There's been some speculation about what the Jackets will do if/when a final determination on Nathan Horton's future is made. There's a good chance that he'll never play again, which is truly heartbreaking. The club must move on though, and are apparently willing to make a move to fill the void:
Told #CBJ would consider pursuit of a big-ticket, top-6 winger if it sees no end in sight to Nathan Horton's back woes.— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) October 7, 2014
Between insurance and long-term injury reserve, the Jackets will be clear of Horton's contract, which carries a cap hit of $5.3 million. Currently the highest paid player on the team, and with plenty of cap room already in place, it's safe to assume that the Jackets have the budget to add with a similar or slightly greater cap hit.
It's hard to imagine a fully healthy roster right now with so many key players on the injured reserve, but for the sake of argument if the Jackets can get relatively healthy and want to trade for a Horton replacement during the season; here are five names that warrant discussion:
Cap Hit: $5.25 million
Signed Through: End of 2017 / 2018 Season
Why the Jets would make this deal: Kane has been the target of criticism among Jets media and parts of their fanbase, but the fact remains he is their most lethal weapon and has scored 30 goals in the past. His goals per game have trended downward since that 30 goal year though, and perhaps a fresh start for both Kane and the Jets is in order. Kane would give the Jackets a legitimate sniper to play with Johansen, and where he's only 23 he hasn't yet hit his prime. He won't come cheaply for the Jackets, but this would be one hell of a way for the Jets to make their first trade involving a player.
Cap Hit: $5.725 million
Signed Through: End of 2018 / 2019 Season
Why the Hurricanes would make this deal: The ‘Canes are a mess right now, thanks in part to injuries to key personnel. Even when healthy they weren't expected to contend this year, and that's troubling when they are paying huge salaries to the Staals, Alexander Semin and Skinner. With Jordan Staal out long term with a broken leg and Eric Staal's name already out there in trade rumors, Skinner too may be available for the right price. With a new management team in Carolina they may look at entering a rebuild, and getting a bounty of futures by trading guys like Eric Staal and Skinner would kick it off in grand fashion. Skinner would be a fine addition to the Jackets, but he wouldn't bring the same kind of physical play that Horton would have. With Cam Atkinson on the verge of becoming a consistent 30 goal threat, this may not be the best move for the Jackets to make.
Cap Hit: $4.15 million
Signed Through: End of 2014 / 2015 Season
Why the Sabres would make this deal: Buffalo is tanking unlike any team we've seen before. They are struggling mightily, and unloading an expiring contract in Stewart would give them another future asset as they slowly rebuild into something resembling an NHL team. The price for the Jackets would be reasonable, and if he isn't a good fit in Columbus the two can part ways after this season. His style of play would fit in with the CBJ, but he remains only a 20G/40PT threat. He wouldn't be a straight replacement for what a healthy Horton could have offered, but he's a good plan B.
Cap Hit: $6.0 million
Signed Through: End of 2018 / 2019 Season
Why the Oilers would make this deal: The Oilers have put up a string of wins recently, but they are still a club that needs to be rounded out. Eberle is just one of many good, young forwards with skill to burn on the Oilers, and would be the kind of 30-35 goal man the Jackets could use. Perhaps a deal involving a defenseman like Jack Johnson would be enough to entice the Oilers to make this trade. He's not going to beat you physically, but playing with Johansen and say, Scott Hartnell on a line would leave him room to operate. Of all the players I'm discussing today, Eberle would have the highest price tag, both in trade and in terms of cap hit. It would be a serious commitment by the Jackets.
Cap Hit: $5.9 million
Signed Through: End of 2016 / 2017 Season
Why the Blackhawks would make this deal: The Blackhawks are up against the salary cap, but they are not necessarily in any hurry to break up their championship core. Sharp is the perfect complimentary scorer in Chicago, but with the Jackets he'd be a top line winger. He's 32 so he's right in the midst of his prime years, but he's only signed for another two years after this season. I can't think of a more perfect replacement for Horton, but like some of the other names discussed here he won't come cheap.
I didn't put much emphasis on what the Jackets would give up in trading for these five players, but the fact remains all would makes sense as replacements for Horton on a scoring line. If the Jackets can get through this absolutely ridiculous rash of injuries and can remain in the hunt, a big deal is possible. If they fall behind though, they may be forced to wait until the offseason to bring in a top-six forward.
If free agency next summer is the route the team will take, the pickings are slim in terms of top-line wingers. A quick look at the pending UFAs is underwhelming, to say the least. Jason Spezza will be a UFA, but he's a center. Martin St. Louis will be available, but he's almost 40 and doesn't fit the plan. Some remaining options (all not ideal): Drew Stafford, Justin Williams, Jiri Tlusty, Matt Beleskey and Carl Soberberg.
Making a big trade seems like the best option to replace Horton if the team is looking for outside help. They are loaded with excellent young prospects, but they will almost certainly have to deal their first round pick in the 2015 draft to get a deal done. In what is considered to be a very deep and talented draft that will be a tough pill for the Jackets to swallow, but you have to give to get.
Use the comments to offer up some other potential Horton replacement options.