The off-season jockeying began in earnest today, as Blue Jackets' GM Jarmo Kekäläinen announced the signing of defenseman Cody Goloubef to a two-year, $1.5 million deal that will pay him $700,000 this season, and $800,000 next season. Most importantly, from Goloubef's perspective, is fact that this is a one-way contract. Goloubef's long journey to The Show has finally been realized, and the two-year term provides him the chance to first show what he can do over a full 82-game schedule . . . then show that he can do it again.
Goloubef, 25, became a fixture on the blue line down the stretch this past season, appearing in 36 games, notching nine assists and a relatively gaudy plus-12 over that stretch. The latter number has to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt, as his playing time peaked just as the club was getting healthy, and plus/minus ALWAYS needs to be taken with a grain -- or block -- of salt. Still, on a relative basis it was still a notable accomplishment, and matched up well with the optics on the ice. Goloubef is a puck moving defenseman who has speed, vision and excellent positioning and game sense. He has decent size, but would not be considered a bruiser.
I've always liked Goloubef's game, as it well suited to the current NHL, and provides a solid combination of speed, skill and defensive soundness that the club needs. Being the first free agent signed, it's clear that he was one of the up-and-coming youngsters that Kekäläinen referred to at the time of the James Wisniewski deal. His confidence grew by leaps and bounds as his playing time increased, and though he had no goals, he began showing more of an offensive spark as the season wound down. Provided his development can continue to ramp up, his game makes him suitable for any pairing among the existing blue liners, and provides much-needed skill to facilitate timely exits from the defensive zone.
With Goloubef winning the CBJ Free Agent Derby, the question now becomes: what's next? On the blue line, all indications are that Fedor Tyutin, David Savard, Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson have slots sewn up among existing players. Kevin Connauton has the inside track for one of the final two spots, assuming that he can improve his reaction time in the defensive zone by a step,. and continue his point-shooting wizardry. Goloubef would be the most likely other competitor for the 5-6 slots, with Dalton Prout holding down the seventh spot on the roster. That's assuming, of course, that the Blue Jackets stand pat with their existing defensive roster, which I think is highly unlikely.
The Dispatch reported today that the club was "close" to signing Justin Falk to a two-way deal, providing a bit of depth on the blue line, but I have to believe that a deal for a veteran defenseman or two is in the cards between now and July 15. The club needs insurance in the event that Ryan Murray continues to experience difficulty with the injury bug. A third veteran to join Tyutin and Johnson as defensive leaders would be an asset, and a guy like Dalton Prout could easily be dangled with some of the surfeit of forwards to get such a deal done. Prout did not progress as hoped last season, struggled with the puck, and was truly not missed during that last epic month of the season. With the exception of Murray, it's unlikely that anybody on the blue line is untouchable for the right deal -- which means a deal that improves the club -- and specifically the blue line.
While a fair amount of talk about a Jack Johnson trade pops up from time to time, I think the club sticks with him into the new season, to see if he can post a consistent 82-game season, using some of the skill and intensity we saw in the playoffs. Given the horrific personal problems he faced last season, he is likely to get the benefit of the doubt. However, he could well be on a short leash, and another slow start could result in an a quick move. With a shortage of defensemen, Johnson would still have trade value. I don't think his contract is an issue at this point, as the Blue Jackets have tons of cap space, and his contract is not out of the ordinary by current standards.
However, trading defense to get defense is an unlikely scenario. Instead, it seems more likely that some combination of forwards and draft picks will be used to the the blue line upgrade done. The Blue Jackets have nine picks in the seven rounds of the draft, including the #8, #34 , #38 , #68 and #69 picks over the first three rounds. I suspect that those two early second round picks will come heavily into play as the draft draws closer.
That Goloubef was signed before the other two pre-eminent free agents -- Matt Calvert and Mark Letestu -- could have some significance -- or not. Those guys could bring real value in a deal, but so could Cam Atkinson, who is signed, but without an NMC and at a very tradeable salary level and term. (I'm assuming that Curtis McElhinney, Jack Skille and Brian Gibbons will be allowed to test the free agent market.) In the final analysis, it depends on who becomes available, and at what asking price.
For now, the Blue Jackets' front office seems intent on locking up the young defensive talent -- as alluded to earlier -- and laying the groundwork for what seems likely to be an active -- and interesting -- 45 days to come. For now, congratulations to Goloubef -- he has earned his slot. Stay tuned.