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Midsummer Musings: What Happened, What's Coming

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As we move through the middle of summer, time to take a look at what the Blue Jackets have done this off-season and make some educated guesses as to what may be coming.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Stanley Cup was handed out just over a month ago, and free agency is a full fortnight in the rear view mirror.  NHL teams, for the most part, have wrapped up their development camps, and the front offices are now dividing their time between vacations at the summer cottages and figuring out where they are, and what remains to be done before camps open in late September.  Let's do our own review of what's happened, what may yet be coming, and what it all means.

The Draft

The vibrant debate over the selection of Pierre-Luc Dubois over Jesse Puljujarvi continues, with Mike having recently weighed in with his own take on the selection.  I won't beat this drum too long, but a few points are worthy of note.  First, the "consensus" aspect merits further examination.  Puljujarvi was the "consensus" #3 pick, which forms much of the foundation for those criticizing the Dubois selection.  That consensus, in turn, is base primarily on the NHL Central Scouting Rankings, which ranked Puljujarvi as the #3 overall European skater, and Dubois as the #1 overall North American skater.  North American skater rankings are based upon the evaluation of dozens of scouts -- both NHL employees and independent -- while European skaters are ranked by seven -- yes seven -- European scouts. The seemingly infinite number of draft projections that follow represent an interpolation of those distinct lists, based upon any variety of individual considerations.  Thus, the "consensus" of seven scouts blossoms to become the consensus of the whole.

While ultimate draft decisions are surely influenced to some degree by the rankings, they are more the product of team needs, personal scouting and the individual perceptions of those responsible for making the decisions.  That can result in divergence from what the consensus anticipates.  On that score, Jarmo Kekäläinen had an advantage over his 29 contemporaries in this draft :  Jarmo knows Finland.  And Finnish hockey.   He brings a depth of personal experience and contacts in Finland that rival or exceed those of the league itself.  Accordingly, I'm inclined to give him a bit of deference when he decides that Dubois is a better bet than Puljujarvi.  Supporting that view is the fact that Montreal,Vancouver and some other clubs were trying desperately to move up to get him.

The bottom line is that the advocates for Dubois and Puljujarvi each have plenty of ammunition for their respective causes.  Puljujarvi earned the respect of the scouts while playing in Finland's top pro league -- a stiffer caliber of competition than Dubois faced in the Q,  Dubois can point to the fact that his numbers are objectively huge -- regardless of perceived strength of schedule -- and the was named the best professional. prospect in the entire CHL, not just in the QMJHL.   Both have hills to climb -- Puljujarvi has to learn the North American game, while Dubois has to hone his skills at center -- but both promise to be great players.  We'll know who was right in 5 - 7 years, so I'm not losing sleep over the pick.

I am excited about the selection of Vitaly Abramov in the 3rd round.  Columbus fans got a hint of his skill set at Development Camp, and now understand how he posted 38-55-93 for Gatineau.  Projected as a late 1st round pick, concerns over his size (5'9", 175) caused him to fall. The Blue Jackets went for skill over size, and snagged a real prize with this pick.  He is at least the heir apparent to Cam Atkinson, and might be knocking on the door sooner than that, though another year in the Q is clearly in the cards.

The selection of Andrew Peeke in the second round was somewhat curious in timing, as Peeke was projected as a late second round or early third round selection. However, the club apparently wanted the player, and may have had a hint that someone was ready to grab him later in the second round.  He adds size to the blue line depth chart, and the fact that they were able to get the player they wanted, and still nab Abramov, is a positive,

Probably the biggest negative from the draft is that no deals were done that would have shed some salary and added some draft picks. The trade market at the draft was much tighter than anticipated,  although some juicy deals were rumored.  There is still plenty of opportunity to remedy this situation as teams wrestle to get rosters filled out     within the cap limits.

For me, the draft brought a bit more than the anticipated amount of return.  Dubois will be terrific, and the addition of Abramov promises to be the steal of the draft.  If Peeke (or any of the others) turn out to be NHL worthy, the Blue Jackets will have significantly beaten the odds with their five picks.

