Coming into the 2015/16 season, there was a sense of optimism around the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their 2014/15 campaign was rife with injuries, even in the face of career seasons from Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno. The team added Brandon Saad in the off-season, and with hopes of a healthy campaign from the majority of the team, many, many, many, many outlets pegged the Jackets to return to the playoff picture.
That positivity ended about eight games into the season, after a pathetic 0-8-0 start, resulting in the firing of head coach Todd Richards. In one of the more mocked moves of the season, the team decided to willingly give up a second round pick in order to hitch their wagon to John Tortorella as their long-term coaching solution. It didn’t help. Lack of depth and blueline scoring, an entirely inadequate defense, Sergei Bobrovsky forgetting how to goalie for large stretches, and the continuation of the injury woes from 2014/15 wreaked havoc on the Blue Jackets, submarining the team before October was even through.
The team went on to finish 27th in the NHL, with a 34-40-8 record. Many will point to a marginal improvement under Tortorella (the team went 34-32-8 after his arrival), but while this is true in a literal sense (a zero per cent win-rate is hard not to improve on), it isn’t reassuring. The team as a whole showed very little in the way of steps forwards and positives for the future.
With an already aging core that is now one year older, and two seasons in a row lost to poor performance, it’s getting more difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel for this team.
Columbus has almost the entire core of their roster locked up for the foreseeable future, which sounds nice until you realize that the majority of the core is on the downswing of their careers. There are two or three anchor contracts on the books, and at least a couple other long-term deals which don’t seem terrible now but are going to look mighty poor in a couple of seasons.
The defense, which was the obvious weak point going into the 2015 offseason, was not addressed at all, leaving a group lead by an unproven Ryan Murray and containing a mish-mash of other guys who should not be considered top-four defenders. The team addressed the need somewhat by trading Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones in early January, in the process opening up a brand new gaping hole which now needs filling. Jones was very good for the Jackets, but the 21-year-old is in over his head carrying an entire team’s defense. Murray performed well post-Jones trade, but none of the other blueliners did anything to dissuade their critics. In addition to being sub-par defensively (20th in Shots For Percentage, 21st in Corsi For Percentage, and 22nd in Goals For Percentage), the blueline did next to nothing offensively, combining for just 118 points in 493 total man-games. Heck, Brent Burns (27) scored more goals than all 13 of the CBJ defenders combined (22). A drastic overhaul of the defense is needed in order for the team to move up in the standings.
This will be a struggle to achieve, as six of the team’s “top” seven defenders are slated to return next year, with Seth Jones’ RFA status being an entirely different problem. Dalton Prout was inexplicably signed to a multi-year extension despite being a replacement-level option at best. Fedor Tyutin, who put up three points in 61 games, still has multiple years left on his contract. David Savard’s $4.25 million per year extension hasn’t even kicked in yet! And this isn’t even mentioning noted anchor Jack Johnson.
Up front, Ryan Johansen scored a disappointing six goals in 38 games before being dealt to Nashville. Newly minted captain Nick Foligno’s shooting percentage predictably regressed from an astronomical 17% in 2014/15 to a well-below-career-norm 8 per cent, and his goal output dropped from 31 to 12. Scott Hartnell’s inconsistent and undisciplined play put him in Torts’ Doghouse towards the end of the year, despite his 23 goals and 49 points. Brandon Dubinsky was his usual self, with 17 goals and 48 points, but had to play large swaths of the season as the top centre on the team, which is above his ability level. Boone Jenner and Brandon Saad each notched 30 goals, and Cam Atkinson helped out with 27 of his own, but there was not enough of it to go around, especially in the bottom six. The 11 players who rotated bottom six minutes for the team combined to score just 45 goals.
In net, Sergei Bobrovsky is signed forever, and has yet to recapture the consistently strong play that earned him a Vezina in 2013. Factor in the constant injury struggles (51 games played in 2014/15, just 37 this year) and his $7.425 extension is looking less valuable by the day.
Columbus already has 42 players signed to NHL deals for next season, plus eight RFAs, bringing them to the max of 50 contracts before factoring in any possible UFA or prospect signings. On the NHL side of things, there are already 11 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies signed to one-way deals. Those 19 players have the team sitting at $67.3 million spent on the cap for 2016/17, with main roster RFAs William Karlsson and Seth Jones still looking for new deals.
General manager Jarmo Kekelainen and his management team have dug themselves a very deep hole. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to address the multitude of team needs with their current lack of flexibility.
