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A Curious Deal

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The Blue Jackets signed defenseman Dalton Prout to a new two-year deal, sparking reactions ranging from outrage to . . . well, outrage. Let's dig into it.

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It is a truism in our household that when my wife utters "Uh-oh" in a particularly drawn-out tone, the ensuing news is seldom good.  On Friday evening, that phrase was uttered as she monitored her iPhone, and was the harbinger of the news that the Blue Jackets had re-signed Dalton Prout to a two-year deal, worth a total of $3.15 million ($1.25 million in year one, $1.9 million in year two).  So, is this good news, bad news or indifferent tidings?

The initial reaction among the more vocal elements of the fan base left little doubt as to which way the assessment scale should tip.   There was a sense of outrage that precious cap space was being devoted to a player who is generally perceived as marginal, at best.  They argued that a significant upgrade could be obtained for less money, and that this was a sign that the front office had zero interest in improving the team.  We're here to look at the numbers, and examine the possible scenarios that could underlie this move.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a fan of Dalton Prout's game.  I refer to his "game" quite intentionally, as this is distinct from Dalton Prout the individual, who I believe is a nice guy who tries hard and gives his all for his team.   My observations from Row C at Nationwide, however, tell me that Prout presently lacks the speed, puck skills and vision to be a regular part of an NHL-caliber blue line.  He takes undisciplined penalties, and is rapidly accumulating a reputation that will forever prevent him from getting the benefit of the doubt when the referee's arm goes in the air.    On the positive side, he brings a big body physical presence to the blue line, and has improved his play over the last stretch of games.  However, clearing a low bar does not a high jumper make.

Admittedly, I am not now, nor have I ever been a hockey player, coach, scout or other professional.  There are undoubtedly elements of his game that I am missing.  However, having watched lots and lots of hockey games over the years, I can say that on a comparative basis, Prout just does not stack up as an NHL starter.  The turnovers, penalties  and missed plays simply overwhelm the benefits that his physical presence may bring, in my view.  Reasonable minds can -- and apparently do -- differ, and this is all about the debate.

For a bit of perspective, Prout's existing contract carries a cap hit of $1.075 million dollars, and pays him $1.1 million this year.  As a restricted free agent, Prout would be entitled to a qualifying offer of $1.1 million for the Blue Jackets to keep his rights.  So, the initial year term is just a bit of a hike over that threshold.  The second year is something else again, and we will deal with that in a bit.  However, all of this assumes that the Blue Jackets should be making a qualifying offer in the first place.  So, let's look at the possible whys and wherefores of this deal, understanding all along the way that we don't know what the organizational rationale was for this move, but can only surmise based upon other factors.

From where I sit, the qualifying offer issue is a close one, but the advantages of extending such an offer likely outweigh the disadvantages.  Defensemen -- of any caliber -- are in demand, and have a market value, whether we agree with that value or not.  Clubs are loathe to simply let a guy walk away, and Columbus is no different in this regard.  The questions then become something different. Why he was given the resulting numbers, and why now?   What is the significance of the big gap in compensation between the two years, amounting to almost 50% of the AAV?  Does this suggest that there is trouble with the Seth Jones signing?

In my view, this has nothing to do with the Seth Jones signing.  Jones, as good as he is, is an RFA, and has little bargaining power at this point.  There is likely some lively discussion going on -- both internally and with Jones' camp -- about a bridge deal vs. a longer term bigger money contract, and that will sort things out.  But the Prout deal itself has nothing to do with Jones' situation, which will get resolved in due course.  There are more complexities and moving parts to the Jones deal, so it is natural that it would take longer to work out.

If you expand the discussion a bit, to encompass the defensive corps (including prospects), you likely get closer to the real explanation.  The top four of the Blue Jackets blue line contingent are reasonably firmly set -- Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, Jack Jonson, David Savard.  Now we turn to the final three slots on the big club roster -- slots 5, 6 & 7.   Your prime  contenders are (in no particular order) Fedor Tyutin, Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout, Michael Paliotta, Zach Werenski, Dillon Heatherington, John Ramage and Dean Kukan.   (We'll ignore the prospect for an external signing for the time being.)

