We are just four days away from the 2014 NHL Draft, and 11 days away from Red, White & Boom, but the fireworks are already starting, courtesy of General Manager Jarmo Kekäläinen and one of his favorite dance partners, the Philadelphia Flyers. As Dan laid out earlier, the Blue Jackets acquired veteran forward Scott Hartnell for disgruntled R. J. Umberger and a 4th round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
Many -- if not most -- Blue Jackets observers held the view that the market for R.J. would be virtually non-existent, and that we would accordingly be talking about a compliance buyout next Monday. I was of a different view, believing that Umberger would be packaged with another asset to bring a decent return. There are a number of teams needing a more physical forward in the ranks, but I did not have the Flyers on that list.
Put me in the camp that calls this a solid deal for Columbus. Hartnell is the quintessential player that you despise when playing for the opposition, and adore when he plays for you. With 52 points and a plus-11 last season, Hartnell showed that he had overcome the injuries that had plagued him the year before -- an unusual one for the sturdy Hartnell. Contrast that with the 34 points and minus-3 for Umberger last season. Those are just numbers, but they bear out the intangibles that the players bring to the table. Hartnell makes players around him better, through his skill, his hard work and his intensity. Umberger did not have the same effect for Columbus, which ultimately led to the decline in his ice time and his discontent.
To be sure, Umberger played an important role during his time with the Blue Jackets, and provided some memorable moments. But his skills had declined over the past few years, to the point where he was more of a liability than an asset with the puck. The majority of his goals came on redirections in front, which is not a $4.6 skill. On a more intangible level, Umberger seemed a bit on the pouty side over the fact that he was not awarded the "C". It all adds up to the need for a change in scenery, for both sides.
Numerically, this is basically an even deal in the short term. The two players were born within three weeks of each other, and their cap hits are $150K apart. Hartnell's deal extends for a couple of extra years, but his actual salary is also on the decline -- down to $3 million for those years. With the escalation of the salary cap, that will be a mere pittance by then.
On the plus side, Columbus gains a proven top-line forward, who puts forth 100% effort and has the full spectrum of tricks one would expect of an NHL veteran of his stature. He always seems to come up big in big situations, and provide leadership and intensity to the room. On the down side, Hartnell is a bit of a hothead, and can rack up penalty minutes at a prodigious rate. Put him on the same line as Brandon Dubinsky, and you create a third special team -- PP, PK & PC -- Penalty Creation Unit. There's a fine line where passion stops and irresponsibility begins, but perhaps Hartnell will toe that line as he matures. There's also the age-related risk of declining performance, but that is shared equally between the two 32-year olds.
GM Ron Hextall is apparently following the lead of Paul Holmgren in making deals that appear to be more disruptive than constructive. Hartnell was an integral part of the Flyers' top line last year, and has been part of the club's fabric for awhile. He now joins the parade of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky -- who have been dispatched from the City of Brotherly Love with less than brotherly ceremony. While the Flyers have acquired the likes of Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Jake Voracek in the process, Richards and Carter have hoisted the Stanley Cup -- twice -- and Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his mantle.
Speaking of Jeff Carter, perhaps the biggest positive of this deal is the fact that Hartnell waived his No Movement Clause to come to Columbus, after a couple of phone conversations with Kekäläinen. Those chats apparently were designed to convince Hartnell that the Blue Jackets' front office was committed to winning. I don't know what was said, but it convinced Scott, and triggered reaction across the league about the Columbus coup. Unlike Mr. Carter, Hartnell is glad to be here -- like Nathan Horton -- and that's a really good thing.
It's very difficult to see how this trade makes Philadelphia a better team. Umberger no longer has the top six skill he displayed in the playoffs preceding his departure for Columbus, and destroying the chemistry of the top line seems to be the height of folly. Still, it's only the beginning of the silly season of trades and signings --- and unsubstantiated internet rumors of same -- so there may be a Grand Design of which we are presently unaware. I doubt it , but let's give Hextall the benefit of the doubt.
So, Jarmo gets a full thumbs up from here for this deal. Columbus is quietly assembling an awesome roster of forwards, and has the potential to be dangerous with any line on the ice. Sure, there's risk, but I'd rather be on the Columbus side of this deal than on the Philadelphia side.
Oh, yeah. Before I forget, there are other things going on this week, like the draft, the release of the schedules for next year, the NHL Awards Show and the announcement of the new Hall of Fame inductees. (Has anybody suggested to Gary Bettman that perhaps spacing this stuff out would keep interest across the full off-season?). I'll have all of that -- and more -- in the next edition. Stay tuned.