The Art of the Deal: Columbus Charting Its Path

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

As the dog days of the off-season loom, some unanswered questions have Blue Jackets fans wringing their hands. Are their fears justified?

The draft is history, and the gluttony of July 1st is in the rear-view mirror.  History teaches that there are some significant deals to be made out there, as teams begin to get their arms around what they have and the inevitable jockeying for cap room picks up.  Still, the vast majority of transactions are in the books, and fans  -- rightly or wrongly -- start squabbling over what was done, what should have been done, and the consequences of the action/inaction of their club's front office. It's no different here in Columbus, where the anxiety level seems to be higher than warranted for a club that made some noise in the playoffs and is on the clear road up.  Let's take a bit closer look, and see what lies beneath the collective increase in blood pressure.

Of course, #1 on the suspect list is the Ryan Johansen situation.  Johansen was quoted as characterizing the Columbus offers as a "slap in the face", which set off alarm bells throughout Blue Jackets Nation, and spurred fears that RyJo would be heading to another city.  First, from a purely technical matter, Johansen isn't going anywhere unless the Blue Jackets decide that he's going elsewhere.  Johansen is a restricted free agent, without arbitration rights.  No offer sheets came his way, so he either plays in Columbus next season, or he doesn't play in the NHL. Add the fact that Jarmo Kekäläinen has stated in no uncertain terms that the club will sign the lanky forward, and the situation objectively seems to be in hand. Still, he remains unsigned, and the acerbic language attributed to Johansen has people nervous.

Let's travel back in time to 2009, when Rick Nash was up for the renewal of his deal, and had some less than flattering things to say about the quality of the offer made by then-GM Scott Howson.  The fans went to Defcon 2 immediately. Naturally, the deal got done in a matter of days.  In more recent history, Sergei Bobrovsky's camp was underwhelmed by the club's offer.  That deal got done as well.  It's all about negotiations, and negotiations are about leverage.  The only leverage that a restricted free agent without arbitration rights has -- other than his talent -- is the public perception he can create about the situation.  Make the fans nervous, the fans put pressure on the club.  It's that simple.

Truly, the Bobrovsky situation is a much better example than the Nash story.  Nash was seven years into his career, and had a Rocket Richard Trophy on his mantle. Bobrovsky had a couple of mediocre seasons for the Flyers before winning the Vezina in a strike-shortened campaign.  Bobrovsky had the additional leverage of the KHL.  Johansen had two mediocre seasons before his breakout this season, when he tied for 11th in the NHL in goals with 33.  In both circumstances, the players were coming off of their entry level deals, and came to the bargaining table with some impressive deeds . . . for one season.

Such is the dilemma faced by General Managers in these types of RFA deals.  There's no question the GM wants to keep the player, but has only one year of top performance to deal with.  The club wants a bridge deal -- one for shorter term and lower dollars, ending while the player is still in RFA status.  The player wants the big payday now.  It's the most difficult type of deal to broker, simply because of all of the moving parts and variables.  For a UFA, it's just dollars and term, for the most part.  Here, you have to factor in when arbitration rights and UFA status kick in, the risk of a limited history upon which to base decisions, and the downstream impact on the rest of the club's salary structure. There's also the quandary over being strong enough to defend your position, without causing an irreparable rift in the player/club relationship.  While all of the participants are professionals, and should understand how the game is played, it doesn't always work that way.

In Bobrovsky's case, parties reached a compromise deal.  Bobrovsky got big dollars, and the club got a limited term that ends while Bobrovsky is still an RFA.   There's no reason to think that the same model won't work for Johansen.  The devil's in the details, of course, and the parties are working on those outside the public eye, as they should.  There's plenty of cap room, and no reason to think that both sides don't want to make a deal.  The club has the hammer, but the guess here is that they won't need to use it.

The other source of consternation to many was the loss of three existing roster members to free agency:  Jack Skille (Islanders), Blake Comeau (Penguins) and Derek MacKenzie (Panthers) all will be moving on.  MacKenzie seemed to stir the most profound reaction among the fans, which is understandable given his tenure with the Blue Jackets, and his effort night in and night out.  For me, however, MacKenzie's departure was the easiest to understand.  At 33, MacKenzie was the senior member of the Blue Jackets, and was not moving off the fourth line.  Florida gave him a three-year deal at $1.3 million per, which represented a 33% pay increase, without any real performance justification beneath it.  In the brutal world of professional sports personnel management, MacKenzie's skill set is a relatively cheap and readily available commodity, and with several youngsters pushing from below, Columbus was not about to invest long term dollars on a 33-year-old fourth liner.  All the best to DMac in Florida, but his time here had expired. 