Of the young prospects, only Kukan, Ramage and Paliotta have seen time on the NHL ice this season.  Paliotta would likely be considered at the top of the class here, but he is also an RFA this year. Ramage was recently re-signed for low dollars, and Kukan has another year left on his $767K deal.  Heatherington is reputed to have the skills to make the big time, but the fact that he has not been called up likely signifies an organizational belief that he is not yet ready for prime time.  Werenski, at this point, is a total wild card.  Thanks to his heroics, Michigan is moving on in the NCAA tournament, so his future is in some doubt.  What if he elects to stay at Michigan?  Even if he comes out, can he step right onto NHL ice?  Should he?

Cody Goloubef has had an up and down season on the ice for the Blue Jackets, but on balance has acquitted himself well since returning from a broken jaw.  He is signed through next season, at a modest $750K, and possesses the speed and puck ability that Prout lacks.  Admittedly, Goloubef does not bring the physical presence of Prout, but in my view a side-by-side comparison goes squarely to Goloubef.

This leaves Fedor Tyutin, who has lost a step, and has moved steadily down the pairings to the third pair.  Do the Blue Jackets keep him, or trade him for some picks and clear some cap space.  If he stays, he likely slots in as the #5 guy. However, I think he'll be moved along in the off-season, to clear some cap space and make room for some of those prospects.  If that is the case, then your choices for the three roster spots come down to Prout, Goloubef and one of the prospects.  With the losses of Connauton and Bednarchuk via waivers this season, the pipeline is strong, but the inventory of NHL experience on the shelf is thin. I think the organization is justifiably concerned about getting too young too fast on the blue line, and do not want a repeat of the early season defensive lapses we saw this year.

So, if you wanted to sum up the Prout deal  -- from the organization's point of view -- in a single word, it would be: insurance.  If the prospects are not ready, and Tyutin is moved, the Blue Jackets might be scrambling.  Even if Tyutin stays, that seventh man slot is up for grabs (assuming Goloubef slots into the sixth slot).   With the risks of injury, etc., the club likely wants to see some guys with NHL experience  ready to step in.  The rumor mill has the cap either staying still or going up $5 million.  If the latter, the Blue Jackets will be able to go out and get an experienced defensemen.  If the former, that becomes an iffier proposition, as a deal would need to be made.  Hence, the need for insurance.

The "Prout as insurance" theory is further supported by the gap between the compensation for the two years.  While the Blue Jackets may have doubts about the ability of some of their young prospects to step in next year, they are likely far more confident about the following season.  With a cap hit of $1.575, it is still a marketable contract, and I would be floored to see the Blue Jackets end up actually paying him $1.9 million in two years.

This all brings us to the questions of value and timing, and here things come up short, no matter how you look at them.  While the insurance concept is a valid rationale, the dollars and the timing are more suspect.  If you factor Prout in as a #6 guy, he is slightly overpaid for next year, and grossly overpaid for the following year.  Only 12 NHL clubs pay their #6 guy over a million dollars, and two of those guys are Roman Polak and Keith Yandle.  Nobody pays a #7 guy over a million per season.  While the Blue Jackets might hope that Prout takes a huge step forward next season, hope is not a strategy (as this season proved), and the odds are highly against it. While the Blue Jackets appropriately hedged their risk through the big salary differential and a limited term, it still amounts to an overpayment, no matter which way you look at it.  However, in times of increased risk, insurance is more expensive.

Finally, the timing of this announcement is very strange, and contributes to the hostile fan reaction.  While it was likely more a situation where the opportunity came to get the deal done, and it was something they wanted to get settled before tackling the thornier issues, it conveys the impression that this was a priority signing, which leaves a bad taste in the fan's collective mouths, as they are rightfully clamoring for improvement -- particularly along the blue line.  Qualifying offers do not need to be extended until the day after the Entry Draft, by which point the front office would have a much better indication of things such as Tyutin's status and the prospects for a deal.  So, why now?

One possible answer is that a signed player is more tradeable than an unsigned one, and the front office could have simply been showcasing him for prospective suitors.  Again, as unlikely as that prospect might seem, teams overpay for defensemen every day (see Edmonton Oilers and Nikita Nikitin).  This could all be part of a grand strategy to which we cannot be privy. O.K. stop laughing . . . I said "possible".

From any angle you choose to look at this, this was a curious move at a curious time.  While comprehensible as an insurance move, the dollars and timing are less fathomable. All will become clear over the next 120 days, so no need to start jumping out windows as yet.  While I'll reserve final judgment, I'm not a fan of the move right now.  How about you? Stay tuned.