Zach Werenski's recently signed three-year, $15M contract is good news for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the short-term, it gets Werenski to training-camp ahead of what John Tortorella proclaimed would have been "disgusting" and "terribly disappointing": his young defenseman missing "one minute" of training camp. With Werenski signed, sealed, and delivered, Tortorella will be able to start his camp with zero distractions - a welcome sight after the most distracting season imaginable led to a predictably-tumultuous off-season.
In the long-term, Werenski is signed for a more-than-reasonable $5M average annual value (AAV) that will expire when he's just 25 years old.
There's a bit of nuance that needs to be addressed before continuing. As noted in our "why this is a player-friendly deal" piece, Werenski's contract will expire with him as an arbitration-eligible RFA. He'll be able to sign an extension with the Blue Jackets, but if he chooses to not, the club will surely give him qualifying offer, a one-year admission that a team would like to keep the player. The final year of a contract is the going rate for a qualifying offer in this instance (read this page for more information about qualifying offers), which happens to be $7M. In short, should the Blue Jackets wish to renew Werenski's services after the three years are up (hint: they will), it will start with a seven, at best.
And while that means he could walk away from the team as a UFA after his fourth year (if he simply accepts the qualifying offer), the Blue Jackets will have plenty of time to prepare for that, while still having Werenski in his prime years for a (relatively) cheap cap hit. In fact, it's cheaper than just about everyone (yours truly included) could have guessed.
The Werenski deal is *very* team friendlyId figured more $$ for sure. Puts both Jones (UFA) and Z (RFA) up for a new contract for 22-23 #CBJ— Alison (@AlisonL) September 9, 2019
Even Evolving Wild, a wonderful resource for contract forecasting, was well over on their projection. Per their models, a three-year deal for Werenski would have yielded $5.89M, and their most likely scenario of seven-years at $6.84M is well higher than the actual contract signed. That logic holds true: if Werenski’s deal would have extended into his unrestricted free agency years, he would have seen a significantly higher cap.
It would be unwise to speculate on why a longer contract wasn't signed. Perhaps Werenski's camp pitched a dollar figure on a long-term deal that the Blue Jackets simply weren't willing to match. Perhaps Werenski, like other young players have shown, wants to give himself as many cracks at a new contract as possible throughout his career. Or perhaps the Blue Jackets were reluctant to give Werenski more money than Seth Jones, the undisputed best defensemen on the roster on a ridiculously inexpensive contract.
The Athletic's Aaron Portzline alluded to that in his piece:
One of the goals for the Blue Jackets in this negotiation was to preserve their financial pecking order, if you will, on the blue line. Jones is widely considered to be among the top few defensemen in the league, but it was possible that Werenski’s second contract would have surpassed Jones’.
The final reason that this contract is a win for the organization is the flexibility it gives the club when it expires. In the next three years, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Riley Nash, David Savard, Ryan Murray, and other veteran players can become UFAs. That isn't to say that all of them will be off the books, nor that the franchise would want that. But significant money will be coming off the club's cap - should they desire - in the years between now and the end of this contract. That, with an expected rise in the salary cap, will put the Blue Jackets in a position to extend their key players. Put simply: money will not be an issue, to sign Werenski or Jones.
While there is potential for a worst-case scenario in four years, the Blue Jackets will have a 22-26-year old high-end defenseman on their roster. And if thinks do break well for the Blue Jackets (what a novel concept) and he re-signs long-term, they'll have to pay their defensemen market value anyways. At the end of the day, getting Werenski signed to an inexpensive deal that keeps him an RFA at expiration is a win for the franchise.