Over the past few days, a ho-hum trade deadline was made all the more interesting with the news that Rick Nash may be available for trade. We've discussed the Nash issue on its own, and Matt took a look at overall team needs. What I'd like to do here is visit the concept of the team going "nuclear", that is, blowing up the team at the deadline and at the end of the season, gutting the team of its current core and acquiring current and future assets.
I'm hoping this is the last time I use the term "nuclear", since it was first coined by Columbus ownership. This was before the Nash news went mainstream, but the option of gutting the team is still very much at the forefront. The question remains however, is it wise to nuke the Jackets, or would the organization be better off with some serious, but non-sweeping changes?
Up front, I'm going to assume some locks for next season. The list is short- Ryan Johansen, Derek Dorsett and Vinny Prospal. Johansen is a rookie, with the ability to be a future number-one center. Dorsett is in the midst of a breakout season, and he's worth more to the Jackets than anything they could possibly get in a trade. Prospal just re-signed for next season, with a gentleman's agreement to stay with the team after his playing days are over.
This leaves quite a cast of characters that could be on the move. Starting with the plumbers, Colton Gillies, Jared Boll, Ryan Russell and Derek MacKenzie, these four players all have limited trade value. Gillies was acquired off of waivers mid-way through the season, in a move that on the surface looks like a request from coach Todd Richards. Gillies is also signed for next season, taking him out of the rental equation. Derek MacKenzie has been a consistent fourth line energy player for the Jackets, and though he's an impending free agent, there may not be a market for him. If there is, the return will likely be in the 6th-7th round pick range. Boll is also a free agent at season's end, but with Dorsett's breakout and willingness to drop the mitts Boll may be on the way out. Whether he is moved at the deadline for a late pick, or just not offered a qualifying offer at season's end, I can't see Boll being with the team next season. Russell has shown hustle, determination and is an inexpensive option for the bottom six. He's a free agent this summer, but I think he's earned a look next year, whether it's in Springfield or Columbus.
Further up the rung is the group of Sammy Pahlsson, R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Mark Letestu. Pahlsson is almost assuredly gone at the deadline. He's the ideal checking center, ideal for the playoffs. The Jackets can likely expect a mid-round pick, maybe as high as a second rounder for him. Letestu was another mid-season acquisition, with one more year left on his deal. I can't see the Jackets moving him, given his ability to put up points on the powerplay and his low salary. If a team came with an offer that pleased the team however, he's long gone. Now for the interesting part- Umberger and Vermette. These two players both signed extensions recently, and are the Jackets' most versatile players. They are both having terrible seasons, but have above-average value. If the team moves one of, or both of these players, it would signify a radical change to the core of the team. Early round picks and/or prospects would be the likely haul if they were dealt.
The next group of forwards potentially up for grabs are Kristian Huselius and Derick Brassard. Huselius' trade value is essentially nil, given his lost season. He's a free agent this summer, and I don't see a scenario where he is with the team next season. He doesn't seem close to returning from injury, so he'll likely sit out the string. Brassard on the other hand, should be taken out of trade discussion. He's been fantastic of late, putting up points and showing more confidence than he has in years. His move to the point on the powerplay has led to real success for the Jackets while on the man advantage. That said, if Rick Nash is rumored to be on the trading block, Brassard isn't a lock to remain with the team by any stretch of the imagination. His value would be relatively high at the deadline, given his recent run of hot play. Playoff-bound teams looking for a boost up the middle would love to add a player of Brassard's ilk.
Speaking of Nash, he and Jeff Carter are the final two forwards that warrant discussion. Without talking trade value (we've beat that horse to death) moving one or both of those players would signal that the team is doing a complete overhaul of the roster. No tweaking, we're talking a full-on, scorched earth approach. Let's look at what could be left on July 2nd, after free agency has kicked in:
OUT: Nash, Carter, Umberger, Vermette, Huselius, Pahlsson and Boll.
