Prior to the last two games, I was firmly entrenched in the "Fail for Nail" camp. Columbus was almost assured of finishing last prior to those games, and now after back-to-back blowout losses to equally woeful Edmonton, and then by the Detroit Red Wings one night later, it's a virtual certainty.
Of course finishing as the worst team in the league doesn't mean that getting the first overall pick is a guarantee-the draft lottery prevents that- but Columbus would have the greatest chance of "winning".
I'm still a believer that Nail Yakupov, the consensus number one pick, would be great for the Jackets. He's a game-breaker, a high-scoring Russian winger who has already shown a commitment to playing hockey in North America. He's got a ton of character, as evident by his interviews, and already speaks great English.
That said, I've started to consider other options for what the Jackets could/should do with the first overall pick, should they win the draft lottery.Three options come to mind:
Scenario One: The Russian Factor
I'm not a huge believer in good or bad luck, but I can't help but think that since Columbus joined the NHL, there have been instances where nothing other than bad luck can explain the team's fortunes. This season is no different.
The team has been burned twice by drafting Russian players in the first round. Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov can both be considered busts. Neither is playing in the NHL, and made little impact while they were playing on this side of the pond.
Here's where the "bad luck" factor comes into play- this season has easily been the most disappointing in team history, so when they finally have a chance to get a star player with the top pick in the draft, the best player available is Russian. Hell, even the player that most scouts have ranked second in the draft is Russian- Mikhail Grigorenko.
You have to think that there is a hefty amount of trepidation within the Jackets' organization. There is a legitimate concern that Yakupov and/or Grigorenko could end up joining Zherdev and Filatov in the Columbus history books, filed under the chapter entitled "What were we thinking?"
Here's the thing- the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is about to expire. If the league and the NHLPA can't come to an agreement in the offseason, there's a chance that a work stoppage could occur again, as it did in 2004/2005. If there is a lockout, players will be looking for a place to play and at present one of the best options is the KHL, especially if you are a Russian-born player.
Let's say the Jackets draft Yakupov, and the league goes into lockout mode. Yakupov will undoubtedly go to Russia to play while the NHL and NHLPA are negotiating, but who's to say he'd come back once an agreement is achieved? The KHL would pay him a few million, tax free, where in the NHL he'd be making about a million a season (plus bonuses) for the first three seasons while on his standard entry-level contract.
Are the Jackets worried enough about Yakupov not working out, or worse, losing him to Russia if a lockout were to occur? My first option would be to keep the pick, and use the first overall on a non-Russian player. Stud blueliners Ryan Murray and Mathew Dumba would look great in Union Blue. Ditto for Swedish forward Filip Forsberg.
Scenario Two- Quantity, not Quality
In addition to the same concerns I listed above, the Jackets could also be interested in adding a few A- pieces in the draft, rather than a single A+ player. At present, the Jackets have just their pick in the draft. In the Jeff Carter trade, in addition to Jack Johnson the Jackets also received a conditional first rounder from the Kings, the condition being if the Kings make the playoffs this year, the Jackets have the choice of taking either LA's first rounder this year, or wait and take their first rounder next season. The Kings are currently in a battle for the Pacific division lead, and I'm hopeful that they make the playoffs, and the Jackets elect to take their 2012 pick, giving them two in the first round.
Let's assume that the Jackets have two first. Currently two other teams have a pair of first rounders- Washington and Buffalo. I'm sure both of those franchises would love a chance at Yakupov, especially Washington.
Would Washington be willing to trade their two first (currently 13th and 15th overall) for the first overall pick? I think so. That would give the Jackets three first rounders in the teens. If Rick Nash is traded, you know a first rounder would be included as well, giving the Jackets four first round picks. They would be able to draft four high-end players, and even if only two of them go on to be stars, it would be considered a success. Assuming the pick in a potential Nash trade is between 10 and 30, players who could be taken are defensemen Cody Ceci, Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maata, Matt Finn or Slater Koekkoek or forwards Radek Faksa, Brendan Gaunce, Zemgus Girgensons, Teuvo Teravainen, Pontus Aberg or Tom Wilson. Goaltender Malcolm Subban could be an option as well. Any four of those players would be fantastic additions, and would fill various organizational holes. For my money, I'd love to see Ceci, Maata, Faksa and Subban drafted- two puck-moving defensemen, a high scoring Czech forward, and a potential franchise goaltender.
Quantity, not quality.
Scenario Three: The Future is Now
Let's again assume that the Kings make the playoffs and the Jackets elect to take their first rounder in this year's draft, giving them a pick in the late teens, early twenties.
If the Jackets are able to swing a deal for an NHL goaltender with the first overall pick, would it be enough to convince Rick Nash to stay? You have to think the Vancouver Canucks would love to have that pick, and the Jackets would immediatly be a better team if a goaltender like Corey Schneider was the man between the pipes. The defense has been improved with the addition of Jack Johnson. When healthy, James Wisniewski has had an impact on the Jackets. If they can add another defenseman through free agency, maybe those moves would be enough to convince Nash that last year was an aberration and the team isn't going through a complete rebuild.
Of course this decision would have to be made before the draft, so the Jackets can't wait until draft day to swing a potential Schneider deal. If after acquiring a goaltender, Nash still isn't convinced, the team can then use the draft floor to swing a deal involving #61.
Part of me hopes that the team uses the top pick on a goaltender, but whether or not it's enough to keep Rick Nash in town is another story, but it would go a long way.
To summarize, I can see the Jackets either drafting Nail Yakupov with their first pick, use the first pick on a non-Russian player, trading down and loading up on middle-first rounders, or using the pick in a trade for an NHL goaltender.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.