They could've mutually agreed to deal with it later, letting all the different scenarios that would've transpired play out. Each side was prepared for that possibility, but neither wanted it to happen.
The Blue Jackets wanted to keep him around long-term, because he's exactly the kind of guy you need if you're going to make deep playoff runs. Atkinson wanted to stay in Columbus, with the franchise that took him in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft, because this has become home for him - a place he and wife, Natalie, can forsee raising a family.
That's how deals like this ultimately get done, with both sides ultimately wanting the same thing enough to meet somewhere in the middle.
"The later you go with unrestricted free agents, the more you risk he's probably going to walk into free agency and you get nothing," said Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who completed the deal while attending the NHL's GM meetings in Montreal. "So, a player of this caliber, if we couldn't reach a deal, would probably be traded so that we wouldn't be wasting an asset."
It was hard to foresee the Blue Jackets trading Atkinson, because they're a talented young team that needs an experienced player of his caliber. He led them with 35 goals and 62 points last season, after all, and he plays on both special teams.
That brings us to Plan C, which also didn't fit with the Blue Jackets' big picture.
"There's always, of course, another option you consider, that you sort of rent him to yourself if you're having a very successful season, you're gearing up for the playoffs and you know for sure that you're going to be there," Kekalainen said. "But, at the same time, we're a young team and we're building. It's important to retain the assets that we have, and keep our core together."
It's the 'c' word, lowercase, in hockey parlance that is often the key to competing every season for the 'C' word - as in 'Cup,' upper case.
Building a roster around a core group of star talent is how you stay competitive in the championship business these days in the NHL's salary-cap world.
Brought into vogue by the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, who won the Stanley Cup five times between them in a span of six seasons, practically every team now uses a variation of this roster model - especially perennial Cup contenders.
Video: Cam Atkinson talks about his seven-year extension
It's how you survive in the cap era. It's also how you thrive, if you do it right.
This contract for Atkinson is how you do it right. There are a number of messages built into it, for Blue Jackets fans, the City of Columbus and Atkinson's teammates, but the one sent to the rest of the NHL is right at the top.
Columbus is officially one of those "core-group" type of teams now, and by retaining Atkinson at a manageable cap figure, they've added a key piece to their long-term puzzle.
The Blue Jackets inked their leading scorer from last season, who's right in his prime, for seven more years at an annual cost of $5.875 million against the cap. That's a good number for both sides. Take a glance around the league at players with similar numbers and experience, and you'll see why.
Or just listen to Columbus coach John Tortorella.
"He wants to win," Tortorella said of Atkinson. "Sometimes players … they want to win, but they want every last cent when there's a few other guys coming up in line in another year or another two years to keep this building, especially with such a young team. So, I'm encouraged by that."
It's a nice raise for Atkinson, but it's a workable cap hit for Blue Jackets, who have some other big contract negotiations looming in the next year or two. If the goal is to establish a championship-worthy core group, this kind of deal is critical.
There were multiple factors that went into it, but the actual hockey part was a big one. It was what the Blue Jackets banked on, knowing Atkinson could've just waited for free agency and likely cashed in for more elsewhere.
"We would like to take pride in thinking that we're a good team, a team that players want to play for, because we are a good team," Kekalainen said. "We're a competitive team, and we're only going to get better. Of course, the City of Columbus is a great city to live in, and raise a family, and Cam just recently got married and is starting to build a family … but from the hockey point of view, the players want to win and they want to play for good teams."
Good teams are those with strong leadership from top to bottom, who make their goal each season to win the Stanley Cup. Good teams are those that are strong despite the constrictions of the salary cap, year after year.
Columbus is becoming one of those teams now, and the proof is in this contract.
"I think that our organization is in a good place right now, from the ownership down," Kekalainen said. "I think we have great leadership from their arm, and they allow us to do the work in a way where we give ourselves a chance to win the Stanley Cup here in the near future."
Atkinson said the same thing several times over Friday. Each time he did, it came out with more conviction.
"Our time to win a Stanley Cup is now," he told BlueJackets.com, shortly after the news was officially announced. "I feel like Columbus is one of the best options to win a Stanley Cup, and what better way than to be one of those guys who helps bring a Cup to Columbus?"
Several hours later, his tone had only strengthened.
"At the end of the day, that's why you're playing the game," Atkinson said. "If I'm comfortable enough to tell the media that this is my goal, to bring a Stanley Cup [here], then yeah, especially on a young team [it's OK to say it] … we're a team that goes into these games expecting to win. We expect to make it to the playoffs. We're expecting to win a Stanley Cup now. That's one of the main reasons I signed here, as well, because we can win a Stanley Cup with this group."
All it took to prove was a signature.