Where to start? In trying to plug in their defensive gaps, the team opened up a new one up front, losing their top centre in Ryan Johansen, with no immediate option to replace him. It’s been suggested by some that the team look to draft a big centre to try and fill that role, but outside of Auston Matthews, there isn’t a plug-and-play option available. Trading down in hopes of acquiring a potential franchise centre later on in the first round is a terrible move in it’s own right, and certainly not something that will provide any sort of immediate help. The team could look to trade for a top C, but therein lies the cap flexibility problem: even if they could do it, they don’t have the cap space to make it work without a bunch of other off-setting moves.
Columbus needs a major re-assessment of their defense. While the blueline improved with the addition of Seth Jones, adding a 21-year-old and asking him to be your top offensive and defensive blueliner is a tall task. Ryan Murray and David Savard may have top pairing and top four potential, but both looked way over their heads for the majority of the season. Jack Johnson was ineffective in his minutes pre-injury, Fedor Tyutin and Dalton Prout combined to form a passable third pairing when it came to shot suppression, but neither is adept at transitioning the puck or playing any sort of meaningful minutes. It’s hard to believe that icing the same top six is going to result in any sort of drastically different results in the future.
The bottom six was unproductive and, outside of Matt Calvert during his limited stints there, the fourth line was an absolute wasteland at both ends of the rink. The prospect pool has enough depth that you could reasonably replace any of the current fourth liners with the likes of AHLers like Josh Anderson, Michael Chaput, Markus Hannikainen, or even Lukas Sedlak and not lose a whole lot in the way of results, while drastically cutting salary.
But it comes back to contracts and lack of maneuverability with them. Of the Blue Jackets currently signed players, it could be argued that as many as nine own cap killing deals. Of those nine, three are indisputably terrible: Clarkson, Tyutin and Boll. Boll’s deal can be either bought out or buried in the minors, but that will provide minimal cap relief. Clarkson is The Unmovable Object. Outside of a long-term injury reserve stint, he is not going anywhere. Tyutin might be able to be moved, but how much of a market is there for a $4.5 million-per-year, 32-year-old defensive defenseman with a ton of miles on him and two more years left on his deal? Scott Hartnell’s deal is going to look brutal in a couple of years, but he still provides enough value that a team might be inclined to give up a minor asset to acquire him.
Additional flexibility could be achieved by dealing a player like Jack Johnson, who has two years left on a relatively manageable $4.35 million per season. Sure, he’s not very good, comes with a bunch of off-ice baggage, and is coming off probably the worst season of his career, which ended in major shoulder surgery, but his salary is in line with that of an only-moderately-overpaid No. 3/No. 4 defender, so it’s possible that someone takes a chance on him.
Foligno, Dubinsky, Bobrovsky, and Savard are unlikely to be moved. They are “core” players and have all recently re-upped. I find it difficult to believe that management would find a suitable trade that returned enough value to justify moving any of them.
That leaves players like Gregory Campbell, Cam Atkinson, or Matt Calvert as the likeliest to move. They have reasonable deals, provide some value at different aspects of the game, and Atkinson and Calvert are still considered in their primes. The team has a surplus of young winger options, especially if they move forward with drafting Jesse Puljujarvi at third overall, so you’d be intrigued to see what kind of return they could fetch.
The team needs to find a way to sign Seth Jones to a long-term deal, buying his RFA years and a couple of UFA years. Morgan Rielly, a comparably-aged but higher-performing cohort, just re-upped for six years at $5 million per. It’s not ludicrous to think Jones tries to get $6.5+ million out of the Jackets, but is it entirely unreasonable to expect a contract around 6 years at $6 million per? That alone should fit under the Blue Jackets current cap with minimal moves, and would go a long way into determining how to handle the defense moving forward.
Top prospect Zach Werenski has transitioned well to the pros as an 18 year old, currently leading the Lake Erie Monsters in scoring with 4 goals and 6 assists in 9 games – good for 7th in the AHL, and 2nd among all defenders. He is likely to get a shot to start next season with the big club in a depth role. Having a defense of Jones, Murray, Savard, Werenski, and ideally another high-end option to play 20+ minutes a night would go a long way to improving that side of things.
The Jackets don’t have a surplus of 2016 draft picks, with only five currently. But they do have a strong crop of young talent, in players like Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel, Sonny Milano, and Oliver Bjorkstrand, Packaging picks, a contract, and one of these young forwards could result in a trade for immediate help at one of their biggest problem spots.
A best case scenario, shoot-for-the-stars off-season for Columbus would see them find a way to get rid of at least two contracts from the blueline, plus at least a couple of forwards, replacing them with a top pairing defender, a top line C, and some young players to fill the void.
That’s going to be easier said than done.
Previously in this series: