During the darkness that was the 2011-2012 season, the first rays of light of the breaking dawn of the new culture of this franchise broke through--I would argue--because of one man: Vinny Prospal. From publicly calling out the team's lack-luster practice habits, to playing every game at age 37 coming off an injury, to the biggest move--electing to stay and re-sign to be a part of the organization through retirement and beyond--Prospal's attitude and commitment to the franchise signaled the turning of a huge corner.
But, we've known all of this.
However, while the culture in the dressing room has changed for the better--in large part because of Prospal's commitment--it's not the only thing that's changed. In the front office, only Craig Patrick and Chris MacFarland remain from the cabal that made that deal with Prospal. New team president John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen aren't technically beholden to any handshake agreements to keep Prospal around as a player until he retires.
The new brain trust has shown a willingness to make bold moves to help better the franchise, and beyond them this roster has been completely re-made in the past two years. Think about it: Vinny is now one of the longest-tenured Blue Jackets, only behind guys like R.J. Umberger, Fedor Tyutin, Jared Boll, Matt Calvert, and Derek MacKenzie.
So, we've had no shortage of moves, and it's hard to argue that most of them haven't paid off quite well. And, we can expect more moves this summer, to be sure. But, there may be a move NOT made that could ring throughout the fan base.
Essentially, there are three big free agents that need to be re-signed: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artem Anisimov, and Vinny Prospal.
Obviously, the team is going to do whatever it can to get Bob signed; you don't low-ball a Vezina winner. That said, that trophy gives Bob and his agent some additional leverage. It may mean that Bob gets more money than the Jackets were budgeting for him.
Aaron Portzline has reported that there hasn't been any movement on Bob's contract, but a few possible wild cards lurk. There's the KHL in Bob's home country, which has been known to try to make big splashes by luring players with huge paychecks. To me, though, that doesn't pass the smell test. If Bob really wanted to play in the KHL over the NHL, he wouldn't have signed with Philly in 2010. Further, what would be the motivation to go back to the KHL after just winning the award as the best goaltender in the best league in the world?
To me, it feels like bargaining leverage at worst, pure bluff at best.
Then, there's the threat of an offer sheet from another club looking to make a splash. This can happen if he's not re-signed in Columbus by July 5th. How likely is it, though? Well, the Blue Jackets currently have more cap space than all but eight NHL teams, and all but three of those teams currently have more holes on their roster to fill in terms of players than does Columbus. Of those three teams, Ottawa and St. Louis are set in goal. Calgary could be lurking out there.
The point? It would take a flat-out insane offer to get the Jackets not to match. They have the cap space to match most teams in the league that might try to make a steal with Bob. And, as we saw with Shea Weber last summer, it's not unprecedented to see a team stretch its budget to keep an important player.
So, the smart money is that Bob will be in a CBJ sweater this fall. It's just going to be a matter of how much he ends up costing.
And, that's where the dominoes start to fall.
The Jackets have $18.5 million in cap space. They need to re-sign the following players, for sure: Bobrovsky, Anisimov, and then have some decisions to make with Vinny Prospal, Adrian Aucoin, and Blake Comeau.
This doesn't take into account any plans Davidson and Kekalainen might have to spin picks into current NHL players at the draft. Suppose, for the sake of argument, Bobrovsky gets $5 million a year, which if the KHL or an offer sheet drive the price up, isn't outside the realm of possibility.
Next comes Artem Anisimov. I don't think anyone thinks they won't re-sign Arty, and that he'll get some kind of raise. His current cap hit is $1.875 million. Suppose it jumps up to $2.5 million next season. All of a sudden, the $18.5 million is down to $11 million. No problem, right?
Well, here's where the team is at a fork in the road, and the new GM's aggressiveness could come into play. We saw the move made for Marian Gaborik, and were all pretty surprised, I'd say. Suppose also that, at the draft, the Jackets trade for Thomas Vanek and his one year of $7.1 cap hit from the Sabres. All of a sudden, $18.5 million in cap space is down to $3.9 million.
Under this scenario, the Jackets would have two goalies (assuming Curtis McElhinney is the backup), seven defensemen, and 12 forwards. The lineup would look something like this:
Thomas Vanek--Artem Anisimov--Marian Gaborik
Matt Calvert--Brandon Dubinsky--Cam Atkinson
R.J. Umberger--Ryan Johansen--Nick Foligno
Mark Letestu--Derek MacKenzie--Jared Boll
Looks pretty good, no? Obviously, you'd need to probably grab some fourth line depth, either in the person of Comeau, or a promotion from Springfield. I don't think there's room for Aucoin, but there are rumblings that the team may be looking to bring him back.
But, where does Vinny Prospal fit into that equation?
I guess he could be signed as part of that depth, but with less than $4 million to play with, there isn't a ton of wiggle room if the Jackets spend half of that on Prospal. He's showed the past two seasons that he can still contribute in a top-six role, and if he has the desire to play another season he deserves that shot.
And, therein lies the proverbial rub: the Jackets have positioned themselves masterfully heading into this summer, albeit probably having to pay more than they would have liked for Bobrovsky. But, to give themselves three first rounders in a deep, deep draft combined with abundant cap space? Purely brilliant, whether it was planned that way or not.
But, if you make a big-splash move using those assets, the unintended consequence might be that Prospal becomes the Hockey Moses: he was the biggest leader of this team through the wilderness, but he may not get to enter the Promised Land.
Which leads me to the proverbial question for all of you: letting Prospal walk if a big move for someone like Vanek can be made probably makes great business sense (Vanek and Gaborik both have just one more year left, and can be re-evaluated next summer). It would definitely be an on-ice upgrade.
But, wouldn't it just suck from a fan's perspective?
I, for one, have been excited for Vinny to retire as a Jacket, and to move into a front office role. He certainly earned that right, in my opinion, after the commitment he made to the franchise and the city. But the Jackets find themselves at a huge crossroads: they look like a team ready to make a huge leap, and when you're in that position you might not want to put the brakes on for sentimental reasons.
I'm not casting any aspersions onto Thomas Vanek with this statement at all, but remember that moves don't happen in video game world. Real-world chemistry can't be predicted. Losing Vinny from the dressing room may hurt more than we can predict, even though on paper adding Vanek in his place is a definite upgrade. All we need to do is look back to Manny Malhotra and Michael Peca versus Samuel Pahlsson. Pahlsson was probably a better third-line center on paper, but the chemistry lost from Peca and Malhotra hurt the Jackets in 2009-2010.
So, I have to admit, I don't know where I stand, and considering the draft is not until next weekend we're far from knowing what's going to happen. Until contracts start getting signed, we won't know how much money the Jackets have to play with.
And, we truly don't know what Jarmo and JD might be thinking with their bounty of first round picks.
So, even though I'm a born-and-bred Cleveland fan, I'm not ready to be all gloomy just yet.
That said, a scenario like this that saw Prospal in another sweater this coming season would make me sad. Because, even if the Jackets' moves bring them into the playoffs, can't we agree that there's really no guy on our current roster that deserves to lace 'em up for Columbus in the playoffs more than Vinny?