The Skille ($750K, 1 year in New York) and Comeau ($700K, 1 year in Pittsburgh) deals are more perplexing to me.  Comeau particularly brought some real value during the course of the season, and despite his inconsistency and propensity to take the bad penalty now and again.  He signed for a $300,000 decrease in salary -- certainly affordable for a club with $15 million in cap space.  As for Skille, I thought he was underutilized on the big club last year, as his speed and shooting accuracy are coveted commodities, particularly with Todd Richards'  apparent shift of emphasis to speed and skill.  Since the fourth line is wide open, having Comeau and Skille on the wings for a combined $1.5 million or so would not seem to be a bad investment. 

There are two other aspects of the current roster that give me a bit of pause.  First, I still don't understand how guys like Skille and Comeau can be jetissoned, despite making peanuts, and Jared Boll retains a roster spot at a salary more than Skille and Comeau . . . combined.  Also more than Atkinson, Calvert, Letestu, Hjalmarsson, Jenner, Gibbons, Savard, Prout and McElhinney.  I won't beat a dead horse here, but Boll does not even fight that well any more, and his other skills are not in the same league with anyone else on the roster.  Does he have blackmail photographs of key front office personnel?  That's a hard one to justify.

I also am not a big fan of the Curtis McElhinney signing.  Yes, I know he makes only $600K, but I'm not sure that the backup goaltending role is one that you want to go cheap with, particularly when there were lots of pretty darn good goaltenders on the market this year.  It's not that McElhinney is awful -- he's not.  But he has an AHL-level glove, tends to wander away from the crease, and  -- most importantly -- the club does not play as well in front of him.  They tend to collapse, and provide far too much time and space at the points, creating more opportunities instead of fewer. 

Having said all of that, it 's obvious that we do not have the quantity or quality of information that the front office possesses, and have no idea of the individual quirks or assets that players might have that are relatively invisible at the public level.  More importantly, the quality of the club's problems has improved dramatically over the past few years, thanks to the efforts of the new regime.  If we're arguing about the composition of the fourth line and the backup goaltender, things must be pretty good.

Indeed, things are pretty good.  The acquisition of Scott Hartnell promises to be an absolute steal, at least for a few years.  The trade of Matt Frattin for Jerry D'Amigo seems like a zero risk deal that could yield a reliable fourth liner.  Both Prout and Savard were re-signed at reasonable levels, and the draft, led by insanely skilled Sonny Milano, seems to have been solid.  However, it is the acquisition of Brian Gibbons that has me really intrigued.  Gibbons, you will recall, was a thorn in the Blue Jackets' side during the playoffs, before being injured, and New York Ranger fans will tell you that he tormented them during the next round.

Gibbons appeared in just 41 games for the Penguins, notching 5 goals, 12 assists and 17 points.   What is more illuminating is that those numbers came in just 11:56 of ice time.  Gibbons is the classic example of a skilled player trapped in an organization with a surplus of talent at his position.  Put him in a new environment, with enhanced responsibility, and he could blossom.  See Foligno, Nick   At $750K, this is potential grand larceny, as he has that speed/skill combination that Richards indicates we need, all in a Cam Atkinson-sized package.

If you can stand unpleasant memories, here is Gibbons' short-handed goal against the Blue Jackets in the playoffs.  Watch, but also listen to Pierre McGuire's commentary:

 

Before factoring in the prospective newcomers to the squad, including prospects Wennberg, Rychel and Dano, as well as D'Amigo, Hjalmarsson and Gibbons, the Blue Jackets have a top nine of Johansen, Anisimov, Dubinsky, Jenner, Foligno, Horton, Atkinson, Hartnell and Calvert.  Lots of clubs would crave that line-up, and with Scott Hartnell -- who just turned 32 -- assuming the title of Oldest Player, the roster is not even close to reaching its prime.

On the financial side, Columbus has $15 million in cap space, more than enough to handle the Johansen deal, get Erixon and Tropp re-signed, and have some buffer set aside for next year, when Dubinsky and Foligno are due for new deals.  There's likely enough room for another deal this year, as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay need to make moves to fill out rosters under the cap.  (As always, thanks to the incredible folks at www.capgeek.com for all of the salary and cap information). 

So, while we can all nitpick at this deal or that deal, the big picture is pretty damn good in Columbus at the moment.  Sure, we may be relying on some youngsters, but we have a whole raft of guys who now have a full season plus playoff experience under their belts.  We need to see all of these guys in action, and see what else Jarmo & John may have up their sleeves.   There are no sure things in professional sports, but there aren't too many clubs in better situations entering the dog days of the off-season.

 Patience, young grasshopper.  All will be well. 

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