The coach has been fired. The general manager is on record stating that he'll be active leading up to the trade deadline. With the Jackets dead last in the NHL with little to no chance of making the playoffs, a roster overhaul is necessary.
The team has a handful of UFAs, and some players with contracts that go beyond this season who could/should be dealt. Let's take a look at some of the changes that could take place between now and the deadline.
Right off the bat, there are some issues with trying to trade some of these players to a contending team. Huselius and Martinek have been out for a bulk, if not all of the season. Aaron Johnson has been in and out of the lineup, locking down the seventh defenseman spot, even when injuries to players ahead of him on the depth chart have taken place. Derek MacKenzie may not have the value to other teams as he does with Columbus. Sanford is an AHL goaltender on most squads, and at this point most contending teams are set in goal. That essentially leaves Prospal and Pahlsson as the two players who are likely to get anything of value in a trade.
If past history is any indication, Pahlsson was traded a couple of seasons ago from the Ducks to the Blackhawks, along with a prospect and a pick for none other than James Wisniewski and a prospect. At the time however, Wiz had yet to cement himself as a sure-fire NHLer, so the deal was essentially Pahlsson for a promising prospect. We can expect about the same this time around, with the decent prospect perhaps being replaced by a mid-round pick. Teams looking for a solid checking center (the kind of player that is built for the playoffs) could be interested. Teams like Florida, Ottawa or New Jersey could have interest. If we're talking prospect, perhaps Drew Shore or Alex Petrovic from the Panthers. More realistically, Pahlsson will likely fetch a fourth rounder. Anything more would be a win for Howson.
Prospal has the most value of the impending UFAs, and is likely the most valuable chip that Howson has, period. He's a veteran winger with playoff experience, who's having a decent season on a very bad team. While I'd hate to see him go, it makes sense from a business perspective. It's hard to say what kind of value he has, but if it comes down to the 11th hour, Howson may be able to fetch a high pick or high-end prospect for him. That said, "second rounder" seems like the most likely asset coming back in a trade.
If Huselius can return from injury in time to make an impact prior to the deadline, he's immediatly in the trade conversation again. His value in a trade would be minimal however, due to injuries and missing most of the season, but acquiring anything for him would be better than losing him to free agency for nothing.
MacKenzie, Martinek, Johnson and Sanford will likely finish the season with the Jackets, but if there is a team out there that values MacKenzie's energy, Martinek's shutdown ability (if healthy), Johnson's ability to play the puck, or depth in goal, the Jackets may be able to score a late-round pick if one or more of these players are moved.
Let's now focus on the restricted free agents. The Jackets have four currently with the big club:
Right off the bat, Howson would be unwise to trade Dorsett and Nikitin. Both players are bright lights on a terrible season. Dorsett has established himself as a legitimate third liner checker and penalty killer, with timely goal scoring. Nikitin has brought steady play and a bomb from the point to the roster.
Everybody knows what kind of player Boller is, he's a physical forechecker who is willing to drop the mitts. I'd argue that outside of Dorsett, he's the only player on the roster who's always a willing combatant. There likely isn't a market for a pseudo-enforcer at the deadline, so he'll likely remain with the team. If a contender does desire a dose of toughness however, a late round pick to the Jackets would be fair value.
Ryan Russell, who recently joined the Jackets on recall, has shown glimpses of sound penalty killing and he brings energy. His trade value is almost nil, so you'll likely see him ride out the season with the Jackets or Falcons, looking for a new deal this summer.
This leaves eight forwards who's contracts go beyond this season. They are:
Johansen is going nowhere. Kubalik is still developing, and a trade for him would have to see an impact prospect coming back to the Jackets, or a high pick.
Mark Letestu, who`s currently injured, was playing quite well before getting hurt, and showed a nose for the net and versatility, playing all through the lineup, including the point on the powerplay. Unless he returns from injury and a team offers a deal to Howson that he can`t refuse, I`d argue that he should remain a Jacket.
For the purposes of discussion, I`m going to split the remaining forwards into two groups- Nash and Carter in one, and Umberger, Vermette and Brassard in the other.
