It's generally been assumed that the light at the end of this season's tunnel would be for the Blue Jackets to take the #1 overall pick, and bring consensus #1 pick Nail Yakupov into their talent pool as a radical boost to their talent level.
A dynamic top line forward with top rated skating ability and offensive creativity, he's frequently been compared to 2010 top pick Taylor Hall, but regarded as being a more physical forward, willing to use his body and play hard on both sides of the puck.
He's everything a franchise might want as a #1 overall pick.
So why would Columbus be considering trading the right to draft him?A report from La Presse Canadiens beat writer Marc Antoine Godin suggests that the Jackets are expected by many NHL GMs to trade the first overall pick.
With rumors that the Jackets might part ways with franchise captain Rick Nash, it seems like a strange move to part with a winger who could take his place in the lineup, doesn't it?
Much like other discussions, perhaps it's best to consider the options, and how their position may have changed from earlier in the season.
O Captain, Our Captain?
If the team can repair their relationship with Nash (or if they do not find offers to their liking), the team will still be in need of major upgrades, particularly in goal. With the unrestricted free agency goaltender market looking weak, at best, the solution must come through trade. Dangling the #1 pick, particularly to teams with a goaltender in restricted free agency, or with a strong enough tandem to attract interest, like Buffalo's Jhonas Enroth or Boston's Tuukka Rask, gives Columbus a valuable asset for a piece that teams might otherwise be unlikely to move.
That the news of Columbus being willing to trade the pick comes from Montreal is doubly interesting in this scenario - with the Habs struggling in the East, a major revamp is likely, and all star goaltender Carey Price is restricted free agent. A move to send the pick (presumably Yakupov) to Montreal, and perhaps prospect assets in exchange for Price and Montreal's pick (likely also in the top five) could be a deal that aids both clubs.
Keeping Nash in the fold and upgrading the goaltending situation would address several major questions for the team, and could make the Jackets a suddenly dangerous team in the West.
Jack In The Box?
Another factor worth considering for why the Jackets might be willing to dangle their first round pick is the acquisition of Jack Johnson in the Jeff Carter deal. With Johnson, Tyutin, Wisniewski, Nikitin, Methot and the continued development of John Moore, the Blue Jackets possess a strong defensive core - possibly strong enough to make the front office willing to re-evaluate their trade priorities. If the team feels that they don't need an elite level goaltender, and perhaps look at a second tier option like Josh Harding, Jonas Gustavsson, or Ray Emery, the pick might be worth leveraging in the search for more offensive depth or adding better two way players in the checking line - particularly with Kristian Huselius and Derek Mackenzie as potential UFAs. A team looking for cap relief for the upcoming season - a list that includes 2012 draft host city Pittsburgh - could be convinced to move a desired player (or two) with a weightier cap hit and a desired skill set.
We've been told by team owner John P. McConnell that the team will go to major extremes to change their fortunes in advance of the 2013 all star game, but the lack of moves at the trade deadline suggest that the team wasn't satisfied by the offers available or the pieces in play.
Perhaps the only route to maximum rewards is to assume the greatest level of risk.
Should the team dangle both Nash and their first round pick, particularly if it is the first overall, the team can ask for the moon - particularly if they can interest one team in both commodities.
A blockbuster deal on the scale of the Joe Thornton trade - perhaps even the Eric Lindros trade from (then) Quebec to Philadelphia could see Nash and the #1 pick moved for a king's ransom, filling whatever needs the team set as priorities.
There would be no more radical move, particularly if the return allowed the team to maximize the talent of young players like Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen with a sudden infusion of proven veteran talent. It could be a move to equal the bold choices of Florida GM Dale Tallon this past offseason, and perhaps the most likely way to deliver the same playoff contending results.
If Not Now, When?
As has been pointed out again and again, the Jackets fanbase has been promised success, and the team has failed to deliver. While this year's #1 pick might be able to step into the lineup for the 2012-2013 season, will one more rookie forward, no matter how talented, be what the team needs to put them over the playoff bar? A look around the league suggests.
In the past five seasons, only two teams have become playoff contenders after drafting a forward first overall - Tampa Bay with Steven Stamkos, and Chicago with Patrick Kane.
In both cases, the team had a strong core of talent, a group of proven veterans, and a club that was affected as much by off ice struggles as any on ice factor.
Columbus could well see themselves in that mold, but it's worth pointing out that even with those acquisitions, success was not immediate, and other teams attempting the same path - particularly Edmonton - have not felt the same success.
Frying Pans and Fires
No matter what happens this offseason, someone will feel that Columbus made the wrong move. Even if the team makes their way back to the playoffs as a result, some will wonder if the price of that success was too high. The only way to avoid criticism would be to end the season holding Lord Stanley's Cup - an outcome that can only be referred to as unlikely.
There is always risk in trading an all star caliber player. Trading a pick that could be an equally talented player - particularly one with very similar skills - comes with just as much risk, not only for the lost talent, but for the damaged perception. Fans in Toronto were livid with GM Brian Burke for giving up the picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for Phil Kessel.
But at the same time, doing nothing - or worse, forcing a trade of Rick Nash and NOT receiving return that satisfies the team's issues, holding the #1 pick and acquiring a player without the talent around him that would enable him to succeed - might well open the Blue Jackets to as much or more criticism from fans and the rest of the league, particularly for season ticket holders who have been offered promises of improvement time and time again.
Edit: Just to add to the mix, Yakupov left his game in Sarnia last night after taking an illegal hit to the head. If Yakupov's season has come to an end and his draft status is suddenly in question, I would suspect that makes the chances of the Jackets trading the pick that much more likely.