The Olympic break is just that. A nice little break to take stock of the season so far. Looking back so far over the season, there are really two Blue Jackets squads. There is the injury riddled, under-performing bunch from the start of the year. Then there is the top ten team from the last couple months. Is any of this really that surprising though? We knew Nathan Horton would be out to start the year. We knew Sergei Bobrovsky would regress. We knew this was one of the youngest rosters in the league, one that had barely played together over the last couple of years. That has all the makings of a slow start.
However, the first few months of the year probably went worse than would be expected. Just check out the Jackets’ goal differential from the first few months (where they played like a borderline playoff team, with only a -2 goal differential through December 22nd), to now, where they have played like a legit playoff team (currently +9, good for 10th in the NHL). So injuries plus weak goaltending provides results worse than should be expected. That’s all the makings for a turnaround. Aka the last two months are not a fluke.
So where do we go from here? I’ve got two views of it. The first, to follow in this post, is the small picture. It’s the trade deadline and this current offseason. You can’t fully discuss one without talking about the other. Player re-signings, rentals, prospects, draft picks; they are all just so intertwined, it makes sense to discuss both. The other view is the big picture, coming later this week. It’s based around a not-so-simple question: who do the Blue Jackets want to be?
With that being said, let’s look back to the current roster. Per CapGeek , the Jackets are currently sitting on around $2.5m in cap space, although they will have about $4m by the deadline. That means they can add up to that much in salary without sending any out. Basically, unless the Jackets are targeting one of a handful of premium rentals, they don’t need to move out anyone of significance. This picture gets even rosier this offseason. The team will have about $22m in cap space for next year, with ten forwards, four defensemen, one goalie signed. That is a lot of room to work with, and considering the young age of the roster, GM Jarmo Kekelainen and President John Davidson can take this team in just about any direction they want. I’m not Jarmo or JD, but here is the direction I would like to see them take, broken down by player status.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents
The first and most pressing group to deal with. The UFA’s are guys who either need to be re-signed or they will be lost this summer. I find the discussion around this group interesting, as there are many in the CBJ world who want to move one or more of these players before the trade deadline. I don’t get that. This is a playoff team. A top ten team. Teams like that don’t move players as rentals. Let’s look at the players one by one for further detail.
Marian Gaborik – The biggest name on this list. Yes, the Jackets gave up a lot to get him. No, he hasn’t done much to justify the expenditure. Yes, losing him for nothing this summer would sting. However, none of that is a valid reason to go trade him away as a rental. The value just won’t be there. Moving him out likely means the Jackets then have to pick up a forward at the deadline to fill his roster spot. He’s been hurt over the recent surge, but the team has gotten by with a couple of players playing over their heads, which should not be counted on in the playoffs, and as such they are very susceptible to at least one top nine injury. Keep Gaborik, think of him as a pseudo-deadline acquisition, and try and re-sign him to a one-year “prove it” contract. Even with the salary cap jumping to $71m this summer I doubt anyone will be offering him significant long term money. His price tag for next year will probably be in the $6m range, but for a single year it’s worth it. The risk is low, and with Kerby Rychel and Alexander Wennberg coming up the pipe, he only needs to give them one year of production to bridge that gap.
Derek MacKenzie – On a healthy Blue Jackets squad, DMac is probably the 12/13th best forward. That is ideal. He works hard, is a solid penalty killer, and can chip in with a little offense every now and then. Re-signing him shouldn’t be a priority though. Derek Mackenzie’s can be found quite easily. Hell, DMac himself was a 29 year old career minor leaguer with only 64 NHL games under his belt (compared to 550 games in the minors) when he broke in full time with the Jackets. Instead of spending a couple million on MacKenzie, go and find the next Derek MacKenzie.
Blake Comeau – See above. His pre-Columbus story is a little different, but the result is the same. He was bought at the lowest of the low (claimed off waivers from Calgary [EDITOR’s NOTE: Comeau was actually acquired from Calgary for a 5th round pick]) and has worked his way into being a solid depth forward. Like DMac, he’s a 12/13th forward when everyone is healthy. He’s not a priority to re-sign, but if he can be kept for another $1m, 1 year deal, go right ahead.
