There hasn’t been all that much for the Blue Jackets to celebrate this summer.
In the wake of the franchise’s first playoff series victory, which came by way of one of the greatest upsets in playoff history, Columbus watched on as Artemi Panarin signed with the New York Rangers, Sergei Bobrovsky bolted to the Florida Panthers and deadline acquisition Matt Duchene departed to the Nashville Predators. Quite honestly, the only real win for the organization in the final days ahead of training camp was the signing of Gustav Nyquist, who, fresh off of a career-high 60-point season, came to town on a four-year pact. But even that seemed something of a consolation prize.
As of Monday, however, there’s reason for some rejoicing in Columbus as the Blue Jackets have come to terms with restricted free agent rearguard Zach Werenski on a three-year, $15-million pact.
At first blush, the deal is an outright steal for the Blue Jackets, particularly given there are 30 other NHL franchises that would be falling over themselves to ink a 22-year-old blueliner of Werenski’s caliber to a contract that carries a $5-million cap hit and will see him remain an RFA upon its expiry. At this point in his young career, Werenski already boasts a resume that includes a third-place Calder Trophy finish and one top-20 Norris Trophy finish, and his numbers speak volumes. At a hair under 23 minutes per game, Werenski ranks 24th in average ice time since his NHL arrival. He’s been a positive possession player and play-driver in each of his three campaigns. And his offensive output across his three seasons is in the same league as some of the top producers. To wit, his 38 goals rank ninth among all defensemen since the start of the 2016-17 season and Werenski is tied for 21st with 128 points over the three-campaign span.
But there’s some give and take here that makes this deal far more fair than the three-season outlook suggests, particularly given the opportunity for Werenski to cash in and earn a significant – and we’re talking significant – raise when it comes time to re-sign.
In a sense, Werenski’s deal isn’t all that unlike Nikita Kucherov’s bridge deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning ahead of the 2016-17 season. Granted, the two play different positions and vastly different roles, but the opportunity was and is the same for both players. At the time Kucherov signed his three-year pact, which carried a $4.77-million cap hit, he was on the cusp of stardom and used the bridge contract to bolster his resume en route to inking a monster eight-year, $76-million deal. The opportunity in front of Werenski is much the same. If he continues to develop as he has over the past three seasons, there’s no reason to believe he’ll be anything short of a top-10 defenseman in the NHL. At that point, he can command a hefty pay raise and cash in, quite possibly to the tune of $9 million-plus per season given the way top defensemen have been paid in recent years. That’s far more than he would have received had he signed an eight-year pact today.
The added bonus in going with the short-term deal is that Werenski doesn’t tie himself into a contract now that will see him vastly underpaid in the near future. Consider a player such as Nathan MacKinnon, who signed a seven-year, $44.1-million deal that pays him far less than his actual value given modern salaries. Arguably one of the top-five players in the league today, MacKinnon’s $6.3-million cap hit is only the 75th-highest in the NHL and ranks 49th among all forwards. That’s no fault of his own, of course, and entirely the result of the rapidity with which the RFA market has changed in the time since MacKinnon put pen to paper, but Werenski’s short-term deal makes certain that he’ll be able to get his next deal at a time when he’s entering his prime and able to receive the going rate for a top-tier free agent blueliner.
And there’s one more benefit of the three-year term, too. The NHL’s television rights deal in the United States is set to expire following the 2021-22 season, which is the same time Werenski’s contract expires, and that the NHL will likely ink a TV deal that is far richer than their current agreement stands to benefit players in a big way. Take the NBA, for example, where a new TV contract saw the salary cap skyrocket, which in turn boosted player salaries. A similar scenario could play out in the NHL, and the term on Werenski’s deal would make it possible for him to take advantage of such a rise right from the outset.
But with Werenski eyeing up a potential payday in three seasons’ time, there is one wrinkle of which the Blue Jackets must be wary: the expiry of Werenski’s contract comes at the same time as Seth Jones’ deal ends. Now a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, and with some projecting he’s destined to win the award sooner rather than later, Jones is going to be due a new deal that is either commensurate with or greater than the one Werenski will be receiving before the 2022-23 season. At the moment, earmarking the money to retain both defenders isn’t an issue as only Nyquist, Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg are on the books for the 2022-23 campaign at this time, but Columbus’ front office will need to keep a close eye on their salary situation and make certain there’s money available to keep their defensive duo locked up when the time comes.
Of course, for the Blue Jackets, both Weresnki’s raise and finding a way to keep he and Jones in town are bridges that can and will be crossed when the time comes. For now, there’s no need for anything other than a sigh of relief that the deal is done and excitement that Werenski will be in the lineup on opening night. Columbus’ greatest strength heading into the campaign following their most successful season in franchise history is its blueline, and with Werenski on board, the Blue Jackets have all but ensured they’ll start the 2019-20 campaign with one of the best one-two punches in the NHL.
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