Rick Nash. The second overall pick. Goaltending. Defensive defenseman. Top six forwards. What do all of these have in common? I have talked about them ad nauseam over the last couple months. They all represent something that will change from the current incarnation of the Blue Jackets, to the team who takes the ice opening night. I’ve probably discussed hundreds of versions of the Nash trade; I’ve written two mock drafts; talked endlessly about Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan Murray, Mikhail Grigorenko, et al; I’ve reviewed every UFA goaltenders statistics dozens of times; and spent far too many hours playing with the CapGeek.com Cap Calculator. So I thought I would take all that time and make it useful. I put together the moves I would make if I was running the Blue Jackets, including the Nash trade, who I would take in the draft, what free agents I would sign, and one more surprise trade that I like and I imagine every other Jackets fan will hate.
Before/During the Draft
Rick Nash to the New York Rangers for Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, the negotiating rights to Brandon Prust, New York’s 2012 1st round pick and a conditional 3rd round pick (received if Prust can’t be signed)
We know New York was the biggest player for Nash during the season. We also know that New York had a very good team this season that could not score enough when it counted. The addition of Nash and emergence of Chris Kreider makes Dubinsky expendable. Similarly, the emergence of Ryan McDonagh this season renders Staal expendable (or at least movable), and the Rangers have uberprospect Tim Erixon ready to take his place in the line-up. Prust is an unrestricted free agent who is a bigger, better version of Derek Dorsett. A checking line featuring Prust and Dorsett would immediately become one of the most difficult lines for opponents to play against in the league. Both are responsible defensively, adept penalty killers, and willing to drop the mitts with anyone. Value-wise, this is probably somewhat equal to what the Rangers offered for Nash at the trade deadline. While a lot has been made of Rick Nash’s price tag, this trade would only cost the Rangers approximately $1m against the cap, as Nash, Erixon & Kreider ($7.8m, $1.75m, $1.375m, total of $10.925m) will cost only slightly more than Dubinsky, Staal & Prust would next season ($4.2m, $3.975m & ~$1.6m, total of $9.775m). I can picture Glen Sather imagining a Nash-Richards-Gaborik line and pulling the trigger on this deal. As for the Blue Jackets, they bring back an All Star calibre defensive defenseman, a proven top six forward, a valuable depth forward and a 1st round pick. That’s a pretty good bounty for Nash.
The 2nd overall pick, Mark Letestu & Columbus’ 3rd round pick to the Edmonton Oilers for the 1st overall pick & Eric Belanger
It seems fairly clear that the Edmonton Oilers want to draft Ryan Murray. It’s also clear that Nail Yakupov is the consensus best player available. With the acquisition of Staal, it would make no sense for the Blue Jackets to draft Murray. The addition of Staal would give Columbus an expensive, but very good set of defensemen, all of whom are under the age of 30. What the team needs is a dynamic forward who can put the puck in the net. Yakupov is by far the most dynamic goal scorer available in the draft. While the Blue Jackets could wait and see if the Oilers stand pat and take Murray at #1, the safer move would be to move up and make sure Yakupov ends up in Union Blue. With the clutter of defenseman available in the top ten, I would be afraid that someone would make Edmonton a godfather offer to move up and take the Sarnia Sting sniper. The last time the Blue Jackets moved up to 1st overall, they landed Rick Nash and only had to give Florida the right to swap 1st round picks the next season. While that trade would be possible, I like the trade outlined above. Letestu gives Edmonton a younger, cheaper, higher scoring depth forward and Columbus gets back a solid veteran checking forward who is a bit overpriced. That alone might get the deal done, but I would be willing to add up to a 3rd round pick to secure Yakupov.
Cam Atkinson & Kings/Rangers 1st round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Jordan Staal
This is the trade I figure everyone will hate. I love Cam Atkinson, I really do. However, the acquisition of another Staal brother is too good to pass up. The Penguins are very likely to move Staal this season. He is an unrestricted free agent after next year and it is believed that he wants to get out from under the shadows of Malkin and Crosby. I will be very surprised if Pittsburgh does not move Staal this summer. Most speculation has Staal heading to Carolina, as he wants to play with his brother. A Staal to Columbus trade only works in the wake of the Nash trade outlined above. Bringing in both Staal brothers gives Columbus a very marketable duo, who both have All Star ability. Further, the addition of Jordan Staal cements an identity in this team, something that has been missing at Nationwide since the days of Ken Hitchcock. The Blue Jackets forwards would be filled with physical, two-way players. They would be extremely tough to play against, and filled with a lot of guys who never take a night off.