Nikita Nikitin - The second most interesting UFA. He wasn’t as bad last season as most probably think, and he’s been solid again this year. He’s not a flashy guy by any means, just consistently good. He’s a 2nd/3rd pair defenseman, probably a 3rd pair guy on a contender. But he’s also a Russian Olympian. I could see him as the target of some pretty decent coin from the KHL this summer, in which case I’d let him walk and have Tim Erixon fill in the gap. I wouldn’t move him at the deadline, unless it was in a package for an upgrade, as I’m not sure the stretch run is the time to hand the keys over the Erixon.
Curtis McElhinney - He stays for now, just because no one would trade anything of value for him. He’s a good story though. Another guy who was bought low on (he was contract filler in the Klesla/Vermette deal), then ended up providing value. I think making him the backup goalie was a mistake, but hopefully we are past that mattering too much now. There will be better options on the market this summer, and pending how the goalie carousel plays out, I could see CMac coming back on a two-way to be the third goalie.
Jack Skille, Cody Bass & Mike McKenna - Hey, they played for the Blue Jackets this year. They can be brought back, or could be replaced by younger versions of themselves. I’d prefer an upgrade on McKenna (think CMac last year) as the third goalie, but having guys like Bass and Skille in the minors is nice. Especially Skille, as having a guy with that skill in the minors shows youngsters there just how hard it is to make the NHL.
Pending Restricted Free Agents
Ryan Johansen - Obvious. You re-sign him. Less obvious is what kind of deal you go for here. If I’m the Blue Jackets, I’m pushing for a three year bridge deal. He’s still only 21 years old, and I’d rather have the option of keeping him until he’s 31 (bridge deal to age 24, then a max length deal), then signing him to a seven year deal now, and making him a 28 year old unrestricted free agent. With the direction the cap is going now, I would probably expect a three year deal to come in around the $6M range. Sounds high, but it could be an absolute bargain by year three of the deal, and he’d still only be an RFA.
Corey Tropp – Tropp walks after the year. Actually, he might not even make it that far when everyone gets healthy. He’s probably the 15th forward and might have to hit the waiver wire when/if every forward gets healthy. He’s been a good soldier, but Tropp’s are a dime a dozen (ala MacKenzie and Comeau above, but not quite as useful).
David Savard – I would be bringing Savard back on a short term, one-way deal. He’s proved himself to be an NHL defenseman, but I’d like to see him be more than a 6th/7th defenseman before I’m giving him too much money.
Dalton Prout – I think Prout is where Savard was last summer. Looked to be well on his way, then regression, and questions about his NHL future. A one-year two way deal is in the cards, and those two are probably fighting for the 6th and 7th spots.
Cody Goloubef - Goloubef has been fine at the NHL level, but I’m not sure he’s anything more than depth. He’s kind of perfect for the spot he’s in now, and as a restricted free agent, he’s probably stuck in Springfield again next year, with a couple cups of coffee in Columbus.
Tim Erixon - Erixon is too good for the AHL right now, yet can’t seem to get into the lineup in Columbus. My belief is this has more to do with him being a left-handed shot (along with most of the other Columbus d-men) than any lack of trust from the coaching staff. I would imagine the path is being paved for Erixon to walk into a roster spot next year. This makes this offseason interesting in terms of re-signing him. He’s 23 now, so a three year deal keeps him an RFA at the end of it. Erixon would have to clear waivers to play in Springfield next season, so signing him to a two-way deal doesn’t make much sense. Lock him into a cheap-ish three year deal. He might be overpaid next year, but could be a bargain by year two or three.
So I pretty much said re-sign everyone of significance. Also known as, “don’t sell off anyone at the deadline”. I do think there is a move to be made, however. I’m still not sold on Savard/Prout as the answer this year on the third pair. I’d like to see the team pick up a reliable right-handed defenseman. The name that pops out to me is Tom Gilbert in Florida. A 31 year old veteran of over 500 NHL games has quietly put together a solid season (25 points, -5 in 58 games) with the dreadful Panthers. He only makes $900,000 this year, so there are no issues fitting him in salary-wise. He’s a clear rental, and a depth player at that, so the price is probably a mid-level prospect and a 3rd round pick. The Jackets have a pretty sizable group of mid-level prospects, so I would be willing to move one if it brings in Gilbert.
