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      Why it’s time to embrace ‘gambles’ like the Jake Sanderson contract

      In a shifting cap world, risky overpayments can look like steals within a few years.

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      Swing big, Pierre, because this Sanderson kid looks good and the salary cap is about to explode.

      I’m sure that’s the advice Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion received from his support staff in Canada’s capital. And I agree: defenseman Jake Sanderson’s new eight-year, $64.4 million contract – signed Wednesday – is a strong bet on a player that is just now scratching the surface of what he can do at the NHL level.

      It’s taken me a while to get to this point. I’ve had a really hard time accepting contracts being handed out in advance of performance. Despite trying to be progressive in my own analysis, sometimes the old-school side of me wins out.

      Remember when the New Jersey Devils gave big extensions to Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes? Both times I shook my head in disgust. I didn’t feel the players – in under two NHL seasons worth of work – had earned eight-year extensions north of $50 million.

      But you know what? In retrospect, those contracts are now serious values for the Devils. It was smart business. Just like the eight-year, $66.8 million contract extension Senators forward Tim Stutzle signed in advance of the 2022-23 season.

      I didn’t like that deal, either. Stutzle’s high watermark was just 58 points in a season – albeit at 20 years old. I knew he was good, but I wouldn’t have been willing to gamble upwards of $8 million a year on him.

      But Dorion did, and the move already looks fantastic. Stutzle put up 90 points last year and tucked 39 goals. He’s improved defensively and at 21 years of age is a star player Ottawa can count on for years to come.

      Simply put: I’ve been too stubborn to embrace calculated risks like the aforementioned contracts. I was wrong on Stutzle, Hughes, and Hischier. Which is why I’m all-in on the deal Sanderson just inked with the Senators.

      First things first: I really like Sanderson. To jump straight from NCAA hockey into the NHL and produce 32 points as a defenseman is not normal. But what I found most impressive was the trust given to Sanderson by coach DJ Smith and his staff. The rookie defenseman spent more time on the penalty kill than any other Ottawa blueliner.

      Were there growing pains? Of course. A 20-year old defenseman isn’t going to transition to the NHL without experiencing some adversity. But to me, Sanderson is already trending toward being one of the better overall defenders in the league. Case in point: he’s being utilized in all situations: 17 of Sanderson’s 32 points came on the power play.

      Handing out an eight-year deal with a $8.05 million cap hit might seem rich, especially considering Sanderson will be the 14th highest paid defenseman in the NHL when the contract kicks in for the 2024-25 season.

      Will he be the 14th best defenseman in the NHL at that point in time? Probably not. But I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Sanderson is knocking on the top 20. He’s that good. And the Senators know it.

      Imagine what Sanderson’s next contact would look like if he goes out and posts 50 points during the 2023-24 season – which I think could easily happen. Sanderson would be looking at earnings upwards of $9 million a year, especially given his ability in all situations

      My point is that by the end of Sanderson’s contract, there’s a way better chance he’s the 40th highest paid defenseman than 14th. Because with the expected salary cap rise, every NHL team is going to have at least one blueliner making more than $8 million in the next few years. Which would make Sanderson a value should he reach the potential shown last season.

      Considering that Sanderson will still be under 30 years old when his new deal expires, the Senators are locking up a prime young talent. Ottawa purchased several years of Sanderson’s services when he could have been an unrestricted free agent.

      Is it a risk? Sure. Sanderson could plateau. Maybe his point totals stay steady. But I can guarantee he’ll get better defensively as he continues to adjust. And his usage in all situations is invaluable. At minimum, the Senators are getting a minute-munching, top-pairing defenseman.

      I like Sanderson’s contract, especially for the player. But for the Sens, I do think it was a slight overpay. And I believe it occured largely due to an in-house comparable: defenseman Thomas Chabot, who has five years remaining on his current contract at an $8 million cap hit.

      Obviously the push from Sanderson’s camp was to exceed Chabot’s earnings. And that desire will probably be justified sooner rather than later. Chabot is a smooth-skating defenseman that can anchor the powerplay or jumpstart the rush up ice. He’s a great player and a leader in the Senators locker room. But Chabot doesn’t kill penalties like Sanderson, and his contract was signed almost four years ago.

      I think without Chabot, Ottawa would have been more likely to retain Sanderson at a cap hit closer to $7 million. But in today’s world, dollars equal commitment. One-upmanship is real. And by giving Sanderson $50,000 more a year than Chabot, I think Dorion showed his hand on which player is considered more valuable by Ottawa over the long haul. Especially considering defenseman Jakob Chychrun will be due a new contract in just two seasons. The pressure is on Chabot to prove his worth.

      A year ago I wouldn’t have liked Sanderson’s extension. But I’m coming around on contracts that project the future rather than reward the past. Maybe it’s because I’m not a gambler. I don’t enjoy rolling the dice. But times change, and I have to adapt.

      I believe in Jake Sanderson. But I do think he’s still a season or two away from hitting his peak as an NHL player. When he does, his contract should be a value for the Senators. But that’s the key word: should. At some point one of these deals is going to backfire.

      Hopefully Dorion’s gamble pays off.

      _____

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