In my headline for this article I asked the question- are the Jackets buyers or sellers?
My hope is that they are neither.
Sure, the run that the Jackets have been on has been a lot of fun, and has given fans hope for the future. It doesn't hide the fact that the Jackets are playing above their heads at the moment though, that after an extended run of home games and Vezina-level play from Sergei Bobrovsky they remain a team that needs a lot of work before it can contend for the Stanley Cup.
The trade deadline is April 3rd, six days from now. The Jackets play three games before then- tonight they face the Oilers in Edmonton, tomorrow they're in Calgary to face the Iginla-less Flames, and they return home to host the Ducks on Sunday. In most circumstances this run of three games would be looked at as the deciding factor as to whether or not the Jackets would bring in outside talent for a playoff run, or if they feel they aren't contenders and want to blow up the roster and/or get assets for expiring contracts or players who aren't in the team's future plans.
As of this morning, the Jackets are sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference, three points out of 8th in one direction, and three points out of 14th in the other. They have no games in hand. Regardless of where they sit after the next three games, they can't be fooled into thinking they can advance through the playoffs. If they do make the postseason, it will be as one of the bottom seeds, earning the right to play the Blackhawks or Ducks in the first round.
To beat one of those squads the Jackets would need to continue to get the superb goaltending from Bob that we've seen this month, be completely healthy, and do something about the lack of offensive punch up front. Maybe Bob continues to play lights out. Maybe the team can find a way to stay out of the infirmary and is completely healthy from top to bottom. To fix that final requirement- the problem with the lack of scoring- the Jackets need to deal assets to other clubs to bring in talent.
Should they be buyers?
The Jackets are a team in transition. Last year they went for it, and it blew up in their faces. They are now in a rebuilding phase, transforming themselves from a doormat to a legitimate contender. Rebuilding teams don't take critical assets like draft picks, prospects and young roster players and flip them to other squads for a quick fix, which is exactly what adding offense at this year's deadline would be.
The Jackets are simply not in a position to add salary at the expense of the key assets needed to rebuild.
Should they be sellers?
On the other side of the coin is the idea that the Jackets will sell, sell, sell at the deadline. This would involve taking nearly anything of value and shipping it off for future assets. The "scorched earth" method, if you will. Very few teams rebuild this way anymore; it simply takes too long to right the ship after throwing a grenade at the roster. The Jackets are actually positioned quite well; they have a handful of very good young players on the roster that would be useful when the rebuild is complete. See our New Foundation series for more on this.
That isn't to say that the Jackets don't have players on the team they'd like to move. R.J. Umberger, for example, is not living up to his large contract. It's highly doubtful that a team would take on his salary however, especially with the cap going down next season. He seems like an ideal amnesty buyout candidate, providing ownership is willing to bite the bullet financially.
Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are both highly-paid players, and would have value on the open market. If the Jackets want to rid themselves of long-term deals, they could explore the idea of trading them. While they're at it, they could kick the tires on trading Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin if they wanted to nuke the roster. It just doesn't make any sense though- for the first time in history the Jackets finally have a deep and talented blueline, with a handful of top prospects cutting their teeth as pros in the NHL and AHL.
It's the same thing up front- it doesn't make sense to blow up the roster by trading players like Brandon Dubinsky or Nick Foligno. These players are required for the next version of the Jackets- the Stanley Cup contending version.
The Jackets should not be sellers in the broadest sense of the term. The roster does not require an overhaul.
Somewhere in between?
Rebuilding teams like the Jackets can be active in the trade market, but not at the extremes I mentioned above. Rather, they are in the market for more of the valuable assets that rebuilding teams covet- picks, prospects and young roster players. With three first round picks already in his pocket, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen may want to add more picks.
Additionally, moving expiring contracts or ageing players doesn't constitute "selling", it's just good asset management.
In terms of impending unrestricted free agents, the Jackets have three players of note. Up front, Vinny Prospal and Mark Letestu are in the final years of their current deals. On defense, Adrian Aucoin will be a free agent this summer.
Under Scott Howson, it was reported that Vinny made a gentleman's agreement to finish his career with rolling one year deals, and when he retired he'd take on a position within the organization. With the new management in place, it's unknown if that agreement is still valid, or if the Jackets would like to trade him. He's certainly got value, as he's leading the Jackets in scoring and could provide veteran secondary scoring to a playoff team. I'm of the opinion that retaining Vinny is best for both he and the organization, given his positive impact both on and off the ice.
Letestu is second in team scoring, and may be a candidate to be moved. He is the Jackets' leading faceoff man (minimum 300 faceoffs taken) and can play on either special team unit. The Jackets acquired him for a 4th round pick two years ago, and they would assuredly improve on that in a deadline deal this year. The Jackets could always take a crack at re-signing him this summer.
One of the hottest commodities at the trade deadline is for veteran defensemen. Aucoin has brought veteran leadership to the Jackets, but he is not part of the future plans. Acquiring a mid-round pick for him at the deadline would be a bonus.
You've probably noticed that I didn't mention Derick Brassard in this article. I think Brassard's situation is unique, and warrants its own discussion. Check back tomorrow to see my thoughts on whether Brassard will, or should be moved at the deadline. Either way, a Brassard trade wouldn't lump the Jackets in the buyer or seller category.