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Options for Overhauling the Jackets' Defense

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How active will the Jackets be this offseason in improving the blueline?

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

For John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen and the rest of the Jackets’ hockey operations team, the lost season is in the rear-view mirror and work is underway to prepare for next season. The top priority this offseason is clear: overhaul the defense.

The team has six defensemen currently under contract for next year, but changes are needed. Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson have three years each remaining on their deals, and are the two primary veterans on the blueline. Ryan Murray has one more year left on his rookie deal, and will be looking to avoid the injury bug as he plays for his second contract. David Savard, Dalton Prout and Kevin Connauton each have one year left before becoming restricted free agents.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to lock in Tyutin, Johnson, Murray and Savard for next year. That leaves three to four spots.

There is a lack of defenders at the AHL level, with Austin Madaisky the best of the bunch, but he could use another year of seasoning. Dillon Heatherington and Ryan Collins are solid prospects, but are years away from contributing at the NHL level.

To fill slots 5-8, the Jackets have trades, free agency, and Mike Reilly as options.

Let’s start with the latter first. Reilly’s situation has been discussed ad nauseum on The Cannon, but the optimist in me says he’ll sign with the Jackets, giving them an offensive defenseman who can play third pairing and powerplay.

As mentioned, Prout and Connauton are under contract, and of the two Connauton brings more to the table. He had stretches this season where he was very good, with enough offensive ability to keep his spot in my scenario.

Let’s pause. We now have Tyutin, Johnson, Murray, Savard, Reilly and Connauton filling six of eight spots. Prout’s under contract, but he can be sent to Cleveland (if he isn’t claimed off waivers) or traded if he doesn’t make it in the top eight. For the sake of discussion, I’m going to say that Prout is not among the top eight blueliners at the start of next season. That leaves two players that need to come in from outside the organization.

On the free agency front, there are a handful of decent options, and the Jackets have lots of room under the salary cap. The free agent blueliners that are in line for the big money are guys like Christian Ehrhoff, Zbynek Michalek and Andrej Sekera. A slightly lower tier of players like Jeff Petry, Cody Franson and Johnny Oduya will also get decent coin on the open market.

If I’m spending the Jackets’ money for them, I’m handing it to Petry or Franson. Both players are 27, with Petry scoring 7-15-22 in 78 games with Edmonton and Montreal, while Franson put up 7-29-38 in 78 games between Toronto and Nashville. Petry had a cap hit of 3.075 million while Franson had a hit of 3.3 million. Both should hit the 4-5 million per season range. Give me Franson.

If the team wants to go with a more inexpensive option, there are names like David Schlemko, Andre Benoit, Raphael Diaz and Matt Bartkowski available. A name that I haven’t mentioned yet is Cody Goloubef. He’s an RFA for the Jackets, and would be in the same discussion as the four I just mentioned. If I’m being honest, I’d re-sign Goloubef over signing Schlemko, Benoit, Diaz or Bartkowski.

Another pause. Tyutin, Johnson, Murray, Savard, Reilly, Connauton, Franson and Goloubef.

Alternatively, the team could go the trade route - Artem Anisimov is a big trade chip for a team looking for a number two or three center. Guys like Braydon Coburn and Dan Hamhuis come to mind. Both players have a year left on their contract, and would give the Jackets another veteran blueliner. Anisimov and Nick Bonino would be a good 2-3 punch for Vancouver, so let’s go with an Arty for Hamhuis trade. Hamhuis is owed $4.25 million next season.

Let’s recap:

Tyutin – Savard
Murray – Franson
Reilly – Johnson
Connauton – Goloubef

OR

Tyutin – Savard
Murray – Hamhuis
Reilly – Johnson
Connauton – Goloubef

Perhaps the team can really swing for the fences and acquire two guys like Franson and Hamhuis:

Tyutin – Savard
Murray – Franson
Johnson – Hamhuis
Reilly – Connauton

Obviously this last group of eight players would be the most talented (and expensive) but it would give the Jackets a deep and skilled blueline. Of course it’s reliant on Reilly signing, and the team actually being willing to trade Anisimov. In short, it’s a long shot. If Reilly doesn’t sign, I think the team locks up Goloubef and acquire at least one player like a Coburn or Hamhuis.

This has all been a speculative exercise, meant to initiate discussion. We know the team is going to improve the defense, but will they be able to pull off the kind of moves I propose? Maybe. Maybe not. One thing is certain, however: if the team starts the season with Prout, Connauton and Goloubef in the starting lineup, the offseason can be considered a disappointment.

What moves would you like to see the team make to improve the blueline?