Senators bet big on Colin White, but is he worth it?

Ottawa Senators center Colin White (36) celebrates his goal scored in the second period against the New Jersey Devils at Canadian Tire Centre. (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)
Ottawa Senators center Colin White (36) celebrates his goal scored in the second period against the New Jersey Devils at Canadian Tire Centre. (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

Earlier this week, the Ottawa Senators signed Colin White to a backloaded six-year deal that will give him an AAV of $4.75 million.

It was a deal immediately hailed by the Ottawa media as a savvy move. After all, everyone else with a modicum of talent has been anxious to get out of that organization as quickly as possible for years. The six-year deal White signed is the longest anyone has committed to the Senators since Bobby Ryan.

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The question is simple then: Like Ryan, did White sign because it was an obvious overpay for a guy who had been propped up by All-World linemates?

People in Ottawa might scoff at the idea. White is, after all, a 22-year-old who put up 41 points in 71 games over his first NHL season. His underlying numbers were some of the best on the team last season, he was a 2015 first-round pick, and he should improve for at least two-thirds of the next six seasons, if not longer.

It’s a safe bet, then, to lock him up at a contract with an AAV that’s currently tied for 125th in the league in cap hits among forwards. By the end of the deal, based on what $4.75 million will probably buy you in 2026, you have to think he’ll be fairly valuable. But right now, I’m not convinced he’s a top-100 forward.

All this talk about him being a strong 200-foot player and a lock to be a top-six forward seems a bit premature to me for one simple reason: He played most of his minutes last season with one of the best players in the league and got a very charitable roll-out.

This isn’t to say that a rookie shouldn’t get a charitable roll-out with plenty of power play minutes. That only makes sense. You don’t want him killing penalties. But Stone was a destroyer of worlds last season and formed a potent alliance with White and Brady Tkachuk. White certainly contributed to their success, but to what extent?

Let’s put it this way: At 5-on-5 last season, White played with Stone more than anyone besides Tkachuk. In their 429ish minutes together, the Senators collected more than 61 percent of the expected goals. An insane number. But when he wasn’t on the ice with Stone, that expected-goals share dropped below 39 percent. And look, that’s probably because the most common other linemate the Tkachuk/White duo shared besides Stone was Chris Tierney, which is juuuuuuust a bit of a downgrade. But nevertheless, it’s a horrible number.

Stone also had a primary point on 15 of White’s 41 points. After he was traded, one goal and nine points in the last 15 games of the season. Maybe you say he became more of a facilitator than a shooter upon Stone’s departure. But after that point, the Senators gave him about a minute and a half more ice time per game at 5-on-5, and his expected-goals share dropped from 53.8 percent to just under 47.9 percent. I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence.

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Again, it’s not like White didn’t take a nice developmental step last season or that he won’t become a good player. It’s just that so much of what is perceived as his success story last season has to be filtered through the lens of, “He played the bulk of that season with one of the five best forwards in the league.” The same can be said of much of the success he enjoyed on the power play, as he got a bunch of time with Stone and Duchene, who had his own high-end scoring binge last season.

It is, of course, difficult to say what the Senators look like without all that traded-away talent to help White, Tkachuk, maybe even Thomas Chabot look great. This will certainly be a big sink-or-swim season for all the young players they’ve been drafting the last few years.

I’m not optimistic that White puts up the kind of numbers people in Ottawa expect. For want of better options, next season he’s probably the No. 1 guy with Tkachuk and one of Bobby Ryan or Drake Batherson on his wings. In that division, it’s easy to see where that plan goes sideways, even if you like Tkachuk and Batherson.

But this was a young player who wasn’t carving little tick marks into his stall, counting the days until he could get out of the organization. He was willing to commit long-term when few other people would (though it must be said he didn’t give up a ton of UFA years here, and the Senators once again locked in a guy who has a higher AAV than actual salary).

So this was a PR win for the club if nothing else. And after the last two years, maybe that’s all they wanted.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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