Armed with thee first-round draft choices, the Jackets are in an enviable position. Scouts and experts are saying that this is the deepest draft since the legendary 2003 event, meaning should they keep all three of their top picks; they have a very good chance of coming away with a trio of excellent prospects.
There are a handful of options available to the Jackets this offseason, let's take a look at some.
Keeping the Picks
In some combination or another, Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin, Aleksander Barkov and Valeri Nichushkin should be the top five players chosen. The next group of selections are likely to see Elias Lindholm, Darnell Nurse, Hunter Shinkaruk, Ryan Pulock, Sean Monahan, Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen be selected. Those twelve players represent a rough consensus of the top dozen players available. If any are still on the board when Columbus picks at 14th, serious consideration would be given to handing them a Columbus sweater. Any of the top five would be terrific selections, while of the next tier Lindholm, Pulock, Zadorov and Ristolainen are the best fits. That said, three of those players are blueliners- the deepest position in the organization.
Once you get to the next grouping of players-who fall right in the Jackets' wheelhouse with their 14th and 19th overall picks-things get very interesting. Players like Bo Horvat, Max Domi, Valentin Zykov, Anthony Mantha, Alexander Wennberg, Frederik Gauthier, Mirco Mueller, Shea Thedore, Kerby Rychel, Ryan Hartman and Curtis Lazar will still be around. Assuming that my top 12 are taken with the first dozen picks, the Jackets could see a situation where they have their choice of high-end scorer with the 14th pick (Horvat, Domi, Zykov, Mantha, Wennberg), or a future shutdown center (Gauthier), a shutdown defenseman (Mueller), offensive defenseman (Theodore), or physical forward with offense (Rychel, Hartman, Lazar).
Given the lack of offensive punch in the organization they should go with the scorer at 14, and Domi or Zykov would look fantastic in union blue. With the 19th pick, the team can more or less scoop up the leftovers. Do they choose a physical player with a dose of offense? If so, my vote is for Hartman. The kid was great at the World Juniors, and got everybody out of their seats with some big hits at the Top Prospect Game. Maybe they add to the defensive depth-Mueller's been Ryan Murray's defense partner, but I'm tempted by the offense that Theodore can provide.
The 27th pick in most years would be a throw-away pick, but not this year. Like every team, the Jackets will have their list, and will be in a position to choose the best player available on their board. Every year there are surprise picks, and players fall for seemingly no reason, like Boone Jenner in 2011. If one of the players I listed above is still there-ideally one of the physical forwards-the Jackets would pounce all over that selection. There's a chance that Hartman or Lazar could still be available.
A first round that nets the Jackets a high end scorer like Domi or Zykov, another stud defenseman in Theodore, and a physical forward who can provide secondary scoring in Hartman would be very successful.
Trading Picks to Move Up
Another option the Jackets have is to put their eggs in one basket and trade up in the draft order. This could mean offering all three first rounders in a trade with a top-5 team, perhaps coupling together the 19th and 27th overall picks for a pick in the low teens, etc. There are a handful of options.
If the Columbus scouts, GM Jarmo Kekalainen and President John Davidson are absolutely smitten with one of the top five prospects, maybe they pull off a deal to move up. Apparently Nashville may be willing to deal out of the fourth spot. Though it's an option, I don't think it's a good one for the Jackets.
Something that would be more likely, and I could stand behind, would be to package the 27th overall and the second round pick to see if a move to the mid to late teens would be possible. That would give the Jackets three of the top-20 prospects.
Trading Picks to Move Down
Often GMs will trade down in a draft, picking up additional later picks in return. You often see this when drafts aren't considered deep, or if the teams think they can get "their guy" later in the draft. Given how deep this draft is, with so many great players at the top, I think the CBJ would be wise to not trade-down. The depth of talent is there, but the talent at the front-end of the draft is just too good.
Trading the Picks for Future Talent
If Jarmo thinks he can get more value by trading a pick for an existing prospect, already with an NHL team, he'll do it. He was on the opposite side of that kind of deal while a member of the St. Louis Blues, when on draft day in 2010 the Blues traded their 2009 first rounder (David Rundblad) to Ottawa for their 2010 first rounder.
Here's a scenario- Jarmo isn't overwhelmed with who's still on the board when Columbus is ready to pick at 19th overall. He gives Chicago a call, offering the 19th overall pick to the ‘Hawks (who'll be picking with one of the last two spots in the first round) for their first rounder from last year (18th overall) - Teuvo Teravainen. The draft slots have equal value, but more than that Jarmo was Teravainen's GM with Jokerit, and would be initimately familiar with his abilities.
Trading the Picks for "Now" Talent
With the Jackets falling agonizingly short of the playoffs this season, the focus isn't solely on the future, as it's been for so many years recently. The team is well-built, with a solid defense, a Vezina-caliber goaltender, and some very good players up front. Yeah, that last part, "very good"? That needs to improve. Marian Gaborik is a star, but he can't do it all. The Jackets have some very good complimentary scorers and two-way guys. Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen still have time to develop into premier offensive players. What the team needs now though, is another high-end scorer, and those don't come cheap.
The three first round picks though, are extremely valuable, especially to a team entering a rebuild. I'm looking at you, Buffalo.
The Sabres already have a pair of first round picks this year, and look like a team about to embark on a refresh of the roster. They have great young players already on the team like Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno. They're stocked well in the system with prospects like Mark Pysyk, Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, Jake McCabe and Zemgus Girgensons on the way. Rebuilding teams use these young players as the foundation of their next winning squad. Pricey veteran players do not fit the rebuild ideal.
If the Sabres are committed to a youth movement, the 29 year-old Vanek could be moved, and the Jackets would be an ideal location for him. He's got one year left on his deal with a cap hit of $7.143 million. The Jackets owe raises to Sergei Bobrovsky, Artem Anisimov and more than likely Vinny Prospal, but there is some cap flexibility to add Vanek's hit, especially if Jarmo uses one of his compliance buyouts on a player like R.J Umberger.
The theory here would be that the Jackets are going for it next season- they have their core in place, but have Marian Gaborik and Thomas Vanek up front to provide the scoring. If things go well, the Jackets look loaded. If things somehow turn sideways and it's a failure, Gaborik and Vanek are both unrestricted free agents after next year and the Jackets can go in another direction, while maintaining their core.
Whether the Jackets keep their picks as they stand now, move up or down, trade for future help or swing for the fences and add a proven scorer to the lineup, no matter which way you look at it this offseason is a crucial, and exciting one for the Jackets and their fanbase.