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The Trade Deadline: Put the Pitchforks Away

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The trade deadline saw a bit of everything for the Blue Jackets, who incurred the wrath of some by trading James Wisniewski for two players and a pick.

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Trade Deadline Day --  it's that day every year when 10 million General Managers are permitted to voice their elation or anger at what the resident genius/idiot who happens to occupy the front office of their favorite NHL club perpetrates upon the roster.  It is a land of buyers and sellers, and as in real life, the sellers think the assets  they have are worth more than the buyers think they are.  Of course, every now and then one side or the other is seen as being fleeced, and hence the elation/anger cycle.

Yesterday was no different overall, as the pundits were out in force to declare the winners and losers.  However, here in Columbus, the day was a mixed bag of emotions both in terms of the substance and sequence of what transpired.  Here's my take on the day's events.

First, the timing of things was a bit excruciating, as the morning and early afternoon went by with absolutely nothing happening on the Blue Jackets'  front.  There were some early rumors involving Cam Atkinson and Boston, and another involving Wisniewski and the L.A. Kings, but nothing truly meaty happening.

The first deal to hit was the feel good story of the day, when Jordan Leopold was dealt to Minnesota for a 5th round pick and defenseman Justin Falk.   Not a huge deal until the letter written by Leopold's 11 year old daughter Jordyn (yes, really) came to light.  In that letter, addressed to the Wild, she asked that they trade for her dad, because he was lonely in Columbus and they missed him.  The letter went viral, Jarmo Kekalainen tweeted "It isn't always just about business . . . "  and the deal became the calling card of the day for the NHL, which seems to have more than its share of stories.   Leopold came in at a time of desperate need after Fedor Tyutin was injured, provided blue line stability on the ice and veteran leadership in the room.  That's all you can ask for, and the fact that the Blue Jackets got their 5th round pick back, and a big (6' 5") journeyman defenseman in return was a bonus.  Full marks for all concerned.

Shortly after the Leopold deal was announced, there were Twitter rumblings that the Blue Jackets were in active discussions with Cam Atkinson over a new contract.  Atkinson -- together with Wisniewski -- were the prime subjects of trade conversation heading into this deadline day.  Atkinson has had some sparky moments with coach Todd Richards, has woefully under-performed this year and has been called out for playing less than a 200 foot game. Still, he has speed, skill and tenacity, which are qualities much in need, and has tons of upside potential.

Before anyone could click "Retweet" , it was announced that a deal had been done -- 3 years, $10.5 million, progressing from $2.5 to $3.5 to $4.5 over the three years.  David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period inadvertently caused a moment of confusion when he fat-fingered the numbers and published a $14.5 million number, which would have been more surprising.

The Blue Jackets hit the sweet spot with this deal, and showed much the same approach that they did with Ryan Johansen.  They are basically saying, "We think you're good kid, but you have to prove you can do it consistently."   The contract starts low, provides increasingly valuable "carrots" over the three years, and includes no limitation on trading or moving him if his production does not improve. No criticisms here.

Now we get to the blood-pressure elevating deal, which actually took place about an hour before the deadline expired, but did not get announced until after the clock struck three.  The deal returns Wisniewski to his former home -- the Anaheim Ducks -- accompanied by a third round pick in this year's Entry Draft.   Coming back to Columbus are center prospect William Karlsson, veteran Rene Borque and Anaheim's 2nd round pick in the draft this June.  Let the firestorm begin!

Monitoring Twitter and our own Deadline Day open thread here was an eye-opening experience.  By the reactions, you would have thought that the Blue Jackets had just traded Bobby Orr for Mattias Timander, straight up.  When Jarmo Kekalainen came out and explained his thought process, it was summarily rejected by the bulk of the online observers, who by this point were grabbing for the pitchforks and torches.  What did Kekalainen say?   Basically that the organization is pleased with the development of the young defensemen, that he believes these guys can fill Wisniewski's role, and that the acquisitions and moves fit his plan going into the off-season, which includes adding some more depth on the blue line.  Hardly the stuff of high treason, but the mob was quickly lamenting that another "re-build was under way. "

Time to take a deep breath, together with your favorite calming medication.  Let's look at the facts.  First, the trade deadline is rarely a time when the selling team gets immediate help.  That's what the buyers are looking for, and because the buyers are in the thick of a playoff race, they cannot surrender significant  front line pieces.  Instead, their penalty for being needy is to surrender picks and prospects, usually the former.  So, the fact that Ryan Getzlaf is not coming to play in Nationwide should not be a shock.

