The Blue Jackets have locked down their starting goaltender, some variation of a top 6 D corps, and presumably their top 9 forwards for next season. There are others under contract, of course, but the focus of this piece is on the players without a contract for 2015-2016 and where the front office might go with that.
We'll start from the net out. Curtis McElhinney is an unrestricted free agent. CMac turns 32 in a month and has been a respectable backup for his cap hit in recent seasons. His career NHL numbers of 2.95 GAA and .905 save % aren't noteworthy, but his numbers with the CBJ are slightly better than that. McElhinney is a vet who understands and embraces his role as a backup to Bob. Discounting his early play (in which he may have come back too early from a concussion), he played pretty well this past season, and his higher GAA was largely due to the number of shots he faced because he still posted a .914 save percentage.
This is a hard one to predict. McElhinney only made $600,000 last season, and though he'd be expecting a raise most likely I don't think it would be a drastic one. If the team lets him go, is Forsberg ready for 20+ games in the NHL? No other netminders in the pipeline are close to ready. So if it's not CMac, Jarmo and JD would have to find a capable backup for probably a year. I was leaning towards letting McElhinney go, but my prediction is that he's back for one more season at roughly $750,000.
As I mentioned in the opening, a "top 6" appears to be in place already barring any trades. That doesn't mean the depth on the blue line is, though. Cody Goloubef has been one of those depth guys seemingly his whole career, bouncing back and forth between Columbus and Springfield for the last three or four years. He appeared in 36 games last season with 9 assists. It's hard to believe Cody will turn 26 in the fall. Has he supplanted Dalton Prout on the depth chart? There are not a lot of high-end right-handers on the blue line, which could work in Goloubef's favor. My prediction? The team re-signs him,
and since he's an RFA they may not move quickly just yet to get a deal done. There just aren't going to be a lot of guys in Cleveland that the team will be able to call up and whether or not he ends up as the #6 or #7 guy is irrelevant.
Others - Justin Falk came over in the Jordan Leopold trade (the 2nd one). Falk played in just five games for the Jackets after the trade as the blue line got healthy and he was passed on the depth chart by Goloubef, Murray (when he played), and Connauton. He does have 147 NHL games on his resume, but I didn't see a whole lot in the five games that made me eager to have him back next season. He's an RFA who turns 27 in October. My guess is to let him walk but any trades could impact that of course.
Austin Madaisky was named to the AHL All Star Game this past season. Unfortunately, his season was cut short when a teammate rolled up on his foot/leg in practice. (This. Season.) He's an RFA with no NHL experience, but he was able to produce 12-23-35 in 53 games last season. At only 23 and being a right-hander, I think he gets re-signed and may be the first blueliner called up from Cleveland.
No NHL impact / likely let go - Frederic St. Denis (UFA), Will Weber (RFA), Thomas Larkin (RFA). Some of this may be dependent on how the roster in Cleveland ends up shaking out, but all three of these guys are "older" and pretty much beyond prospect age. Larkin probably has the best shot at returning of the three, but there is little to no chance of any of them suiting up in Columbus anyway. Plus, prospects like Dillon Heatheringon and Ryan Collins coming up seem to have higher ceilings.
The two major question marks are Matt Calvert (RFA) and Mark Letestu (UFA). We have heard Letestu's desire to stay here and win, but the response from the front office sounded quite a bit like their response to Derek Mackenzie a year ago. Letestu, at age 30, is likely looking for a deal for three or more years (see: Mackenzie). The Jackets probably only want to commit to one or to years (again, see: Mackenzie). Letestu's production struggled with Tropp and Boll on his wings much of the season, compiling 13 points in 54 games. They have the cap space to sign him at ~$2 million AAV but I think the issue may come down to term. I think it would be a mistake to let him go, but as of now that's what I think will happen.
Calvert should be back, but the front office appears to be taking their time since he is restricted. I would expect a raise above Boll's cap hit, but below Cam's. Calvert is a 3rd/4th line tweener who can chip in on the PK (at times, he is perhaps the best penalty killer in the opposing zone). He finished last season with 13-10-23 in 56 games. I think he's at his best on the 4th line LW playing 10-12 minutes a night, but he has shown he can hold his own playing up in the lineup. Perhaps he receives a mirror offer of Cam's at slightly lower amounts.
Probably gone - Jack Skille. He's one of the fan favorites, but he didn't capitalize on his increased ice time during the injury plague. He then was hurt when the team came together down the stretch where he could have possibly showcased his scoring ability more. Skille turns 28 next month, and has 8-2-10 in 61 games for the CBJ. I simply don't see a roster spot for him as I'm assuming he doesn't want to sign another two-way deal and start in Cleveland.
Joining Skille on the way out should be Brian Gibbons. You'll remember Gibbons was signed last offseason from Pittsburgh as a free agent. He's still just an RFA at age 27, but never could replicate his playoff magic from a year ago. He had just 5 assists in 25 games with the Jackets, and 3-8-11 in 26 games for Springfield.
Probably back - Michael Chaput. The newly found depth at center and acquisition of William Karlsson could make Chaput expendable, but I think he signs on for one more season. He had inherent trouble with Columbus this season being placed on the 4th line with rotating wings of Cracknell, Tropp, Boll, etc. He's only 23 and RFA, but he will need to impress at camp (if re-signed) to avoid starting in the AHL.
Little to no NHL impact - Sean Collins, Ryan Craig (Springfield captain, so my guess is he stays there), Dana Tyrell, and Luke Adam. Craig is the only UFA of the bunch. Perhaps one or two are brought back to provide depth in Cleveland, but I wouldn't be surprised if they all were not re-signed.
So there you have it. Calvert, Letestu, McElhinney, and Goloubef would have the most immediate impact at the NHL level, but those depth signings are going to be important as well. I suspect a lot of these decisions will be influenced by any potential trades and other free agent signings. On the bright side, the core of the team already has contracts for next season. The down sides? A lot of the depth could leave via free agency and the glut of forwards may force one or two guys out of their opportunity.