The Moves

The Blue Jackets made a number of moves --- but only a single noteworthy trade -- in an effort to meet multiple needs.  First, they declined to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents Michael Chaput and Michael Paliotta.  Chaput was a well-liked player, but simply hit the glass ceiling when it came to playing at the NHL level.  He was being rapidly eclipsed by youngsters, and the contract space was better used elsewhere.  Paliotta, who was described as a "key piece" of the trade that brought Brandon Saad to the Blue Jackets, simply failed to separate himself from the crowd.  While he played decently at the AHL level, it would have taken $1 million to qualify him.  The depth of blue line prospects made him expendable. Paliotta has since signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Rangers that will pay him $600K at the NHL level, while Chaput inked a one-year, two-way contract in Vancouver.

Next up were the two key re-signings of William Karlsson and Seth Jones.  Karlsson was signed to a two-year deal that will pay him $1 million per season --  a veritable steal, particularly if John Tortorella can get the young man to increase his offensive presence and up his face-off percentage.  After much angst-inducing waiting, Seth Jones agreed to a six-year, $32.4 million deal that will keep him in Columbus for the foreseeable future.  (A modified NTC kicks in for the last two years of the deal).   Despite assurances from Jarmo that a deal would get done, and the fact that Jones was being featured at the club's draft party, the anxiety in the fan community was palpable, as the inevitable specter of the dreaded offer sheets loomed.  Of course, as is almost always the case, no offer sheets were presented, and Jones stated he never considered soliciting offers from other clubs.  This was a terrific signing, both in term and value, and gives the Blue Jackets the top defenseman from both the 2012 and 2013 drafts.

As was widely expected, Fedor Tyutin was bought out, providing necessary cap relief and eliminating an required protected position for the 2017 Expansion Draft.  A bit more surprising was the buyout of Jared Boll.  While he clearly did not figure in the team's future, I suspected that they might simply waive and assign him, under the theory that the roster slot was more significant than the salary hit.  Both guys gave their all for the organization, and their parting, while necessary, is one of those unfortunate realities of the business.  Tyutin has since signed a one-year $2 million deal with the Colorado Avalanche, who seem to make a habit of picking up the Columbus blue line discards.  Meanwhile, having apparently learned nothing from the James Wisniewski experience, Anaheim inked Jared Boll to a two-year contract worth $900K per season.

With the Tyutin and Boll buyouts providing some cap breathing room, the David Clarkson question remains.  The fact that they did not buy him out might suggest that he is a candidate for Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), which does not strictly alter the cap, but does provide a limited exemption for cap compliance.

The lone trade sent Kerby Rychel to Toronto in exchange for physical defense prospect Scott Harrington.  It was no secret that Rychel had demanded a trade, and that his father Warren had ensured that word got around that the talented forward was unhappy with his situation.  Thus, the trade well was truly poisoned, and the Blue Jackets likely did not get the value that they could otherwise have derived in the deal.  I'm torn on this one, as I never felt that Rychel was given a fair shake by former head coach Todd Richards, and showed more skill and quality play than he was given credit for.   On the other hand, while he played well in the AHL, he did not dominate his peers, and was caught by some of the younger prospects.  It all smacks of an underlying attitude problem that the organization likely decided it did not need.  Again, only time will tell.

Finally, three undrafted free agents joined the ranks -- Justin Scott, a center, Jacob Graves, another addition to the blue line, and Dante Salituro, another highly skilled, but undersized center ice player.  Salituro was invited to the Blue Jackets' camp last season, and was one of the last cuts.  Undrafted again this year, the Blue Jackets were impressed enough to offer him an ELC.  He'll add plenty of excitement come training camp.

The Non-Moves

Jarmo stated that he would not be a player in free agency, and was true to his word.  Based upon the deals that were handed out on July 1, abstention was the best policy.  As anticipated, Milan Lucic went to Edmonton --where all forwards go to disappear -- for a tidy seven year, $42 million deal.  While a big name, consider that over the past three years, Lucic has precisely one more goal and eight more assists than Nick Foligno, and was surrounded by better players in both Boston and Los Angeles.

Christmas came early for 32-year old David Backes, who got a 5 year, $30 million deal from Boston, with a full NMC for the first three years, and a modified NTC for the last two.   Backes is on the downward slope of his career, and devoting this kind of money and term to a declining asset seems, well, insane.  Kyle Okposo also became a Six Million Dollar Man with his seven year deal in Buffalo, which is certainly more justifiable, given his point production and age.  And so it goes. . .    The Blue Jackets were well advised to stay out of these bidding wars.

