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Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson signing pushes them closer to 2019 salary cap crunch

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Columbus is moving toward a potential cap crunch in a couple years.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets locked up another key piece by signing winger Cam Atkinson to a seven-year, $41.125 million contract on Thursday. The 28-year-old vet could’ve hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent, but now he’s joined a host of talented players to be under contract for the long haul in Columbus.

The past couple years have been good for the Blue Jackets, who have gone from an afterthought in the Eastern Conference to one of its prime contenders. The offseason addition of Artemi Panarin from the Blackhawks was done with winning the Stanley Cup in mind.

And as any team full of good players does, Columbus has gone about signing many of them to long-term deals. Seth Jones is signed through 2022, Alexander Wennberg through 2023, and Atkinson through 2025. Veteran forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno each are signed through 2021.

Those deals give the Blue Jackets some needed cost certainty, and at least a couple of them look like potential bargains. Jones is already one of the league’s best defensemen and receives just a $5.4 million annual cap hit. That’s a steal. Wennberg’s deal, which includes a $4.9 million cap hit, could also look quite good in the coming years.

For the next couple seasons, Columbus looks to be in a position of strength. The only free agents it has left for 2018 now are Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Jack Johnson, and Matt Calvert. Only Johnson and Calvert are UFAs. The other four are RFAs who won’t have nearly as much leverage. The Blue Jackets already have $60.3 million tied up in 20 players for the 2018-19 season, so there should be roughly $15 million in cap space to sign those players and make other moves. It’s a solid short-term cap situation for a team with enough talent to contend.

But the following offseason in 2019, danger looms for the Blue Jackets. Their list of free agents for that summer — when they’ll already have at least $38 million tied up in nine players, plus whatever commitments they make between now and then — is staggering.

Let’s run through it: Artemi Panarin (UFA), Sergei Bobrovsky (UFA), Zach Werenski (RFA), Sonny Milano (RFA), Joonas Korpisalo (RFA), Lukas Sedlak (RFA), Zac Dalpe (UFA), Markus Hannikainen (UFA), Tyler Motte (RFA), Jordan Schroeder (UFA), and Scott Harrington (UFA).

That’s the Blue Jackets’ leading point scorer, second-leading goal scorer, Vezina-winning goaltender, No. 2 defenseman (with No. 1 potential), backup goaltender, and a host of depth pieces. The big three, obviously, are Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Werenski.

Signing all three may be a real challenge in 2019. Panarin signed a two-year deal with the Blackhawks last year specifically in order to hit unrestricted free agency at age 27, when he’ll also be eligible for a no-movement clause. It’ll be his first, and potentially last, chance at a monster long-term deal in the NHL, and he presumably won’t waste it by taking a discount anywhere.

Bobrovsky and Werenski will be in similarly demanding positions. Carey Price’s eight-year, $84 million extension with the Canadiens could be a comparable for Bobrovsky, which would be a major ask of the Blue Jackets. Werenski is one of the best young defensemen in the league, and could be in position to command a cap hit over $7 million.

If it costs $25 million in cap space to sign those three, the Blue Jackets would already have roughly $63 million committed for 2019-20 for just 12 players. Even with projected salary cap increases between now and then, adding another 10-11 players with limited cap space would be a major challenge, particularly if the goal is to maintain championship-caliber depth.

The good news for the Blue Jackets is that this is a problem for down the road. They also traded away Brandon Saad, who was signed long-term, to acquire two years of Panarin, so they knew what they were getting into. It wouldn’t be surprising if they’re content letting the winger walk in 2019 in order to have funds to pay Bobrovsky and Werenski, who are arguably even more important. Trying to trade someone like Dubinsky or Foligno is another possibility.

And, frankly, none of that really matters if the Blue Jackets win their first Stanley Cup in the next two seasons. The future headaches will have been worth it.

But as the Blue Jackets have locked up players like Atkinson, Wennberg, Jones, and David Savard on long-term deals, they’ve set themselves up for a tricky summer in 2019 when three of their stars hit free agency. It’ll be an interesting situation for them to navigate.