It's fair to say that when John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen, and Todd Richards talked this offseason about the plans for the 2014-2015 season, they expected this team to be a buyer when March 2nd rolled around.
The storm of injuries, illnesses, and just plain weird accidents around this team dashed that hope almost before the season began, and though the club has put up a pretty respectable fight, all things considered, it's pretty clear that they'll be one of the teams moving assets out, not loading up for a postseason blitz.
That leads to the next problem: What (or perhaps more properly, who) would they consider a moveable asset?
There's a pretty clear core here - and honestly, aside from incredibly horrid luck, no good reason to break them up. This is a team that showed they could make some pretty big noise when healthy, and during the brief period where 90% of the team was actually on the ice, they made December something special to watch. Barring a truly stunning offer, why tamper with that?
That doesn't leave a lot of "wiggle" room, but there's still a few players who might be interesting to another club, particularly for the right price.
Cam Atkinson - Might as well start with the most controversial one. Up front, I will say that I am a big fan of Cam Atkinson. When he's on, he's got great speed, beautiful hands, and a real gift for finding a path through defenders. But the problem is that when he isn't on, he disappears. His size makes it difficult to be a physical impact player, and it's all too easy for him to appear "lost" or "floating" when he isn't feeling confident.
An RFA at the end of this season, Atkinson can point to his 40 point season last year to justify a raise from his $1.175 million salary, but I suspect the Jackets are also looking at the 14 and 18 point seasons which preceded it. This season isn't as sharp of a regression - he's on pace for a 30 point season right now - but it's still a step back. With guys like Wennberg, Dano, Rychel, and Milano in the pipeline, there's options to replace him in the lineup as a scoring winger, and a team looking to add a little speed and punch might find him interesting.
Is he guaranteed to move? No. But it certainly wouldn't shock me if we saw him involved in a deadline deal.
Jack Skille - I know at least one fan who is going to be very angry with me for suggesting that Skille's on the block, but as a pending UFA, he's in some pretty serious limbo right now.
Last season, Skille had some great chemistry when he joined the team as a waiver pickup, and seemed to mesh perfectly into the playoff bound machine. When he left, it was because the team couldn't guarantee him an NHL level spot, and it's no small irony that after the Islanders sent him back down to waivers, the Jackets were able to give him that NHL spot because of their injury ridden start to the season.
At first, it seemed like Jack had stepped right back in where he left off, contributing goals on the third line and moving up into a top six role periodically when needed. But as the team's gotten healthier, his role was reduced. His own injuries put him on the shelf, and since he's returned to the roster, the coaching staff hasn't given him much ice time.
I think Skille likes Columbus a lot, and I think the feeling is mutual, but the combination of depth and established players seem to be working against him for the second year in a row. He's inexpensive and has some clear value - a team looking to bolster their bottom six for cheap might well be giving him a look.
Artem Anisimov - If the team does a "blockbuster" move, Arty might be one of the pieces. Even though he's signed for another year at $4 million, he's a player who has struggled a lot this season even before being bit by the injury bug, and it was reported earlier this season that a deal was all but done that would have sent him to the Oilers.
I'm not sure the team can ask for a lot for a guy who has missed over half the season, but on the other hand it's not too hard to package him as an attractive player who might just need a change of scenery. With his scoring percentage depressed way below normal (currently .083, according to NHL Numbers, while his average over the previous 5 regular seasons is up at .122), he's due to bounce back in a big way, and he's still a great faceoff man who can be extremely dangerous on the PK. If the club is still unhappy with his performance after coming back to the lineup over the next few weeks, it might be best for both sides to part ways, and see if he can recapture his form elsewhere.
Mark Letestu - I have to say that Letestu is the guy I think is least likely out of these four forwards to be moved, but at the same time he might have some of the greatest value.
Even though I suspect the team does consider him part of their "core", he's a UFA at the end of the season and an incredibly versatile, responsible guy who could be re-signed at a very cap-friendly number - quite important, that last bit, since the cap is likely to stay in the $71-72 million range next season thanks to the Canadian Dollar taking a bath. I have a hard time believing that other teams wouldn't be asking about Mr. Test Tube - particularly if they think he can put another 30+ point season together if he stays healthy.
There are other possibilities up front - Brian Gibbons, if he gets healthy, could be a nice "depth" pickup, and I could see a team kicking the tires on Jeremy Morin, but they have to get off the shelf first. Much as I'd love to see another team want some "toughness" by picking up Jared Boll or Corey Tropp, I just don't see it. The front office seems to love both of them, so I guess we'll continue carrying $2.5 million in dead cap space for the forseeable future.
