of his second contract.

Cases in point: P.K. Subban settled for a bridge deal that paid an average of $2.875 million a season over two years coming out of his entry-level deal with Montreal. The message to him was that he had to further prove himself before the big payday. He did, and now he’s got an eight-year, $72 million deal.

Nazem Kadri had his contract squabble, too, with the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into his second contract but settled for $2.9 million a year over two years. Similarly, Derek Stepan ended his contract impasse with the New York Rangers last year agreeing to two years at $3.075 million per season. Matt Duchene did $3.5 million per year over two seasons in his second contract with Colorado.

So you get the picture.

On the other hand, Johansen’s camp can aim higher with their comparison of young, franchise players coming out of the entry-level system. Jonathan Toews went from his entry-level deal to getting five years at $6.3 million a season in his second contract. Steven Stamkos' second contract paid him $7.5 million per season over five years.

Now, Johansen isn’t at the same level as Toews or Stamkos, but you get the idea at least from what the Johansen camp might point to as different examples for young stars heading into second contracts.

Certainly, Johansen right now is more important to the team’s success than Kadri or Stepan were to their teams when they signed their second contracts, and perhaps even Duchene at the time when he signed that deal given all the other young offensive talent that was already in Colorado. But not Subban.

Still, using Subban as an example can cut both ways. Yes, the Jackets can point to how the young superstar took a cheaper bridge deal at that point in his career. But one supposes that Overhardt’s counterargument on that one is that Montreal perhaps should have gone for more term on Subban in the second contract which would have saved money compared to the $9 million a year he’s now going to make for eight seasons.

There is merit in both arguments.

But deep down -- and this is my own gut feeling -- I think the Jackets want to do a bridge deal for some of the same reasons Montreal did: they want to know a bit more about their player before committing a huge, long-term windfall. After all, Johansen blossomed last season into a high-end, No. 1 center, but he struggled in the two previous seasons. One great season alone might not be enough to commit term yet.

So a bridge deal is what the Jackets are fully focused on at this point.

Both sides will have to move greatly. One suspects the start of training camp and the start of the regular season will both be bubbling points in negotiations, as they always are. If the Jackets start off 0-5 with a still unsigned Johansen sitting at home, the leverage shifts his way. If, like in Subban’s case, the team starts off well without him, the player will feel more pressure, although indications at this point are that the Johansen camp will hold very firm in what they’re looking for.

There’s always the chance of an offer sheet, of course. Who wouldn’t want a player of this talent in a league where high-end centers are at such a premium? But the Jackets have intimated they would match any such offer sheet.

Not sure how this ends but easily this is one of the most compelling storylines as camps get set to open this month.