Next, let's look at Wisniewski's actual value, versus his perceived value, which in this case is enormous.  Yesterday, there were many who rued the loss of "our best defenseman" and bemoaned the fact that a first round pick was not received in return.  The hard and fast truth is that James Wisniewski -- although playing better this year, by and large -- is not the Blue Jackets'  best defenseman.  He's a good player, a nice guy, but is truly a power play specialist who was forced to play above his true station on the blue line, due in part to injury and in part to the normal development time for young blue liners.

Since his last stint in Anaheim, two-thirds of Wisniewski's goals have come on the power play.  His point totals come primarily from assists, and more than half of those are second assists -- not unusual for a guy occupying the point.  This season, he has a single even strength goal to his credit.   Candidly, the defensive end of the ice is an adventure for Wiz.  While he can make some beautiful shots in the offensive end, he can  -- and does -- make some spectacularly bad plays in the defensive end.  He is infamous for the bad blue line pinch, which then turns the other way into an odd man rush, and has an unfortunate knack for turnovers in the defensive zone.  Insofar as the physical game is concerned, he ranks only fourth among Blue Jackets'  blue liners in hits per game, and is out-hit by several forwards, including Jack Skille.  Anaheim will most likely give him third pair minutes at even strength, and first unit power play duty.  At age 31, he is not going to get faster or better, and 1st round picks are not devoted to this skill set.

Let's look at this from Kekalainen's perspective for a second.  Wisniewski has a career-high eight goals this season, earned over 56 games, with 127 shots to his credit (ranking fifth on the team).  Now consider one of those young defensemen Kekalainen was referring to  -- Kevin Connauton.   He similarly has eight goals, earned over just 39 games and 63 shots.  His point shot has an uncanny ability to get through on goal, which is all you can really expect.  Give Connauton Wisniewski's minutes, and the numbers will improve significantly.  Sure Connauton needs work on the defensive end, but that's Wisniewski's Achilles Heel as well.  While I don't necessarily share Kekalainen's enthusiasm for David Savard, Cody Goloubef and a healthy Ryan Murray provide a young core, while Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson provide the veteran leadership.

Karlsson is a solid prospect at center, which is always a coveted position.  He may be a real find that fits into the Blue Jackets long term plans, or an asset that can be packaged with others to bring greater return. Borque was clearly just a "salary equalizing" component to the deal, but even he could provide some veteran assistance.  Would you rather have Borque or Boll?   Columbus has an impressive stockpile of draft picks for a draft that is the deepest since 2003.  While the Blue Jackets don't necessarily want to get any younger at this point, amassing assets is always a good thing, as they can always be used to fill gaps where needed.

Including Kerby Rychel and Sonny Milano, the Blue Jackets have 19 forwards with realistic shots at the big club next year under contract, with Matt Calvert and Mark Letestu still needing deals.  On defense, Cody Goloubef and Justin Falk are RFA's, with Goloubef highly likely to get a deal.   That leaves only Curtis McElhinney -- or his replacement -- needing a deal to fill out the roster.  When the dust settles, the Blue Jackets should have somewhere in the $9 million to $10 million range to play with in terms of cap space, and 21 NHL caliber forwards under contract.  Combined with the draft picks, that's a pretty heavy arsenal to carry into the off-season.

Insofar as the "rebuild" assertions are concerned, I have only one word.  No, not that one. "Rubbish" is what came to mind. Consider that the forward lines could look something like this:

Jenner -- Johansen -- Foligno

Hartnell -- Dubinsky -- Atkinson

Dano -- Anisimov --  Wennberg

Calvert -- Letestu -- Clarkson

Of course, that doesn't account for Skille, Gibbons, Borque, Karlsson, Tropp or Boll.   Nor does it account for the likes of Rychel, Bjorkstand or Milano making runs at the roster.  The others provide depth and pieces to move for some veteran blue line help, while there is plenty of cap space to upgrade the backup goalie position.  Some cap space has to be held in reserve to account for the youngsters who will be hitting RFA status over the  next few years.

Finally consider that a relatively young core of Bobrovsky, Dubinsky, Foligno and Johansen have been locked up long term, with Atkinson and Hartnell also here for the foreseeable future.  The important thing is that the Blue Jackets have control over their roster, either due to long term deals or RFA/ELC status.  That's a good thing when you're building a franchise brick by brick.

So yesterday may have not brought the blockbuster return that some (unrealistically) expected.  From where I sit, the stage has been set for a productive off-season.  Let's see what kind of play Kekalainen and Davidson can produce. They deserve that.