Re-sign Nikita Nikitin (~$2.5m), recently acquired Brandon Prust (~$1.6m), Aaron Johnson (~$550k), Darryl Boyce (~$550k), Mark Dekanich (2-way contract) & Shawn Hunwick (2-way contract)
Nikitin was secretly the Blue Jackets best defenseman last year. He combined with Fedor Tyutin to be one of the best defensive shutdown pairings in the NHL. He has a very fun name to say. I would be trying to lock him down for around the $2.5 million mark for the next few seasons. Nikitin is arbitration eligible, but that should work in Columbus’ favor, as Nikitin has a poor track record prior to this season, which is valued in the arbitration process. Brandon Prust should command about the same amount as Derek Dorsett, given their similar roles, age and statistics. Johnson and Boyce might be controversial, but they are depth moves. Aaron Johnson was surprisingly good this year (something I will be tackling with a later post) and is a very capable 7th defenseman. The acquisition of Staal and re-signing of Nikitin means John Moore can get another year of seasoning in the AHL to work on his offensive game. He would be the 7th defenseman in essence, as he could be recalled from Springfield whenever the injury bug strikes. This would mean that Aaron Johnson would only play in emergency situations or if more than two defensemen are injured (Moore and Savard would be the first two put into the line-up).
As for Boyce, with the moves made so far he would be the 13th or 14th forward. I liked what he brought to the 4th line at the end of last season, and as a fill in playing 5-15 games, I don’t mind him. Like Moore/Savard being the call-ups over playing Aaron Johnson; Tomas Kubalik, Matt Calvert & Michael Chaput could be the guys brought up if someone is hurt long-term. While Dekanich was a bust of major proportions this season, he was fantastic in the AHL the two years prior. With two injury prone goalies that could be brought back on two-way deals to play with Allen York in the AHL, I would rather keep the potential of the 26-year-old Dekanich than the 32-year-old Curtis Sanford. With Mathieu Corbeil not being signed, Hunwick should be brought back to tend goal in the ECHL.
Sign Josh Harding (~$2.5m) and Scott Clemmensen (~$1.0m) in unrestricted free agency
While it would be fantastic to bring in Roberto Luongo, I really don’t see him waiving his no-trade clause to come here. I would be surprised if he doesn’t end up in Tampa Bay. That really only leaves Columbus and Toronto in dire need of a starting goaltender. That’s a good thing too, as only Tomas Vokoun and Josh Harding would be left as starting caliber goaltenders in free agency. While I wouldn’t be against seeing Vokoun in a Blue Jackets jersey, the 27-year-old Harding is the guy I would target. Harding was fantastic (13-12-4, 2.62 GAA, .917 SV%) this season in Minnesota backing up Niklas Backstrom. He had the roughest go of any goaltender in the NHL last season, all while making only $750k. Vokoun may be more proven as a starter, but Harding is the better bet as a starter moving forward. As for Clemmensen, you could swap him out with a number of unrestricted free agent goaltenders. Dan Ellis, Alex Auld, Martin Biron, Brent Johnson, Antero Niittymaki, Chris Mason, Jonas Gustavsson, Johan Hedberg, Al Montoya & Andrew Raycroft would all provide about the same calibre of goaltending for $1m or less.
Let Kristian Huselius, Jared Boll, Radek Martinek & Curtis Sanford go as free agents
These four players varied greatly in their contributions to the Blue Jackets last season, but they have their injury problems in common. Huselius and Martinek barely played last season and the acquisitions outlined above means there is no need to bring them back. Jared Boll is ineffective as a player, his hand issues make him ineffective as a fighter, and the addition of Prust makes him even more expendable than he already is. Curtis Sanford performed admirably this season, but he’s up there in age and has been injury prone. Harding and Clemmensen means Sanford can explore other options during this summers version of goalie musical chairs.
Waive Steve Mason
Steve Mason needs a change of scenery. However, I really don’t see Mason having very much trade value. I would keep Mason, bring him to training camp and have him battle with Scott Clemmensen for the back-up job. If Mason greatly outperforms Clemmenson, great. While not ideal, the New York Islanders had a three member goalie situation this season, showing it can be done. If Clemmensen outperforms Mason in camp, waive Mason and allow him a full year in Springfield. This would mean Harding-Clemmensen in the NHL, Mason-Dekanich in the AHL, and York-Hunwick in the ECHL. As we learned this season, you can never have too much goaltending depth. A year in the AHL may be the wake up call Mason needs to get his game back in gear. Worst case scenario he is terrible in the AHL and the team can let him walk after the season. Best case scenario, he gets his game back on track and then can be re-signed to back-up Harding for the 2013-14 season, or traded elsewhere for more than he’s worth now.
