When our own Matt Larkin broke down the top 30 players potentially heading to unrestricted free agency this summer, Columbus Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson fell comfortably in the top 10, ranked seventh on a list that included the likes of John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, James Neal, Evander Kane and grizzled veteran Joe Thornton.
Landing alongside such talented company was warranted for Atkinson, too. One season removed from a 35-goal, 62-point breakout season, and the fourth-straight campaign in which he had set personal-best scoring marks, there was little doubt Atkinson would be highly sought after on the open market. Now a four-time 20-goal scorer, a speedster with a touch of finesse and knack for the net, Atkinson would've been some team’s UFA prize come July 1, 2018. In order for that to happen, though, he had to make it to free agency. And that won’t be the case.
Late Thursday evening, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reported that Atkinson and the Blue Jackets have come to terms on a seven-year contract extension that carries an annual average value of $5.875 million — a total of $41.125 million over the lifetime of the deal. In addition to the significant pay raise over his previous three-year, $10.5-million contract, Portzline reported the Blue Jackets have also rewarded the 28-year-old winger with a no-trade clause this season and in each of the next two campaigns, as well as a limited 10-team no-trade clause for the final five years of the seven-year agreement.
The new deal means that Atkinson won't test unrestricted free agency and, if it seems like he took a hometown discount, it appears that is the case. According to Portzline, Atkinson was willing to take less money to remain in Columbus, where he has spent six, going on seven, campaigns.
Coming off a legitimate all-star worthy campaign, early projections would've been that Atkinson could earn himself as much as — or maybe even slightly more than — $7 million per season on a contract if he hit free agency. That’s not an all-that far-fetched estimation, either, given the rarity of 30-goal scorers in today’s game. Last season, for instance, there were only 26 players to put home 30 markers. In recent years, players with that kind of scoring ability have fetched big bucks on new deals, too, and if Patrick Marleau could land $6.25 million per season on a three-year pact as a 37-year-old, Atkinson would certainly have been in line to earn himself in $7-million range if he maintained his scoring pace from last season.
The fact of the matter is, though, Atkinson hasn’t, and while the cap hit on his new deal appears almost ridiculously team friendly at first blush, that may not be the case when taking a broader look at Atkinson’s scoring. Take this season. In 15 games, Atkinson has four goals and six points and the Blue Jackets winger is on pace to dip back down to 21 goals and 31 points, the latter of which would be exactly half of what he managed last season. Part of that can no doubt be attributed to a lower-body injury that sidelined Atkinson for four games and a shooting percentage that has been below his career average rate — he’s shooting eight percent as opposed to his 11.5 percent average coming into the campaign — but, truthfully, his scoring pace this season is more on par with what Atkinson has managed throughout his career.
Across the first 300 games of his career, Atkinson averaged 0.29 goals and 0.55 points per game. And while those rates exploded last season, with Atkinson scoring 0.43 goals and 0.76 points per game, they’ve dipped this season to rates of 0.27 and 0.40, respectively. The latter is a touch lower than what Atkinson is used to and all but assured to come around at some point this season, but the goal-scoring pace thus far is about in line with what Atkinson has done throughout his career. The signs of this regression back to career norms were seen last season, too, when Atkinson’s goals rate dipped from 0.50 per game to 0.35 per game from the front to back half of the 2016-17 season.
So, to extend Atkinson at $7 million per season now, when he’s showing signs of scoring at a rate more akin to what he has throughout his career, just because he managed to score like a top-tier point producer last season would likely have turned out to be a gigantic misstep for the Blue Jackets and GM Jarmo Kekalainen, which makes it seem like the price tag on this deal is about as close to perfect as could be. That’s incredibly important for Columbus, too, because an overpay of Atkinson could've significantly hurt the organization, and that’s where having the patience to wait and see how Atkinson came out of the gate this campaign — and to see if he could be persuaded to take less money to stick around rather than test the open market — could pay off big.
Over the next two summers, the Blue Jackets will see the likes or Artemi Panarin, Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert, Sonny Milano, Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray, Zack Werenski and Sergei Bobrovsky eligible for new contracts as either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Keeping Atkinson’s cap hit down was important, and not immediately jumping on a new deal when Atkinson was available for an extension was a wise move by Columbus. Now, the Blue Jackets are projected to have more than $14.5 million available in cap space next summer and more than $36 million when Panarin and Bobrovsky see their contracts come up in two seasons’ time.
Really, the only potential downfall with Atkinson’s new contract is that it will pay him nearly $6 million in his mid-30s, and, by that time, Atkinson could have slid down the lineup with a number of younger talents surpassing him on the depth chart. However, that’s a problem for the Blue Jackets to worry about down the road. With a deep lineup, young and skilled blueline and a Vezina Trophy-contending netminder, Columbus’ window is more open right now than it has ever been, and, with his extension, Atkinson will remain an important piece of the puzzle for the foreseeable future.
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