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A Hockey Trade Breaks Out in Columbus & Nashville

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The Blue Jackets and Predators stunned the hockey world with a bold trade that has fans on both sides cheering . . .and predicting imminent doom.

Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

It never fails.  I had just about put the finishing touches on my follow-up to the Order From Chaos piece from last week -- this one focusing on the front office and its options going forward -- when I heard "Oh, Wow!!" from my wife, who clued me into the fact that Ryan Johansen had just been traded to the Nashville Predators for Seth Jones.  So much for that article (at least for now), as weightier issues are at hand -- and that piece is now unfortunately obsolete.

Naturally, there has been a rush to judgment on this deal already, with comments coming in at The Cannon at a breakneck pace.  After all, thousands of general managers could not possibly be wrong, could they?   So, I've read tons of comments on a number of sites here and in Nashville, looked at the reaction at the NHL level, and dug into the stats and histories a bit.  It's intriguing, but not surprising, that there is a considerable divergence of opinion on this one, in both cities.  My favorites, however, are the strident opinions of those who likely have never seen either player on the ice, yet know definitively who "won" this deal.

The problem with analyzing any trade, draft pick or free agent signing is that we never know the whole story.  It's comparatively easy to assess a player's performance on the ice.  You have your eyes, your experience and a wealth of statistics to help you on that score.  Sure, good players on bad teams can have poor numbers, and undisclosed injuries or off-ice problems can come into play, but on a game to game basis, you can pretty much identify who is playing well and who is having issues.  Unfortunately, when it comes to player moves, that's only a small part of the equation.  Sure, you want the player to be playing well when you do the deal, but you have to pay equal attention to what happened in the past, and what is likely to happen in the future.  How old is he?  What's his injury history?  Has he peaked, or is there upside to his game?   Does his game fit our club?   These are just a few of the myriad questions that arise, quickly taking you from the realm of objective fact to educated speculation.

However, even more significant are the other factors that are known only to a precious few -- namely who is available, and at what cost?  We'll never know about all of the conversations and negotiations that did not result in a deal, the inquiries for players who are not available, or the refusal to deal assets that the other team(s) want.  Sometimes, a team is willing to move a player, just not to you, either due to a direct intra-divisional or intra-conference rivalry, or simply because of some actual or perceived slight in past dealings.  it happens, and when it does, at least one fan base is howling.  How many teams screamed at their hometown GM's after Dougie Hamilton went from Boston to Calgary for picks?   Plenty.  But the fact was that the Bruins wanted Hamilton as far away from Boston as they could get him, and I guess Anaheim wasn't interested.

So, we're left to look at the historical record and educated guesswork to evaluate moves such as this.  In truth, at this early stage of the proceedings, most of the reactions are visceral, based upon existing allegiances and beliefs.  For example, there are those who believe that Jarmo Kekäläinen/David Poile are idiots who never have made a good move, and never will.  Needless to say, this segment is not pleased -- in either town.  These are the equivalents to the perms-bears of the investment world:  pundits who are perpetually predicting an imminent stock market crash.  On the one hand, they can smugly be assured that they will eventually be right (and will be quick to tell you that they predicted the crash).  On the other hand, they miss out on millions in profits while the market rises.  Sometimes being right is not all it's cracked up to be.

I have to put my chips in with those who classify this as a pure hockey trade.  Nashville currently sits in the final wild card spot in the West, and has scored one fewer goal than Columbus (although in one fewer game).  Still, offense has been an issue in Nashville for a long time, and Poile was under considerable heat to bring some offensive production into the barn. In Johansen, he has a kid who has put up some good numbers in the past, has All-Star credentials, and plays center ice. On the risk side, there are questions about attitude/maturity, health, conditioning and the potential for an ugly salary negotiation a year hence.  Johansen will represent a significant net increase to the Predator's cap hit, but the likely retirements of Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro will likely ease that hit.

For his part, Jarmo Kekäläinen has been under at least as much heat over the under-performance of the blue line this year.  After awarding a new deal to David Savard (which kicks in next season), and putting his chips in with the likes of Kevin Connauton and Dalton Prout, the Blue Jackets' GM has been sorely lacking in mobile, puck-savvy defensemen.  He gets that in Seth Jones, together with good size.  He also gets a player who was selected in the same first round slot as Johansen (#4 overall), but three years later.  Jones and Ryan Murray have the potential to be the foundational blue line players for years.  With a more offensively talented squad, Jones' offensive numbers are likely to see a boost as well. Of course, the risk for Kekäläinen is that Jones does not pan out as advertised, that Johansen goes on to be a 100 point per season player, and that Jarmo accordingly ends up as a scout for a Finnish junior squad in the northernmost reaches of Lapland.