This brings us to opening night of the 2012-13 NHL season. What would the Blue Jackets roster look like? A top line of RJ Umberger-Jordan Staal-Brandon Dubinsky would be able to play big minutes against tough competition and still be good for at least 20 goals a player. The second line of Vinny Prospal-Derick Brassard-Nail Yakupov would be dynamic offensively, fantastic on the powerplay, and could be sheltered by Todd Richards with offensive zone starts against easy competition. The third and fourth lines could go a number of ways. I would sit Ryan Johansen down before training camp and tell him that he needs a very good camp to not end up in Springfield. I think a stint in Springfield could show Johan just how difficult it is to play in the NHL. Hopefully that would get his effort level up and get him to dedicate himself to better defensive play. If Johan does these things, I would go with a Brandon Prust-Eric Belanger-Ryan Johansen third line. This would provide a lot of grit, solid defensive play, as well as being capable of 10-15 goals a player. If Johan ends up in Springfield, Derek Dorsett would slot in alongside Prust and Belanger on a solid two-way, sandpaper line. The fourth line of Ryan Russell-Derek Mackenzie-Derek Dorsett would provide a lot of energy and good defensive play. Colton Gillies and Darryl Boyce would be the spare forwards. The team could easily roll the top two lines on the powerplay, and Staal, Dubinsky, Umberger, Prust, Belanger, Dorsett, Russell and Mackenzie are all experienced, capable penalty killers.
On defense, I would pair Marc Staal and James Wisniewski on the top pairing. Staal is a capable shutdown defender and Wiz is the better defensive half of the “Controlled Chaos” pairing from this season, and better able to play against top competition. On the second pair, I would keep Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin together in the shutdown role they had this year. They really excelled in extremely tough minutes, and using them exclusively against opponents best players and in defensive zone starts would free up Staal-Wisniewski and Methot-Johnson to play more offensive minutes. Marc Methot-Jack Johnson would be the third pair in name only, as they would be better than most teams second pairing. Methot is the kind of stay at home player Johnson needs to play with, and would allow him to be very dynamic offensively. At even strength I would play these players fairly even minutes. Wisniewski-Johnson would continue to play big powerplay minutes, with Nikitin, Tyutin & Staal splitting the second pair minutes. Shorthanded, I would play Methot-Staal and Tyutin-Nikitin big minutes, keeping the offensive minded Johnson and Wisniewski on the bench.
As for the goaltenders, I would expect Josh Harding to see 55-65 starts, with Clemmenson subbing in when needed. Unless of course Mason has a great training camp/preseason, then I would divvy up the starts about 55 to Harding, 15 to Mason, and 12 to Clemmensen.
This roster might not be a playoff team next season, but they would probably be in the hunt. This team would have an identity, one of grit, physicality & two-way play. They would also be young, and feature a very nice forward core of Jordan Staal, Nail Yakupov, Brandon Dubinsky, Derick Brassard & Ryan Johansen, and feature six under 30 defenseman who would be top four players on most teams. Only Prospal, Belanger and Clemmensen are over the age of 30. A trip to CapGeek.com shows what this roster looks like money-wise. With the NHL salary cap expected to jump to $70.3m next season, the Blue Jackets roster as constructed would be more than $8.5m below the cap, with under $58m in actual salary being paid out. That is a realistic number that Columbus management could probably live with. Further, they would be in very good shape cap-wise moving forward, as Jordan Staal & Vinny Prospal would be the only key players entering free agency in 2013. Staal would require a raise, but would probably re-sign to play with his brother as a number one centre, and Prospal would either retire or continue his handshake arrangement with the Jackets. In either case, these three trades and two free agent signings would create a talented, young roster that should re-ignite the fanbase and compete for the playoffs in the years to come.
View this roster at http://capgeek.com/cap-calculator/roster.php?id=4735
R.J. Umberger ($4.600m) / Jordan Staal ($4.000m) / Brandon Dubinsky ($4.200m)
Vinny Prospal ($2.500m) / Derick Brassard ($3.200m) / Nail Yakupov ($3.975m)
Brandon Prust ($1.600m) / Eric Belanger ($1.750m) / Ryan Johansen ($1.945m)
Ryan Russell ($0.700m) / Derek MacKenzie ($1.000m) / Derek Dorsett ($1.633m)
Colton Gillies ($0.625m) / Darryl Boyce ($0.550m) /
Marc Staal ($3.975m) / James Wisniewski ($5.500m)
Fedor Tyutin ($4.500m) / Nikita Nikitin ($2.500m)
Marc Methot ($3.000m) / Jack Johnson ($4.357m)
Aaron Johnson ($0.550m) /
Josh Harding ($2.500m)
Scott Clemmensen ($1.000m)
Mike Commodore ($1.542m)
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled without the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $70,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $61,702,142; BONUSES: $4,075,000
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): $8,597,858