Cam Atkinson’s name was on just about every hockey pundit’s lips leading up to the 2015 trade deadline. Instead, he signed a three-year deal to stay in Columbus.
That’s been Jarmo Kekalainen’s modus operandi in Columbus. A promising but inconsistent player’s contract is about to expire? Bridge them, and challenge them to make the team pay later on.
Atkinson made good on that challenge, and tonight, Kekalainen held up his end of the bargain, inking Atkinson to a reported seven-year, $41.125 million deal – the second seven-year deal handed out by this regime (Nathan Horton was the first).
Those bridge deals happen for a reason – a glance at CapFriendly’s list of contracts comparable to Atkinson’s old one explains as much. They give the team an "out" if a player’s progression doesn’t take its expected path. The career trajectories of players who signed similar deals is all over the place. Some, like Ryan Johansen and Alex Galchenyuk, still had bumpy roads on the way to their big payday. Others, like Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Stone, turned into stars during those bridge deals.
Far more fail to deliver on that potential. There are many who players who signed bridge deals and didn’t take the next step, and never sniffed a big payday.
Atkinson certainly took that next step. His point totals jumped from 40 (2013-14 and 2014-15) to 53 (2015-16) and then 62 last season. He represented the Jackets in Los Angeles at last year’s Honda NHL All-Star Game – almost going home with MVP honors, too – and became a key cog in John Tortorella’s lineup, one of the guys he trusted the most in key moments.
More importantly, he chipped in 35 goals – one of the highest outputs in team history.
Nine years ago, he was a sixth-round pick. Six years ago, he was splitting time between the NHL and AHL. Then he was a role player, then a key contributor and finally, a star. His ice time has risen every year he’s been in the league, too. Simply put, he’s grown up in front of our eyes, his production and ice time rising as he rounds out his game.
Now, he’s locked into a new-look core for the Blue Jackets – and one that’s much better than the one the club thought it had when he was seen as a complimentary piece a few years ago. That core was comprised of Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno (by the end of the season) and Ryan Johansen. Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray were seen as future building blocks, too, and Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano showed promise as rookies. Obviously, things changed.
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The new core? Atkinson joins Wennberg and Seth Jones as star players locked up to long-term deals. Zach Werenski looks like a sure thing to join them, and Pierre-Luc Dubois has the potential to be a future building block as well. Gabriel Carlsson and Oliver Bjorkstrand are promising as hell, too.
For now, though, Atkinson is signed longer than any of those names listed above.
Atkinson's bridge deal carried a message – and a challenge. This payday is a reward for that but certainly carries a message of its own: live up to this, and you’ll be a franchise legend.