REMAINING: Brassard, Johansen, Dorsett, Prospal, Gillies, Letestu, Russell and MacKenzie.
While it's rather far-fetched to think all seven of those above players would be gone, it would definitely be nuclear. You have to think that at least one warm body would be coming back in a trade, leaving nine remaining forwards. It looks a lot like Nail Yakupov will be a member of the Jackets' organization next season, but whether he's NHL ready is another story. If recent history suggests anything though, the first overall pick will likely be in a Columbus uniform next season. That makes ten. The other three spots? We've got the AHL's top sniper in Cam Atkinson. Matt Calvert stands as good a shot as anybody to be on the team next year. Tomas Kubalik has been with the team for stretches. There's thirteen forwards. Visually:
Prospal - Brassard - Atkinson
Yakupov - Johansen - Kubalik
Calvert - MacKenzie - Dorsett
Warm Body - Letestu - Gillies
On paper, brutal. That said, it does remind me a bit of this season's Edmonton Oilers. A mostly young team, with a couple of veterans sprinkled in. Make no mistake though, there is a lot of talent there. The top six will be exciting, if nothing else. The bottom six has role players who can kill penalties, play on the powerplay, and score the occasional goal.
Again, this is the worst-case scenario. The blow-it-to-kingdom-come method. If even one of Nash or Carter is still with the team, look at how much better everything looks. Maybe only one of Umberger or Vermette is dealt, giving the player that stays an opportunity to put this season behind him. Umberger in the top six instead of Kubalik would make us all sleep better at night.
There aren't as many question marks with the defense. James Wisniewski isn't going anywhere. He's had a lost season, but he is the team's most exciting defenseman, with the ability to put up serious offensive totals. John Moore and David Savard are two young players who the defense will be built around. Nikita Nikitin, another mid-season acquisition, was arguably the team's top shutdown defender before going down with an injury. Aaron Johnson and Grant Clitsome are two players that should be discussed in the nuclear conversation. Both players take chances with the puck, leading to points. That said, their play has been up and down, and Moore and Savard make them expendable. Now comes the interesting part- what to do with Marc Methot and Fedor Tyutin? Tyutin is the team's most complete defenseman. Even in a rebuild, you need to avoid getting blown out every game. Tyutin puts up points, and is relatively steady in his zone. He would fetch a decent package in a trade, but like some other players on the roster, his value to the Jackets may be greater than the return. With Nikitin playing so well, does this open the door for a Methot trade? If you're going nuclear, then it sure does.
If all of those forwards are dealt, you have to think a blueliner is part of the packages acquired. Would it be a Jack Johnson from the Kings? A Del Zotto from the Rangers? Ballard from the Canucks? Let's assume that the team does receive a blueliner. The team can then dip into free agency for a guy to fill the seventh spot. Or hell, keep Clitsome.
Tyutin - Nikitin
Moore - Wisniewski
Savard - Trade Acquisition
We know the goaltending will be different, so there's no need to discuss these guys in a nuclear or not scenario.
A look at the lineups I posted above shows a team without stars, without the core we've come to recognize the past few seasons. After spitting it all out on paper, it doesn't look so bad. The forwards will have growing pains, but the talent is there. The defense is actually well-balanced, with real talent. This is where the comparison to the Oilers ends. The Oilers defense needs more work that Columbus' . This lineup will be in the mix for another lottery pick in 2013, but another stud forward in that draft will bring hope for the future. That pick, along with Yakupov, Johansen, Brassard, Atkinson and Kubalik, not to mention pluggers like Dorsett, Calvert and down the road Boone Jenner will give the Jackets a potent group up front.
To summarize this book of a post, I'd be OK with the nuclear option. Any of Nash, Carter, Umberger or Vermette that remains with the team is a bonus. We can all hope that this season was an aberration, and most of the players can right the ship and take this team back to the playoffs.