Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
The calm before the storm is upon the NHL world as teams await the final month of the offseason before training camp kicks off a brand new year.
However, there are still whispers around the rumor mill for the few players that are still looking for a home in addition to a new contract. The buzz around the league may not match the whirlwind that emerges around free agency, but the talk is still certainly noteworthy.
With that in mind, let us examine the latest NHL rumors.
Columbus Looking to Re-up Key Forward
There may not have been a more surprising surge last season than that of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who rebounded from one of hockey’s worst records to 108 points.
Several players turned in career seasons, as is typical when a team defies expectations so drastically. Look no further in that category than Cam Atkinson, the undersized, speedy winger who exploded offensively to the tune of career bests of 35 goals and 27 assists.
With one year remaining at a $3.5 million cap hit for the 28-year-old, it comes as no surprise that The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reported last week that the team and Atkinson are exploring a contract extension. Yet, there seems to be a slight catch:
Aaron Portzline @Aportzline
There have been talks. Sense is, however, that Anderson and Wennberg (current RFAs) need to get done first. https://t.co/rlW1Zuoyqs
The Blue Jackets are not exactly flushed with salary space, currently sitting with $12.9 million.
The biggest immediate obstacle for Atkinson receiving another deal is Alexander Wennberg, a current restricted free agent who racked up 59 points last season as a 22-year-old. With his best years seemingly still ahead of him, it is likely that Columbus wants to lock up Wennberg long-term, and his production suggests he could be in line for at least $5 million annually. Josh Anderson, also 22 years old, will command a salary bump as well following 29 points in a checking role.
So where does that leave Atkinson? Those two restricted free agents are sure to eat up well over half of the current space, and the team has core players Matt Calvert, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray needing new deals after this season. With that being said, the smart move for Columbus is to let Atkinson play out another season.
Although he is a legitimate top-six forward, Atkinson’s 27 assists does not establish him as an elite playmaker. Therefore, his goalscoring is his greatest asset, and repeating 35 goals does not seem likely after his unsustainable 14.6 shooting percentage from a year ago.
Instead of risking overpaying for a 28-year-old, sitting back to get a better sense of Atkinson’s true value is the savvy play, especially considering the Blue Jackets’ offensive depth if Atkinson were to eventually leave as a free agent.
Add Another Suitor for Touted College Free Agent
He may not be on the same level as last summer’s top college free agent Jimmy Vesey, but Will Butcher is sure to be a hot commodity.
The Denver product won the Hobey Baker last season as the NCAA’s top player while leading the Pioneers to a national title. The smooth skating defenseman demonstrated a strong two-way game, totaling 69 points in 82 games over the last two years. Essentially, he has developed into a young defensive prospect that any team would want since the Colorado Avalanche selected him No. 123 overall in 2013.
John Minchillo/Associated Press
Butcher will be hitting the free market on Aug. 15 after Colorado failed to sign him. According to MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, count the Detroit Red Wings as one of the teams who will be in on Butcher.
Khan reported that the Red Wings will make a push, but he did add that Butcher’s immediate path to the NHL may not be so clear with Detroit. The team already have a top-four group of Trevor Daley, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall locked up for the next few seasons, and Xavier Ouellet seems destined to become a NHL regular next year.
Throw in recent high draft picks like Dennis Cholowski, and the blue line could be crowded. If Butcher wants a chance for regular NHL minutes right away, a rebuilding team like the New Jersey Devils would make sense. If he wants to play for a contender in need of cap-friendly contracts, the Edmonton Oilers or Pittsburgh Penguins could be options.
Still, both of these routes are superior to Detroit, which offers little to nothing exceptional for a player like Butcher.
Colorado Making Progress on Another Young Defenseman
While one promising defenseman spurned the Avalanche, it appears they can still salvage another young piece on their blue line.
According to BSN Denver’s Adrian Dater, Colorado and restricted free agent Nikita Zadorov are closing in on a deal that will keep him with the team and in the NHL.
There were rumors Zadorov may consider bolting for the KHL if he and Colorado could not reach a deal to his liking, but Dater cited sources saying there is no “danger” of that possibility coming to fruition.
Dater also reported last month of what the potential figures could look like for Zadorov:
Adrian Dater @adater
I’m hearing Zadorov asking for $2.75-$3 million, Avs offering $2 mil. I have to believe they can bridge gap
Zadorov has not shown enough to undoubtedly earn that type of raise. He was a high draft pick, No. 16 overall in 2013, who has not proved himself as either a shutdown guy or an offensive force to make what a fringe top-four defenseman is worth. In 145 career NHL games, Zadorov has just 28 points while posting a brutal minus-39 rating.
However, Colorado may not have a choice here. The team is not going anywhere in the near future after finishing last in the NHL last season, and it only has three defenseman currently with one-way contracts. Taking a risk on a younger defenseman is not a bad idea when the team simply needs bodies for its rebuild.
It is a weird situation where an unproven player is leveraging a team’s poor state to earn more money. Zadorov does not look ready to outplay what his deal could reportedly become, but the Avalanche would be ill-advised to mess up this situation and let him walk.
Statistics are courtesy of NHL.com. Contract information is courtesy of CapFriendly.com.