So with everyone healthy and Gilbert added, what do the lines look like? Here is what I would run with:
Foligno – Johansen – Horton
Umberger – Anisimov – Gaborik
Jenner – Dubinsky – Atkinson
Calvert – MacKenzie – Letestu
The top line is basically the Johansen line that was tearing it up earlier in the year, but with Horton as a huge upgrade on Umberger. Umberger has been quietly very good this year, and I think his muscle would be a good fit alongside Gaborik and Anisimov. Those three guys can be hit or miss, so playing them together can be nice, as if they are clearly not going on any given night, you can just scale back all of their ice time together. Jenner-Dubinsky-Atkinson would be a bitch to play against but have just enough offensive fire to be dangerous. Finally, the fourth line is tiny, but all three of those guys play 200 foot games, and have the ability to pop in a goal or two. If you really need some extra size, there are three bigger plugger types ready and waiting.
For the defense:
Murray – Wisniewski
Tyutin – Johnson
Nikitin – Gilbert
Not a lot of change here, but having Gilbert on that third pair really makes me feel better about the whole thing. Murray and Wisniewski have been good together most of the year, and hopefully the time off will allow the Wiz to recover and get back on track. If Johnson can keep up his post-Olympic announcement play over the rest of the year, then that pair can continue to eat up minutes. That leaves a third pair that is just all around solid at the game of hockey. Nothing spectacular, but Nikitin and Gilbert are decent enough puckmovers and defenders to never be liabilities.
With Sergei Bobrovsky back in form, this is a roster primed to pick up the 2nd or 3rd seed in the Metro division. That means a first round matchup against either the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers. Those are both very winnable series, either of which would mean a one-time Blue Jackets hero returning to Nationwide for two to four games. Follow that with a second round series against Pittsburgh, and you have the recipe for a lot of buzz around this squad heading into the offseason.
Next seasons roster
With everything above falling into place, the Jackets would be in an interesting spot. The team would be sitting on about $7.5m in cap space, have 13 NHL forwards, 6 NHL defensemen and one goalie under contract. That leaves Jarmo in the drivers seat come July. He can be aggressive and go after Matt Moulson or Paul Stastny to beef up the forward corps. Or he could go after Dan Girardi or Matt Niskanen to replace Wisniewski as a big minute righthanded dman. That would relegate Wiz to the third pair at even strength, and allow him the space to flourish offensively while still rocking the PP.
If it were me though, I would be patient. There are a lot of good buy low candidates this year. I’d wait out the market, and scoop up whoever of Devin Setoguchi, Mike Cammalleri, Milan Michalek, Dave Bolland or Ales Hemsky falls through the cracks. Just on a cheap, one-year “prove it” contract, ala the Gaborik deal mentioned earlier. I’d like to see how the Girardi market plays out, but if he can be had for cheap enough, he’d be a great fit. If not, Tom Gilbert, Derek Morris, and Stephane Robidas could also sneak through the cracks and be brought in. All three are rock solid veteran righthanded shots.
The one move I would be making for certain would be an upgrade in net. Curtis McElhinney is just not good enough. He’s fine in a spot start here and there, but he can’t carry a team if Bob goes down. Fortunately, there is a wealth of goaltending available this summer, particularly in the backup range. When the goalie musical chairs stop, I’m sure one of Ben Scrivens, Justin Peters, Anton Khudobin, Brian Elliott, JS Giguere, or Devan Dubnyk will be left without a seat. Scoop one of them up on a one year deal. Or wait and see how the starting goalie market plays out. Is Scrivens grabs a starting job, and Ryan Miller fills another hole, I could easily see Jonas Hiller or Jaroslav Halak shut out of a starting role. Anaheim already has two goalies on one-way contracts for next year, and if Ryan Miller lands in St. Louis this offseason, they would be all set as well (Jake Allen is on a one-way as well). My ideal offseason for the Jackets? Girardi, Bolland, and Khudobin might come in around the $7.5m in cap space if the market breaks right for the team, fill the needed holes and really bring the ceiling of this team up a notch.
If you are still reading this, I applaud you. I said a lot of words here. But there is a lot to be said about where this team is right now. It is an enviable situation, as the team has a great combination of young veterans, high upside youngsters, talented prospects on the way, and salary cap space. They have the three most vital positions filled, with a franchise center, franchise defenseman and franchise goalie, all of whom are 25 or younger. So there’s my take on the small picture – the current questions facing the Blue Jackets organization.
Join me later in the week to review the big picture, the larger philosophical questions the CBJ leadership needs to answer.