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Wennberg's long-term deal important for Blue Jackets' future cap management

The Blue Jackets' six-year deal with Alexander Wennberg comes one season after his true breakout year, and it's a wise move by Columbus as they start to map out their future salary cap.

The 2016-17 season saw the Columbus Blue Jackets take great strides forward. 

In the standings, the club leapt into the thick of things in the Metropolitan Division, posting a 32-point improvement. Defensively, thanks to contributions from Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and young standouts such as Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, the Blue Jackets were leaps and bounds better than the year prior, and keeping pucks out of their own net also gave way to an offense that improved by 34 goals.

And right in the thick of things offensively was Alexander Wennberg, which makes it no surprise that Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen awarded the 22-year-old center with a six-year, $29.4-million contract late last week.

While Wennberg didn’t get a lot of ink on a national stage last season, his continued development was one major reason why the Blue Jackets were able to keep pace in the intensely competitive, run-and-gun Metropolitan last season. The signs for Wennberg were there the year prior — as a sophomore, he managed eight goals and 40 points — but he had his true coming out party in 2016-17. Wennberg went from a role in the middle of the offense to a true top-line center, skating 18:23 per night. It was the second-highest ice time among the team's forwards, trailing only linemate (and team captain) Nick Foligno.

But more impressive than Wennberg’s ability to take on a much larger role, with his average ice time jumping up more than two minutes, was his performance with increased responsibility. The challenge brought out the best in the youngster and he put up career-best numbers: 13 goals and 59 points, a near 20-point improvement over his second full NHL campaign and the second-best mark among all Blue Jackets. Of course, the hope is that each successive year of his now six-year contract will allow him do the same and that by signing Wennberg the Blue Jackets have managed to lock up a playmaking top-line pivot for years to come.

The contract, however, signifies more than that for Columbus. For Kekalainen and Co., getting Wennberg under contract long-term and at a relatively team-friendly $4.9-million per year can provide the Blue Jackets with something down the line that has come at a premium in recent years: cap space.

Despite the fact Columbus has very little in the way of team-won hardware to show for their spending over the past two seasons, the Blue Jackets have consistently remained close to the league’s spending limit. In 2015-16, a season in which the Blue Jackets finished with the fourth-worst record, Columbus ended the campaign with less than $4 million in wiggle room. And in 2016-17, the Blue Jackets were staring down little more than $1.5 million in post-deadline cap room. 

Luckily, the limited cap space really hasn’t been much of a hindrance for Columbus when it comes to their roster-building desires. As witnessed last season, the Blue Jackets have been able to bring in young, cheap talents through drafting and development that can complement the older, more pricey veterans and keep Columbus competitive. But that’s about to change, which is why the Wennberg contract, especially at its price, is so important.

Over the next few seasons, the Blue Jackets are in for a litany of free agent negotiations that will undoubtedly change the cap structure of the franchise, and it takes only a cursory glance at CapFriendly to determine that’s the case. Heading into this season, Columbus has roughly $8 million in cap space with a contract yet to be handed out to Josh Anderson, a 23-year-old restricted free agent who is himself a career-best 17-goal, 29-point year. Once that deal is done, it’d be fair to suggest the Blue Jackets are looking at somewhere in the $6-million range when it comes to spending room. And that’s all right for the coming campaign. It really is. 

Where the troubles could start, however, are the next couple of off-seasons. With Wennberg signed, the Blue Jackets are projected to have in the neighborhood of $24.8 million in cap space next summer, and while that may seem like a significant amount of money to work with, it’s really not all that much when you consider the free agents Columbus will need to look after. As of today, the Blue Jackets have four players — Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara — set to become RFAs at season’s end. Depending on their respective performances, those four alone could eat up a sizeable chunk of the cap space. Add in potential unrestricted free agent deals for Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Jack Johnson, though, and you’re looking at a much dicier situation. Atkinson alone could cost upwards of $6 million per season, especially when he’s one season removed from a 35-goal campaign, and bringing back every free agent could cost almost every cent of cap space.

Where that becomes an even bigger issue is the summer before the 2019-20 campaign, because that’s when forwards Sonny Milano, Lukas Sedlak and Markus Hannikainen, defensemen Zach Werenski and Scott Harrington and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo all become RFAs. And if that’s not enough of a concern, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and major off-season addition Artemi Panarin will also be scheduled to hit the open market at that time. It’s sure to prove costly to keep both Bobrovsky and Panarin around, particularly given the two earn a combined $13.425 million already.

But that brings us back to the Wennberg contract. Signing him at six years for $4.9 million per season is indicative of Kekalainen’s strategy to manage the cap right now and in the future, and that strategy is to take the Blue Jackets’ young talents and lock them up sooner rather than later. It will likely see Columbus avoid bridge deals at all costs, instead going long-term and paying up now with the belief the contracts can look like steals in a few years’ time. And if that offers Columbus an extra million here or there, the Blue Jackets may be able to keep their band together. What more can a team ask for in the salary cap era?

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