Blue Jackets have decisions to make with restricted free agents – Sports – The Columbus Dispatch

It’s one of those dates on the NHL calendar that is universally known.

Each summer, July 1 marks the beginning of free agency and provides a first look at each team’s roster for the following season. Multiple players sign deals with new teams, restricted free agents agree to contract extensions and there are also trades sometimes blockbusters thrown into the excitement.

It’s such a big deal that Canadian sports network TSN hosts an annual “Free Agent Frenzy” show filled with breaking news, expert analysis and interviews with players.

This year, however, the July 1 circus has been delayed. Wednesday will come and go without fanfare or roster reshuffling, because the NHL is tied up finalizing plans to conclude the 2019-20 season paused March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “frenzy” will happen later, most likely in the fall, and the Blue Jackets must wait to address a few significant offseason chores. So, as July 1 arrives and the league hashes out particulars of its return-to-play plan, here’s a glance at some of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s biggest “to do” items:

New deal for Dubois

The Blue Jackets have 12 players who played at least one NHL game this season who are set to become restricted free agents after the season. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who set rookie records in 2017-18 and has impressed in all three years of his entry-level contract, tops the list.

Like defenseman Zach Werenski a year ago, Dubois goes into his first foray as a free agent without arbitration rights and not a lot of leverage in negotiations for a contract extension. That doesn’t mean his next deal will be cheap, though.

According to CapFriendly.com, Dubois’ base salary-cap hit the past three seasons was $894,166 plus performance bonuses of $2.5 million that he earned each season. Performance bonuses are figured into a team’s cap number after each season and carry over to the following season if they put the team over the cap ceiling, which was $81.5 million for this season.

Essentially, Dubois carried an annual cap hit of $3.4 million the past three years, and he will look for a big bump in his base salary. Using Werenski’s $5 million per year extension in September as a model, Dubois’ contract will bump his base salary up a lot, possibly higher than $5 million a year, while eliminating the performance bonuses.

Kekalainen and his front office are prepared for it, of course, and the dual extensions for RFA goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo in April were part of the plan. Those deals combined to increase the Jackets’ cap hit by only $4.78 million, which kept two of the league’s top young goalies in place and left room to sign Dubois and other RFAs.

The Anderson conundrum

This situation might be tougher to solve.

Josh Anderson is 26, has one RFA year left and has arbitration rights, which means he could opt to take his case for a salary increase to an arbitrator. Anderson, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery in March, isn’t likely to compete for the Blue Jackets again this season and has an interesting case heading into contract negotiations.

After setting career highs in goals (27), assists (20) and points (47) in 2018-19, the Jackets’ top power forward struggled to one goal, three assists and four points in 26 games this season prior injuring his shoulder in a fight Dec. 14 in Ottawa.

Anderson also missed the preseason and first two games of the 2017-18 season while agent Darren Ferris negotiated his current deal, which angered both coach John Tortorella and the front office.

Could a trade be in store?

It’s possible, along with outcomes that include Anderson signing an extension without needing arbitration or a trip to an arbitration hearing. Stay tuned.

Dubinsky, Lilja, Tyutin and more

Anderson isn’t the Jackets’ only arbitration-eligible RFA. Six players in their system can use arbitration as leverage, but one of them Swedish forward Jakob Lilja is no longer in consideration to return. The Blue Jackets reportedly allowed Lilja to seek a new deal in another league and he signed one last week with Barys Nur-Sultan of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Other arbitration-eligible RFAs include centers Devon Shore and rookie Ryan MacInnis, forward Marko Dano, Anderson and rookie goalie Matiss Kivlenieks. RFAs who are not eligible for arbitration include defenseman Gabriel Carlsson, forward Kevin Stenlund and forward Calvin Thurkauf.

The Blue Jackets also have one year left on center Brandon Dubinsky’s contract, which carries a $5.85 million cap charge. Dubinsky hasn’t played this season because of a wrist injury and his future with Columbus is in doubt. Rather than buy out his contract, the Jackets could use cap relief provided by long-term injured reserve next season, assuming the injury persists.

That could be a big help in managing the cap number, along with a $1.46 million cap charge coming off the books from a contract buyout of defenseman Fedor Tyutin, now a scout. The Jackets have one more year left to pay on a buyout attached to former forward Scott Hartnell, who still accounts for $1.25 million against the cap.

bhedger@dispatch.com

@BrianHedger