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Free Agent Dossier: Patrick Wiercioch

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Wiercioch seems likely to be on the outs, but his situation is more complicated than it seems

"Let me reach that for you!"
"Let me reach that for you!"
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to Patrick Wiercioch, nothing is ever simple. After a run of strong play to conclude last season culminated in his being named to Team Canada for the World Championships, the much-maligned rearguard has had an underwhelming season. He has yet to find the back of the net and has only 4 measly assists. The long-time darling of the analytics community has even seen his on-ice shot metrics crater this year from their previously lofty peaks; unless something radical changes over the last part of the season, Wiercioch will finish with a CF% below 50 for the first time in his career. In short, he seems to have burned up all of his goodwill. If the Senators are able to trade him before the deadline for anything more than a bag of hockey pucks, I believe management will do just that.

This all needs to be said ahead of time because any attempt to glean what his future holds as a Restricted Free Agent requires those necessary caveats. The most likely outcome, at this stage in the story, is that Wiercioch is dealt. But if the trade deadline does come and go and he remains a Senator then we actually have a very interesting situation on our hands. Wiercioch is an RFA, but he's an RFA who would require a very expensive qualifying offer because of the way his current contract is structured. At his current pay grade, the Sens are required to make a qualifying offer equal to 100% of his base salary. That the qualifying offer is based off the base salary and not the AAV of the player contract is an important distinction in Wiercioch's case because of his escalating pay in his existing contract: $1.1M in year one of his contract, $2.2M in year two and $2.7M in year three. Even though the AAV of his contract is just $2.0M, the Sens are forced to offer him $2.7M to retain his rights via a qualifying offer because of the escalating pay scale. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of the Sens' tendency to push money as far out into the future as possible, but this is a clear case where it's come back to bite them in the ass.

So, it would seem unlikely that the Senators will qualify Wiercioch at $2.7M given his current place in the team hierarchy. As it turns out, there's another way they could keep the defenseman around: team-elected arbitration before June 15. This isn't a common outcome, but it's one that makes sense in this context. I'll let our friends from General Fanager explain:

The key take-away: the team has the option of taking Wiercioch to arbitration(before making him a qualifying offer, which they don't want to do) and hoping that an arbitrator gives them the most team-friendly award: 85% of his base-salary + eligible bonuses. In this case, that works out to $2.295M. That's still more than the $2M qualifying offer they could have made to Wiercioch if they had paid out the $6M equally over the life of his contract but it's a lot better than the $2.7M they'd owe with a regular qualifying offer. If the Sens are unable to deal Wiecioch by the trade deadline, there is a very real possibility they go this route because the deadline for a team to elect arbitration in this instance is June 15, a full 11 days before the NHL draft. While the Senators aren't exactly enamored with Wiercioch, they very rarely let restricted free agents walk without getting something in return.

As I said earlier: when it comes to Patrick Wiercioch, things are never simple.

The flip side of all this is that the Senators might have an opportunity to buy low on an asset that could appreciate. No one's arguing Wiercioch has had a good season, but if you believe he's more the defenseman of the last three seasons than the one who's struggled this year there's cause to pitch him on a bridge contract at a low cost to the team. Reputations matter in the NHL, and Wiercioch has the reputation of being an offensive defenseman. Offensive defensemen with fewer than 10 points won't exactly be overwhelmed with suitors. If the Senators offered Wiercioch something along the lines of 3 years at $2M AAV, I have a hard time believing he wouldn't accept the offer.

The case for taking a bet on Wiercioch is simple: he's the only regular Ottawa Senators defenseman, we'll exclude Phaneuf here for now because his sample is so small, to break 45 CF% away from Erik Karlsson. Every other Ottawa Senators defenseman basically turns into a pumpkin the moment they're away from Karlsson. Wiercioch hasn't been good this year, certainly by his own standards at the very least, but his struggles are at least comensurate with the rest of the team's. If you need to pick a defenseman that'll help you outshoot the other team, after Erik Karlsson, it's still Patrick Wiercioch -- even in his current diminished state.

Ultimately, whether you choose to believe his failings are his alone, or are perhaps related to a team-wide malaise that has seen the Senators fall far out of the play-off picture, part of the reason the Ottawa Senators felt the urgent need to acquire Dion Phaneuf was because they'd lost faith in Wiercioch (again). The most likely outcome for this soon-to-be free agent is still that he gets dealt in the next two weeks. He's fallen far enough down the totem pole that it seems unlikely he'll be able to redeem himself in the eyes of management. But if he does stick around past the deadline, things will get tricky if the Sens want to get anything at all rather than letting him walk for nothing. And who knows, maybe the team will be in a bargain-hunting mood and look to buy low by betting on one of their own draft picks. These things are never easy.