Of course, the primary move that did not occur was the anticipated trade of Scott Hartnell.  While several teams have been kicking the tire on Hartnell, Kekäläinen seems to be willing to wait and try to maximize the return.  While Hartnell is also on the downside of his career, his $4.75 million cap hit looks like a bargain compared to some of the deals being handed out.  With the moves already made, the Blue Jackets don't strictly need to move Hartnell right now.

Behind the Curtain

While we tend to overlook some of the off-ice moves, the Blue Jackets have made several worthy of note this off-season.  Foremost among these was the hiring of Brad Shaw as an assistant coach, devoted primarily to the defense.  Shaw has spent the past 10 years with the St. Louis Blues, and had been targeted by Tortorella as a key addition to the coaching staff.  Torts got his guy, and reaction around the league has been uniformly positive.

On the scouting front, Columbus hired Basil McRae as Director of Player Personnel, after a two-year stint as General Manager of the London Knights.  McRae had been a scout for the BLue Jackets for two years before accepting the London post, and also has ties to the St. Louis Blues organization.  At the same time, the club promoted Ville Siren to Director of Amateur Scouting, Chris Morehouse to Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting, and Josef Boumedienne as Director of European Scouting.   The elevation of  Siren was no surprise, as he has had increasing visibility within the organization since joining the club in 2013 from  . . . you guessed it . . . the St. Louis Blues.   Finally, Jared Bednar received a well-deserved two-year contract extension after bringing the Calder Cup to Cleveland.

One other off-ice move was called to my attention after this piece went up (thanks to doch for the heads up) -- the retention of Nelson Ayotte as a consultant to establish a "high performance" department within the medical/training/conditioning infrastructure.  After ten years as the strength and conditioning coach for. . . St. Louis . . . , Jarmo and JD were able to bring him in as a consultant, in an effort to gain an integrated view of the physical aspects of the training and rehabilitation regimens.  His efforts will be designed to  reduce the incidence and duration of injuries that have plagued the Blue Jackets over the past few years, enhance the performance aspects of the program and otherwise give the organization the benefit of his expertise.  Those with the relevant knowledge hail Ayotte as a world-class expert, and a big addition to the organization.   Apologies for my original omission.

The Path to Training Camp

Although the major fireworks of the off-season are likely over, there are still deals to be made.  (Evidence:  the Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad trade of yesterday).  Salary arbitration hearings are yet to be completed, and there remain some intriguing free agents, whose price will soon be declining.  Teams will be making moves right up to camp to fit within the salary constraints, and position themselves appropriately.  That will create opportunities.

If anything can be discerned from the Blue Jackets' maneuvers thus far in the off-season, it seems to be that the focus is shifting away from the emphasis on "grit", and more focus on speed and skill.  There is still plenty of edge and physical presence, but John Tortorella seems to be more comfortable than his predecessor in letting guys do what they do best.  They all need to be responsible, but speed and skill are the currency of choice in today's NHL, and the club seems to be embracing that fact.

This simultaneously means that the Blue Jackets will be getting even younger.  The club has just under $4.5 million in cap space, with four slots left to fill the roster -- assuming that both Hartnell and Clarkson stay.   If those vacancies are filled by Oliver Bjorkstrand, Zach Werenski, Sonny Milano and Josh Anderson, for example, $2.455 million of that space is used, which gives them a very young and fast roster, with some cap room to spare.  If Clarkson goes on LTIR and/or Hartnell is moved, the club gets even younger, while the cap space opens dramatically.  So, despite appearances to the contrary, the Blue Jackets actually have the full spectrum of options at their disposal.  They can stand pat and have a dynamic young team, or they can make one or more moves to bolster the roster.  I'm personally betting on Dubois to get a full nine game audition this fall, then spend the season honing his center skills in Cape Breton.  If he progresses faster and earns a slot, the club simply gets even younger and more talented.  Not a bad option.

After the machinations at the draft, where deals were rumored involving Sergei Bobrovsky, Sonny Milano and others, I can't help but think that Jarmo has one more big deal in the offing.  The Brandon Saad trade came seemingly out of nowhere, and the posture of the club seems to make another such deal a tantalizing possibility.  It will all be fun to watch, as this all seems to be leading toward the most competitive training camp in club history.  Stay tuned.