So, this has all of the elements of a good old-fashioned hockey trade. Two teams with very specific (and hard to fill) needs, two players who perhaps were not fulfilling their potential in their existing roles, and the resulting risk to both sides.  Anything can happen going forward -- and both teams could look back and find this move to be a winning one.  Conversely, they could both be regretting the move in a few years' time.  That's the life of an NHL GM, and a big part of the reason why the GM chair frequently changes occupants.  There's just too much educated guesswork involved to always be right, and you just hope that you get the big ones right.

One misnomer that seems to be rampant in the early returns is the notion that somehow John Tortorella "ruined" Ryan Johansen.  First of all, the numbers simply don't bear that out.  Johansen has been listless and unproductive from the start of the regular season.  In the first seven games under Todd Richards, Johansen had one goal and was minus-6.  In the 31 games he played under Tortorella, Johansen posted five goals, actually a slight improvement.  He carried a +2 in those games. His assist totals have slumped a bit, but overall there has been little difference.

My personal impression remains one of an immature budding star, who got used to being treated like the superstar under the former coaching regime, and was unprepared to lead the team out of a poor start, and unprepared to be actually held accountable in terms of ice time and productivity.  Note that after he was scratched one game, Tortorella returned him to top level minutes.

We may never know what the true problem has been, but it had to be significant for the club to pull the trigger on this deal at the time it did.  With another year on his contract before a new deal is due (still as an RFA), it would seem that there was no hurry to do the deal.  On the other hand, what if Johansen didn't come around this season?  Now his value goes down, and Jarmo has his back against the wall in the final year of the deal.  He either has to bite the bullet, negotiate the best contract he can -- taking a significant cap hit along the way --  and hope Johansen comes around, or trade him sometime during the year, inevitably at a lesser return.  On the fringe of the playoffs, and with goalie Pekka Rinne not the invincible one when his big deal was signed, Poile also needed to act. Both leveraged their organization's strengths to plug obvious weaknesses, and each took on some risk in order to achieve some return. That's a hockey deal.

For the Blue Jackets, a legitimate concern involves the now-vacant #1 center slot.  While there are likely other deals coming, Brandon Saad has proven to be everything that was expected at the time of the trade, and more. Specifically, he has shown that he does not need -- and in fact thrives without -- Ryan Johansen on his line.   Alexander Wennberg, meanwhile, has emerged as a legitimate NHL center, currently more of the playmaking variety.  Scott Hartnell, who turns 34 in April -- is on pace for another 60 point season.  While some have called for Hartnell's trade, I suspect that his continued productivity and veteran presence will keep him around for another year or two.

Johansen's departure should allow for William Karlsson to be liberated from the prison of the fourth line, where Gregory Campbell will likely move, with Brandon Dubinsky centering the remaining line.  While Josh Anderson was called up immediately to fill a wing slot, likely due to his goal production and relative experience, I expect Kerby Rychel and Sonny Milano to receive auditions in the short term.  With Rene Bourque likely departing after this season, it would not be a stretch to see lines something like this :

Hartnell -- Wennberg -- Saad

Atkinson -- Dubinsky -- Jenner

Milano -- Karlsson -- Foligno

Calvert -- Campbell -- Rychel

Similarly, for the blue line, Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray and Seth Jones become the long term anchors.  Cody Goloubef becomes a stable member of the top six, and Michael Paliotta gets a shot at the roster.  My guess would be that Fedor Tyutin would hang in one or two more years to provide some veteran leadership, while I think David Savard gets dangled as trade bait.  While I concur with those who say that Jarmo jumped the gun in giving Savard a long term deal, the deal is not the monetary disaster many claim.  His $4.25 million cap hit starting next year puts him in the pack as a middle pair guy in the league, which is not unreasonable if he can get his game back.  Paired with some picks, he could bring some return.  In the meantime, if Zach Werenski turns pro (as is rumored), the organization could allow him to season a year in Cleveland.

With Johansen gone, the salary cap likely to increase a fair amount, and the big bonus reserve from this season gone, the Blue Jackets should have ample cap space to get the RFA deals done for Murray, Jones, Jenner and Karlsson, as well as young Anton Forsberg.  So, the overall cap/roster situation could actually improve as a result of this one.

The bottom line here is that nobody knows if this was a good deal or not.  Both players have upside and downside, and the deal  -- on its face -- fills the needs of both Nashville and Columbus.  Only time will tell, and even then you can only truly judge by the information you had at the time of the deal.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and hope is not a strategy.  Other than those eternal truths, there are no rights or wrongs at this point in a deal.  It's a solid hockey trade, and removes that Sword of Damocles that has been hanging over the club.

That's my take.  What say you?   Stay tuned.