Another pending RFA is Matt Calvert, but much like Letestu, I think he's considered a "core" guy, and unlike Atkinson, he's been pretty much what the team expected, when healthy. He's a 10-12 goal, 10-12 assist kind of guy, who finds a bit opportunity here and there, and otherwise spends his time driving the other team nuts...and that's exactly what he's done to date. I can't see the team moving him unless someone really wants to overpay.
With the return of Ryan Murray to the lineup, the Jackets are back to carrying 9 NHL quality defensemen on the active roster. Now, admittedly, they're flipping one or two around to play at forward right now to help both ease the sting of injuries and the pile up at the back end, but that's still leaving someone eating popcorn every night. I've no doubt the team has been exploring trade options rather than risk losing someone for nothing via waivers, but those kind of deals almost always hang fire until the deadline unless someone really gets into an injury crunch.
The Jackets only have two pending free agents on the blue line, so that's probably the place to start.
Cody Goloubef - Goldbeef hasn't really stood out this season...but he hasn't been a big headache, either. The very definition of a workmanlike player, he goes on the ice when he gets the opportunity and generally does a good job of keeping his opponents in check. He doesn't really excel at anything, but he's a nice option if you're looking to pick up a #6/7 guy. The fact that he's an RFA only signed for $625,000 right now doesn't hurt either - if you wanted to bring him back after the trial run, he's quite affordable!
Jordan Leopold - Honestly, I don't quite know what to think about Mr. Leopold. He's a veteran player with a lot of good experience, and I think at times he's been a steadying force for the entire back end. But since Fedor Tyutin returned, Leopold hasn't seen much ice time at all, and he's arguably a guy who isn't expected to contribute much beyond that veteran presence. That $2.25 million cap hit may scare off a few teams, but on the other hand it's only for the remainder of the season, since he's a pending UFA. I could see a younger team wanting someone who has been there and done that, and Leopold does bring a fair amount of playoff experience to the table.
Dalton Prout - On the one hand, Prout is a young, physical D-man who isn't afraid to lay a big hit or drop the gloves when his team needs something to change the momentum of a game. On the other, he's been really struggling at actually playing defense this season, which is a bit of a problem. Much like Goloubef, Prout has a very cap friendly contract, with the bonus of being signed for another season before becoming an RFA. The playoffs can be a very good time to be a hard hitting physical d-man, and it's not unusual to hear a GM say he wants "a little more toughness" going into deadline day.
Fedor Tyutin - While he's not the veteran D-man a lot of people keep expecting to see traded (sorry, Jack!), he is a player who could appeal to a lot of teams if presented properly.
For the last four years, Tyutin has been a model of consistency, but even before he suffered a broken leg back in November, he was having trouble getting himself into gear. With Tyutin signed for another three years, that's concerning if you're Jarmo. Maybe you suggest that a change of scenery would revitalize his game, much as the move from New York to Columbus helped him break through? After all, he's been a pretty consistent 20-30 point, first or second pairing guy, a two time Olympian, and owns that big left handed shot. Maybe this is just a down year, compounded by a freak injury that he needed more time to recover from than the team expected. With the right circumstances and a different defensive partner, it wouldn't be shocking to see him turn it around...though that could just as easily be a reason for Columbus to ride this rough patch out.
David Savard and Kevin Connauton are likely generating phone calls, too, but I don't see them going. Savard stepped up his game a lot over the last two years, and his ceiling seems higher than a lot of people thought when he was drafted. Meanwhile, K.C. has been a fantastic waiver pickup, and I can't see the team letting him go - he's been a natural fit for the club, and one of the bigger silver linings to come out of this season.
The only other player who might be of interest at the deadline depends a lot on how Sergei Bobrovsky's recovery is doing.
As Anton Forsberg has proven that he's ready to take on an NHL backup role, it makes Curis McElhinney a potential commodity. Now, if Bob isn't ready to come back by early March, or if the team doesn't want to take chances with his recovery, I suspect C-Mac will stay right where he is.
On the other hand, if the team feels comfortable rolling with Bob and Forsberg going forward, there's a certain scarcity on the market when it comes to veteran backups, and even though I'm not sure C-Mac is going to be the best available, he's at least an option, particularly for a team that's feeling a lack of depth behind their starter. (Looking at you, Nashville...)
This is all tea leaves and speculation, but this time of year, there's plenty of that to go around, and these at least seem a little more likely than, say, Jack Johnson for Taylor Hall.
Think we're on to something? Think we're crazy? Let us know what you think!