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There’s value in letting contracts play out

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Let’s not be so quick to move on

Columbus Blue Jackets v Washington Capitals - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s been bugging me lately that sports contracts don’t mean what they used to. Teams are eager to trade or cut underperforming players, while overperforming players are quick to demand a renegotiated contract. You get situations like the Le’Veon Bell holdout from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Should he play out the last year of his contract then hit free agency, or should he secure long term security now before risking further injury?

Another reason this is issue is fresh in my mind is due to the conversations all summer regarding the Columbus Blue Jackets and Artemi Panarin. Not only has he been the topic of trade rumors, now there is speculation that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could be traded as well (if he waives his no trade clause), given that there has been on progress on his contract extension. This was fueled by these quotes from GM Jarmo Kekalainen, per NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti:

“In this business, there’s always talks between the general managers whether you’ve got pending free agents or not. We talk regularly. Sometimes there’s trades. So I’m not speculating on them. I’m just saying we talk all the time, so I wouldn’t say about any player whether they’re a pending free agent or not that they’ll be on our team in October because anything can happen between now and Oct. 3.”

The Blue Jackets have until July 1 to sign Panarin and Bobrovsky before each can become an unrestricted free agent.

”I think we have to make some decisions based on where it goes at the appropriate time,” Kekalainen said. “If we can’t work out a contract, then we’ll have to make some decisions. I wouldn’t say they’re just going to stay and ride out into the sunset.

”Where we’re at with our team, we have to make some decisions and we’re hopeful we can get contracts done. If not, we’ll have to make some decisions.”

But he did sound hopeful that at least one of the players could be kept and re-signed:

“We want to keep them and we haven’t been able to be successful yet in extending their contracts, but we’re still optimistic we can get things done and we feel they can be a huge part of our team in the future,” Kekalainen said. “We’re going to have a good team into the future and hopefully they want to be part of it. That’s our mindset right now, to keep working at it.”

I am OK with Jarmo listening to offers. Obviously if some great deal comes along, take it. I don’t think he wanted to dump Brandon Saad, but the chance to get a dynamic player like Panarin couldn’t be missed. What I disagree with is the growing fan narrative that the Jackets will have failed if they don’t trade Panarin now for something, anything. I’m not saying they have to sell the farm to add pieces and go all-in. Rather,

I believe there is value in keeping players through to the end of their contracts without trading or extending them, and we should give that more consideration

Since the start of the “Moneyball” era in professional sports, it has become a widely accepted reality of rebuilding that teams with a closing window of contention should trade their best and highest paid veterans to free up cap space and collect assets (draft picks and prospects) to accelerate the rebuild. The most common move is trading players with one or two years remaining on their contracts. They’re not around long enough to be part of the rebuild, and they don’t require a long term commitment from their new team. That new team is a contender and can willingly part with picks and prospects for the short-term advantage the new addition gives them in their current window of contention.

Last year at the trade deadline, the New York Islanders were no longer in the playoff picture. Their franchise player, John Tavares, had an expiring contract and was eager to test the free agency market. Many contending teams would have happily paid a premium to add a player like that to their roster for the stretch run and playoffs. However, the Islanders’ front office held on to Tavares, believing they could re-sign him. Instead, they got fired, Tavares left for Toronto, and the Isles were left with nothing. Now, a common refrain among Jackets fans is that Panarin MUST be traded in order to avoid the same thing happening here.

I agree the Islanders erred. I disagree with the comparison to our situation, because Columbus is in a different place as a franchise. This is a team that has made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and whose 205 points are 8th most in the league over that span. This is still one of the youngest teams in the league, with only three players aged 30 or over projected to make the opening night roster (Bobrovsky and Nick Foligno, 30, and Brandon Dubinsky, 32). Therefore, they are looking to continue moving forward this year. Losing either or both of Panarin and Bobrovsky now is an intentional step back at a point when they can ill afford that. Do you want to waste a season in which Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois are still on entry level contracts?

Not only are Panarin and Bobrovsky elite, they would also be candidates for the walk year bump: that is, when players on expiring contracts have a great year while auditioning for a new contract.

What about next summer?

As unlikely as it is to re-sign Panarin, and as complicated as Bob’s negotiations might be, as long as you keep them around there remains the chance to get new contracts signed. Maybe a deep playoff run convinces either or both to stay. It may be a long shot, but it’s a chance.

Even if they leave, you can’t say that the Jackets get nothing. They get:

  1. The extra year of playoff experience for everyone on the roster.
  2. The money that would have been allocated to the Russians can be used to extend other players (like Werenski), to sign top UFAs (if any are available), or to acquire a big contract via trade from a team looking to start their own rebuild.
  3. It creates roster spots for prospects. The key factor here is that the team do a good enough job of drafting and developing prospects who can fill these holes. Isn’t that the case if we trade them now? Yes, but I feel better about being in a position to do that next year rather than this year. In 2019 Elvis Merzlikins will be able to come over to North America. Could he be NHL ready? Can Panarin’s spot be taken by fellow Russian Vitaly Abramov?

I trust that the Columbus ownership would not have signed the front office to contract extensions if they weren’t comfortable with the contingency plan in place for a possible post-Panarin and Bobrovsky future.

There is also value in letting bad contracts play out.

The team reportedly offered a long term extension to defenseman Jack Johnson last summer, with one year left on his contract. Fortunately for the team, he turned it down. Therefore, after his bad season there was no cost in letting his contract expire and allowing him to enter free agency without an offer.

Dubinsky is now the contract that fans would most like to be rid of. Around the trade deadline, many were hoping he could be traded then to relieve his cap hit. What these suggestions ignored was that no team would willingly take on that contract without dumping something back on the Jackets in return, or demanding high value draft picks or prospects. Dubi will likely never play as well as his cap hit again, but if he can be a productive fourth liner for another year or two, that is useful. Considering his injury issues for the last two seasons, a slight bounceback season in 2018-19 is well within the realm of possibility.

Summary

If your carton of milk is a day from expiring, do you automatically throw it out? Isn’t that a waste (as long as it passes the smell test, of course)? Saad is a very good young player on a reasonable long term contract, and he was traded for two seasons of a dynamic player like Panarin. He wasn’t traded for just a single season of Panarin and then a mystery box:

This Blue Jackets team features a promising young core assisting the elite players of Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Seth Jones. I want to see one more year of this to see how far they can go. Both the front office and those free agents will have a clearer picture of their respective long term future next June.