Umby, Vermy and Brass are the core of the group up front. They are the secondary scorers, the veterans. They have value to other teams, and value to the Jackets. This season however, all three are struggling mightily, which had led to the Jackets` lack of success. Brassard is the easiest one to argue- under Scott Arniel, Brass was in and out of the lineup, and when he was playing, it was more often than not on the fourth line. We may never know what was going on behind the scenes, but for a player who has steadily improved since his rookie year, and who has the potential to be a 60-70 point scorer he is no longer an important part of the team. Unless it was a personal thing between he and Arniel, Brass is very likely looking at a fresh start with another team. On the other hand, maybe new head coach Todd Richards will see things differently and put Brass on a scoring line, boosting his confidence. At the end of the day however, he seems like a player needed a fresh start, and teams looking for a second line center could come knocking. A decent pick or prospect is likely.
Vermette is a player who could be part of the makeover, because of his decent contract and skills as a second or third line center. Playoff-bound teams are always looking for depth, and Vermette should be available. He was acquired for a fringe goaltender and a second round pick, but this time around a second rounder and a later pick or mid-level prospect is the most reasonable value.
Umberger is an interesting case. I firmly believe that he is worth more to the Jackets than any other team. Yes, he`s struggling, but at the same time he`s a quality player who has shown versatility. His contract length makes him difficult to trade anyhow, but some teams looking for a long-term addition may be interested. He could fetch as high as a first round pick, but I think Howson would be smart to hang on to this player and use him as a veteran to work with the young forwards making the jump to the big squad.
Now, Nash and Carter. There has been plenty of chatter among CBJ faithful (and those outside of the CBJ) who believe that one or both of these players needs to go to cause a major culture change with the team. Carter has been snake-bit by injuries this season, but he has the ability to be a 40 goal scorer. He has a decade left on his contract, so very few teams would likely be interested. I can see the Leafs making a play however, due to their longing for a number one center- but Columbus was in the same boat since expansion, until acquiring him this summer. Though the Jackets could garner quite a haul for him, they`d be crazy to give up on him after such a short period of time.
The Jackets shouldn`t trade Rick Nash. He`s one of the best players in the league, and has shown a willingness to make things work in Columbus. Again, he could fetch a serious amount of assets in a trade, but where does that put the Jackets? Unlike Philadelphia, who changed their culture overnight by dealing Carter and Mike Richards, Columbus doesn't have star players waiting in the wings to take over the reigns. For the Jackets to be successful going forward, they need to build around a core group of forwards that includes Nash, Carter, Umberger, Johansen and Dorsett.
The Jackets have six defensemen who's contracts go beyond this season. They are:
Right off the bat, let's throw out Moore and Savard from trade discussion. These two young blueliners are still developing, and are blue-chippers. Any future blueline in Columbus needs these two players.
As for The Wiz, almost no other team would take on his contract, nor should the Jackets give up on him so soon. His season has been lost to suspension and injury, I'm eager to see what he can bring to the table going forward.
Tyutin remains the team's top blueliner, and while he would have value in a trade, possibly a first rounder or a package of later picks/prospects, he's a player who the team can build around.
Marc Methot was supposed to take the next step and cement himself as a high-calibre shutdown blueliner. His play this season has been so-so, and teams looking for depth on defense could be willing to send a mid-round pick to the Jackets for him. This sort of deal would fall into the "change of culture" philosophy.
Ditto for Grant Clitsome. While he has shown an ability to put up points, his defensive play has been sub-par. The team needs to rebuild its defense, and Clitsome may be dealt to make room for improvements. A mid-round pick or mid-level prospect would be fair value.
Last, and least, is Steve Mason. He's signed for next season, and then becomes a free agent. He'll likely ride out the season with the Jackets, but after this year who knows which direction the team will go, Would another NHL team be willing to send the Jackets a low-value asset in the hopes of using Mason as a reclamation project? I'd say there would be a team willing to do that, but more likely at the draft. Either way, I don't see him in a Columbus uniform next season.
To summarize this long-winded post, I wouldn't be shocked to see Prospal, Brassard, Vermette, Methot and Clitsome gone at the deadline. These five players will likely bring a bevy of picks and/or prospects to the team, maybe one as high as a first rounder. In the scenarios I have come up with above, the team keeps the most talented pieces of its core together, but Scott Howson could go a step further, and drastically change the culture of the team by trading its stars. We'll have to wait and see, but put me in the camp that says:
Give us great goaltending and re-tool the defense, and this team will be just fine. No need to blow the whole thing up.