With the 2019-20 NHL season firmly in the rearview mirror for the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s time we turn our attention to the upcoming offseason. It will be a bit strange, since it’s in the fall and it’s shorter than usual, but the feel is that Columbus is ready to make a move to shake things up a bit.
The priorities for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen are clear – Columbus needs offense. In this most recent shortened season, the CBJ scored 180 goals in 70 games, which was fourth-worst in the entire league only ahead of the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, and Detroit Red Wings. Additionally, no one on the team scored more than 50 points this season, something only basement teams like the San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators can say.
The other thing Columbus needs, like really needs, is some power-play help. Since John Tortorella has taken over, the CBJ PP has been at or near the basement of the league nearly the whole time. Five seasons is a long time to be that bad on the man advantage. The one season where they impressed was 2016-17, when a resurgent Sam Gagner played the bumper spot to a 50-point year and bright young center Alexander Wennberg seemed to be emerging as an offensive force, scoring 59 points as a 22-year old. Over the three years since, the PP ranks dead last at 16.3 percent. Strange, the passage of time.
Columbus still found themselves in the playoffs thanks to excellent defense and incredible goaltending but going forward they will need more help up front if they’re going to become a real threat. Other teams like the Stars and New York Islanders play similar styles and aren’t goal-happy, but they have talent like Matt Barzal, Tyler Seguin or Anders Lee you can count on for goals.
Options for Reinforcements
Now, that sort of talent doesn’t just fall into your lap on the trade market generally, unless you’re lucky enough to steal a player like that in a lopsided trade. For instance, and we’ll just make up a wild scenario that would never happen, if you’re a GM in Chicago named Stan Bowman who calls, I don’t know…Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus and offers him Artemi Panarin. Crazy, though. Never happens.
Now, you can theoretically score a solution at even strength and on the power play with one trade or player. The free-agent market this summer will have options like Taylor Hall, who would be an immediate help, Mike Hoffman who has a bomb from the right dot on the power play, Tyler Toffoli should he leave Vancouver, and a few more. But, it’s unsafe to bet on free agency and that’s where the majority of all bad contracts come from. Looking at you, July 1, 2016…and Jim Benning.
Additionally, with no second- or third-round picks this year, an offer sheet is equally unlikely despite my utmost interest in throwing one at Tampa for Anthony Cirelli. So then what’s left?
A trade is more likely in my opinion. The salary cap will be flat for at least the next few years, but in the right situation for the right players you can always move money in our out. Currently, the Blue Jackets are projected to have just $5,067,101 in cap space to sign RFAs Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kevin Stenlund, Devin Shore, Vladislav Gavrikov, Gabriel Carlsson and Josh Anderson. If Brandon Dubinsky’s $5,850,000 deal can be moved, that will go a long way towards helping – but that would likely include moving a prospect too. Don’t rule it out, though.
Plenty of teams in the league right now have too much offense and need help on defense or in net, and the Blue Jackets conveniently have plenty of talent there. THW’s Mark Scheig talked about setting some realistic expectations this offseason in Columbus, but…let’s have some fun.
To start, we know Columbus will be dealing from their blue line, which is their position of strength. Teams will call and ask about Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, obviously. I don’t think there’s any chance Jones is dealt, and I think it’s nearly equally unlikely Werenski is moved. However, Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara, Dean Kukan, Gabriel Carlsson and David Savard will likely all be on the table for the right price.
I highlighted here how Andrew Peeke seems ready to play top-four minutes on the right side, and with Savard approaching free agency after this upcoming season and nearing 30 years old, it unfortunately might be the big bearded shot-blocking machine on the move (I know, I’d hate to see him go too). We know Jarmo is not afraid to pull the trigger on a big deal, but who would be a good trade partner this offseason? And what players should Columbus target?
Who Should Columbus Call?
So who are some logical trade partners? Ironically, the first and perhaps most logical trade partner is the team whose season the Jackets ended just a few weeks ago – the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto’s high-powered offense hit the Joonas Korpisalo wall and GM Kyle Dubas is looking to change the look of his blue line. He isn’t wasting any time either, already trading winger Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh to get an extra $3.5 million in cap space.
It’s rumored Pierre Engvall and Andreas Johnsson might be available, but Columbus should absolutely prioritize going for William Nylander. It doesn’t sound like he’s available unless the price is right and Toronto gets a sure-fire top-four defenseman to play with Morgan Rielly, but Columbus can absolutely do that with David Savard.
With rumors that the Leafs aren’t married to Frederik Andersen, and first-hand experience of trying to score on Joonas Korpisalo, a goalie could also be a part of a deal with Dubas – but only if it nets you a player of Nylander’s calibre. I think it’s likely Dubas gives his big four of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander another season, but a trade here makes a lot of sense.
Moving across Canada, the Calgary Flames seem like a logical partner, too. There’ve been rumors for a few seasons now that Johnny Gaudreau wants to come back out East, and with his disappointing playoff production seemingly running GM Brad Treliving out of patience, a shakeup could happen. Both Gaudreau and top center Sean Monahan have had their names in the rumor mill for a bit, but Gaudreau would be the obvious target for Columbus. An elite puck carrier in transition and a fantastic playmaker, it’s Gaudreau, not Monahan, who drives the Flames’ top line.
It’s likely that a deal for Gaudreau would take multiple pieces, but if Columbus decides to move on from Josh Anderson instead of re-signing him, which is the rumor out there, a package of Anderson, a goalie, and a defenseman seems like a good starting point for Johnny Hockey, who will have two seasons left on his deal. Again, I think it’s more than likely Treliving holds onto his chips for another year, since I think he’s fired next summer unless they advance in the playoffs, but players like Gaudreau do not come around often in trades and he would be an absolute perfect fit for Columbus.
There’s another possible partner in Western Canada. The Winnipeg Jets are in dire need of blue line help, as they would have been an absolute basement team this year without the heroic goaltending of Connor Helleybuck. Defensemen Dylan DeMelo, Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa and Dimitri Kulikov are all UFAs too which compounds their needs, but the real priority there is DeMelo as he’s the only top-four calibre blueliner.
Both Nikolaj Ehlers and, recently, Patrik Laine have been rumored to be names out there. While he’s proven pretty one-dimensional, I think it would be a colossal mistake for them to trade Laine – a player that young with clear 50-goal potential, you bet on that every time, so I’ll believe a trade is there when I see it. The more likely of the two is Ehlers, who is by far the better all-around player and again what Columbus wants. He’s elite in transition, he can create opportunities for scorers like Atkinson and is affordable, at $6 million for the next five years.
There are plenty of teams out there that will need to trade players to alleviate cap issues (Tampa), and lots of teams could use a David Savard on the blue line (Edmonton), but Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg all make so much sense as trade partners. Plus, Jarmo has a tendency to keep things very close to the vest and has pulled massive blockbuster trades out of the blue before, so don’t be surprised if a move materializes with an unexpected team.
The Blue Jackets have a burgeoning young star in Pierre-Luc Dubois, and a few studs on defense with Jones and Werenski. But Jones will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and if Columbus wants to keep him in town, they need to show they’re committed to winning and make a move for scoring help this offseason. Youngsters Liam Foudy, Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom have impressed early, and exciting young prospects Kirill Marchenko and Dmitri Voronkov are poised to be impact players in a few seasons.
But a few seasons doesn’t help the 2020-21 Blue Jackets. They have assets that other teams need, and they desperately need scoring if they want to continue to contend. Jarmo should start that search by calling Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg, but regardless, we should be in for an interesting offseason.