Since breaking into the league in 2014-15, Alexander Wennberg’s climb up the Columbus Blue Jackets’ roster has been impressive.
As a rookie, he started in the bottom six, putting up a respectable four goals and 20 points. He improved upon that as a sophomore, literally doubling both his goal and point total while skating similar minutes in the middle of the lineup. But this past season, Wennberg stepped his game up in a big way. Not only did the 22-year-old go out and take the job as the Blue Jackets’ top-line center, averaging 18:23 per outing, but Wennberg set new career highs with 13 goals and 59 points, finishing a mere three points back of Cam Atkinson, Columbus’ top scorer.
Wennberg’s rise, though, has made negotiations with the restricted free agent a bit more difficult. While some expected a deal to be signed and sealed by now, Wennberg remains without a contract for the coming campaign as the days dwindle away and training camp approaches. However, speaking with media Thursday, Wennberg said he’s not all that concerned about his contract status.
"Eventually it's going to work out," Wennberg said, according to NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. "Even though I have to wait a little longer than expected, that's a part of it. But you can't really let that get to your head…I'm not too stressed out about it either.”
Even if Wennberg has been patient, though, a quick look at the Blue Jackets’ cap situation may leave some wondering why it’s taking this long for Columbus to get a deal done with the up-and-comer. After all, the Blue Jackets have nearly $12.9 million in cap space with only Wennberg and 23-year-old winger Josh Anderson to take care of before the season begins.
Given Wennberg’s production of late, the most obvious solution might seem to lock the pivot up to a long-term deal that mirrors those that other youngsters have signed after having breakout years. For instance, Jonathan Drouin signed a six-year, $33-million contract after being dealt to the Montreal Canadiens this summer. Last season, Rickard Rakell got locked up to a six-year deal worth $22.8 million, while Victor Rask put pen to paper on a six-year, $24-million pact. There’s also Vincent Trocheck, who inked a six-year, $28.5-million deal with the Florida Panthers.
Those contracts all provide decent comparables for Wennberg, too, as they were all signed by 22- or 23-year-olds who were coming off of their entry-level deals. And given the long-term nature of the contracts, it allows the respective teams to keep the cap hits down in the future while keeping a promising talent locked up through their prime. The good news for the Blue Jackets is that Wennberg is open to that type of deal, too.
"There's always different ways to discuss," Wennberg said, according to NHL.com. "Long-term, short-term. But right now, we're just trying to feel each other out a little bit and see what the other [side] wants. Obviously long-term is a good option, but we'll have to wait and see."
So, given Wennberg is open to a long-term deal, one that would likely come with a cap hit between the $4 million-$5 million range and could offer incredible value in two or three years’ time, what’s the hold up on Columbus’ end? Well, a deeper dive into the Blue Jackets’ cap situation might illuminate their concerns.
Say Wennberg were to sign at the high end of the aforementioned salary range and inked a six-year, $30-million contract. The $5-million cap hit isn’t hard to stomach this coming season, but there are some cap concerns for the Blue Jackets down the line. Come next summer, when Columbus has a currently projected $29.7-million in cap space, Wennberg’s $5 million disappearing from the equation — not to mention whatever Anderson signs for — could put the Blue Jackets in a bind.
Ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, Columbus will likely be looking to sign RFAs Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara to new deals. In addition, they’ll have three significant unrestricted free agents to potentially re-sign before July 1, including Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Jack Johnson. Given the depth on the blueline, Johnson might be allowed to walk and Calvert might also be allowed to test the open market, but Atkinson has potential to remain in Columbus and command a sizeable raise after having a fourth-straight 20-plus-goal campaign, setting career highs with 35 goals and 63 points in 2016-17.
It’s not just 2018-19 that’s a concern, however. Come 2019-20, the Blue Jackets will have to worry about new contracts for Artemi Panarin, Sonny Milano, Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen, Scott Harrington and, the biggest of all, Zach Werenski, who is already looking like he could command big money after an outstanding rookie campaign. None of this is to mention that goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will also see his contract come up and Columbus could be looking to either re-sign or replace their No. 1 netminder. If that’s Joonas Korpisalo, the Blue Jackets’ backup could see a raise heading his way.
Thus, finding that sweet spot with Wennberg with regard to money and term could very well be what’s holding up a potential deal between the young No. 1 center and Columbus. With so much promising young talent, the salary cap is going to become a balancing act for the Blue Jackets, and Wennberg’s lengthy negotiation seems to be a sign Columbus wants to play it smart now to avoid paying the price later.
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