As the Blue Jackets put the 2013 NHL Draft, qualifying offers, and the compliance buyout period behind them, it makes a very interesting picture for what this team is likely to ice for the 2013-14 NHL season.
Despite a perceived need for more top six scoring talent, the club arguably has a pretty decent first line, and there are some interesting combinations from their remaining nine players under NHL contract at the moment.
Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov, and Brandon Dubinsky could easily become the #1 line to start the season, barring a trade or free agency move, bringing speed, skill, and a good bit of defensive support to the party.
The second line could easily involve Mark Letestu, Cam Atkinson, and Matt Calvert, or could be interchanged with the combination of R.J. Umberger, Ryan Johansen, and Nick Foligno that finally caught fire towards the end of the team's stretch drive.
Rounding things out, Jared Boll and Derek MacKenzie seem guaranteed to anchor a fourth line with both toughness and a will to command the puck, while the re-upped Blake Comeau could round out their wing or move up and down in the lineup as needed.
There is still a possibility that the club could reach out to Vinny Prospal to add his veteran experience, or perhaps explore options like Mike Ribeiro on the free agent market. (Oh, and let's not forget the clubs who may need to dump talented players quickly due to cap issues. I hear there's a guy in Philly named Voracek who is pretty good...)
In that case, the club COULD keep a 13th forward rotating in and out of the lineup ("Your usual press box seat, Mr. Boll? Right this way..."), but it's a tricky balancing act to keep up, especially if it means the team will attempt to roll all four lines in a scoring mindset. Todd Richards has shown he can do a good job of managing this roster, but that's never been the game he asked them to play.
Notice I have also not mentioned players like Boone Jenner, whom many expect to have a decent shot at cracking the team's lineup, or Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who probably deserves a careful look as well.
The Back End
As a wise Scottish redhead once said, "OK, kid, this is where it gets complicated."
As we speak, the club has seven defensemen under contract for next season who could be expected to form their NHL core: Wiz, JMFJ, Tyutin, Niki6, Erixon, Prout, and the wildcard that is Ryan Murray.
In addition to THAT, we have recently qualified RFAs David Savard and Cody Goloubef, recent European acquisition Ilari Melart, and the possibility that the club is still interested in retaining UFA Adrian Aucoin in some form of "mentor" role.
In Aucoin's case, that could be a contract, or it could be an offer of a coaching / development position if he doesn't see much interest on July 5th, but even if you take him out of the math, you're still looking at six spots, perhaps seven, and ten men trying to fill them.
The idea of giving Ryan Murray a chance to build himself up to game speed in Springfield if he isn't 100% by the end of Training Camp has been floated repeatedly, and seems likely. You would think the team is hoping to see him earn his way into a 5/6 spot, so he will play regularly, but it seems just as likely that Prout could fill in the gaps while Erixon if he's not ready to go.
Interestingly, this is another area where the team could decide to make another cheap pickup, given the amount of d-men dumped on the market over the last few days in compliance buyouts - Matt Hunwick in particular stands out as a good "budget" option, especially if the club would like to put Murray in the AHL to develop for as much of this season as possible.
Goaltending is likewise set with Bob and McElhinney as the NHL tandem, while we wait to see what the team may provide for Falcons in free agency - it seems likely that the club will look for a veteran who is willing to play in the AHL, but can be brought up to the show as needed, but we likely won't see much movement on this until the initial free agency dust settles.
If the club wants to shake up the roster, then, where do they go?
Fortunately, while I wouldn't be surprised if they come to deals relatively quickly with their first round picks from this draft, the team currently stands at 34 players under contract, leaving them plenty of room to work. beneath the 50 player limit.
Given the depth we've explored, should the team wish to be active in the trade market, guys like Savard, Calvert, or MacKenzie could be attractive to teams operating on tight budgets, and more than a few fans would be happy to see Nikita Nikitin moved - it's worth considering he's on the final year of his current contract, and would only be $2.15 million for a club that wants a 4th-5th-6th slot defender who might be able to recapture some of the scoring prowess he showed two seasons ago.
Other possibilities could also include the team's prospect pool - while I will always hesitate to deal deeply out of the club's future, players like Michael Chaput and Will Weber could easily garner interest.
With extensive space on the cap, the club even could explore trading one of their larger deals - like Johnson or Wisniewski, and "keeping back" some of their salary under the new CBA rules, though I suspect that Jarmo would avoid that if at all possible - the club may not be trying to ride the salary floor, but that doesn't mean the ownership wants to throw too much money into players we're not actually paying to perform. (At the moment the only buyout on the books is Mike Commodore, who will come off the rolls after the 2014-2015 season.)
Then there's the final option: Wait. Let this club go into a full training camp with a roster that delivered an inspiring performance last season, and see what happens. Wait to see who remains waiting for a phone call on August 29th after being waived or bought out in early July. Wait to see if a team like Philadelphia, Vancouver, Minnesota, or Boston blinks and decides they need to shed more salary. Wait for a surprise in development camp, or an unexpected training camp performance.
Keep an even keel, and let the opportunities come to you rather than trying to chase them down, and take the best shot.
"Wherever you go, there you are."
All of this adds up to the fact that Columbus has areas where they may desire to improve their roster, and they are one of a handful of clubs who possess the flexibility and assets to explore every possible avenue available under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to find just the right pieces - and to open up space on the roster once they're on board.