For months, the Ottawa Senators fan base has been waiting for a sign that the organization is functioning like a normal, competitive NHL franchise.
When would there be a significant player move that wasn’t primarily a lateral hockey trade or a money-saving transaction?
Wednesday, that news arrived with a bang — a long term contract for centre Colin White, one of the team’s promising young players. White, who had been a restricted free agent, will have a cap hit of $4.75 million U.S. on a six-year contract. It’s the biggest deal the club has granted since winger Bobby Ryan was signed to a seven-year deal at $7.25M per, in 2014.
White, 22, a former Boston College forward and prominent world junior player for the USA, has quickly established himself as a key player on a rebuilding team. In 2018-19, his first full NHL season, the six-foot-one, 190-pound White played 71 games for Ottawa and produced 41 points, including 14 goals. If not classically gritty, White at least showed himself to be feisty and strong on the puck.
If many had reservations about the young centre committing long term to Ottawa with its financial challenges, White wasn’t among them. By signing, he delivers a message to fans and to teammates.
"We’re all really close friends," White said, of the predominantly young Senators. "We enjoy being with each other. I don’t think there was much convincing to do… there’s a lot of great hockey players in that group."
Both parties were keen on a longer term, rather than a bridge deal.
"I truly believe in Ottawa and what we have as a young group there," White said. "It was the right move for myself and the team. I couldn’t be prouder than to be a Senator for the next six years."
Interestingly, the contract is back loaded and does not contain any bonus structure. The breakdown: $4 million in 2019-20 and 2020-21, $4.75M in 2021-22, 2022-23 and 2023-24 and $6.25M in 2024-25.
With the signing, the Senators’ projected cap hit vaulted to $70,609,999 according to Cap Friendly.
Asked if the new contract brings any extra heat to perform, White suggested the opposite.
"If anything, there’s less pressure," he said. "I can just play for the next six years, have fun and try to outplay that contract, for sure, is a goal of mine. And continue to improve any way I can."
Over the summer, White has been working with a skills coach to fine tune his offensive game. He was a point-per-game player in college.
Given the flak the hockey club took for taking on Ryan Callahan’s contract, just to put him on the LTIR list, it’s safe to say that the enthusiasm around the hockey operations side was palpable, in anticipation of releasing the news on White.
In a text message, Pierre Dorion expressed his excitement over the signing, combined with the new culture under incoming head coach D.J. Smith.
"I think you will see a big difference in attitude, and how we play this year," Dorion said.
In a statement, Dorion said he felt it was vital to lock up White to a long-term deal.
"We’ve identified Colin as one of our core young players who will help drive our team’s success in both the short and long term," Dorion said. "Colin plays the 200-foot game that is so coveted in today’s NHL. He can skate, play on both special teams and is a character player and leader who loves hockey and this city."
On a conference call, Dorion said he believes White has only "scratched the surface" of his potential, though he declined to say what he expects that ceiling to be.
Interestingly, Dorion said he thinks the organization might have "underestimated his speed."
Incoming coach Smith is said to be a fan of White’s two-way game and is expected to deploy him at centre. White has also played right wing for the Senators.
Whether White pans out as a first or second-line centre, he will be a key piece of the Senators puzzle for the foreseeable future. Now, the question: will his commitment make it easier to sign other key cornerstones down the road, namely defenceman Thomas Chabot and White’s close pal, forward Brady Tkachuk? Chabot could become an RFA next summer, and Tkachuk in 2021.
Dorion cautioned that each negotiation is different, but hoped the White deal was a positive omen.
"When we move forward with other contracts, we are going to look at what is best for the organization and hopefully players like Colin, who are in his age group, want to buy in for the long-term success of this team," Dorion said.
While Dorion has been working behind the scenes, it has been a long, relatively quiet summer in Ottawa, with the Senators generating little buzz. With White done and the rookie tournament just two weeks away (Sept. 6-9), hockey talk is bound to pick up.
"I definitely hope our fans are happy about getting this kind of contract and commitment done," Dorion said.