This is a challenging offseason for Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
He has to make decisions about the club’s pending free agents (particularly RFA Alexander Wennberg), make decisions with his scouts for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, and trying to wheel and deal around the upcoming Expansion Draft that will see the Las Vegas Golden Knights select one of his players.
The rules of the draft require Columbus to protect players with no movement and no trade clauses unless they opt to waive them, which locks in Brandon Dubinsky, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Nick Foligno - and it’s doubtful the club would want to risk parting with any of them.
But then there is Scott Hartnell.
Several reports have indicated that the team is asking the veteran forward to expose himself to the draft to ensure they can protect Josh Anderson and William Karlsson, who could both be on Vegas GM George McPhee’s radar.
It has to be a tough pill for Hartnell to swallow, since he went into last offseason in a similar situation. The smart money said that Hartnell was not going to be a Blue Jacket by last July, and the fact that he returned for the 2016-17 season was a surprise.
Despite the confusion, he still put up a 37 point season, and has continued to be a guiding presence for several of the younger forwards in the room. He’s made it clear he thinks this team can contend for a Cup, and that he’d like to be part of the group that makes it happen.
And here comes the front office, asking if he’ll put himself in a position where he could find himself being shipped off to a team that isn’t likely to have a serious chance at a championship before his career comes to an end. Again.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to see the front office’s position.
Hartnell’s productivity took a hit this season, and you can argue that his ice time was reduced due to his slumping play, or that his play slumped because of having less opportunities get his game back up to speed, but the fact remains he’s a 35 year old player and it’s doubtful he’ll get back to being a 60-70 point player again.
It would be one thing if he’d struggled in the regular season and turned it up for the playoffs, but the usually reliable postseason performer was held off the sheet in all four games, and his presence on the ice was...forgettable.
The chances are fairly slim that Hartnell would be selected by Vegas if he allows himself to be exposed, while Josh Anderson is a very tempting target - and one the Jackets would like to make a cornerstone of their future. William Karlsson is also likely to be of interest, and Jarmo might be able to make a deal to tempt McPhee away from one forward if he can protect the other, but leaving both in the draft pool isn’t going to be pretty.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that every other offseason move has to be dictated by the expansion draft - until they know who is and is not going to be on the roster for next season, there’s no easy way to plan out their targets.
If Hartnell agrees to waive his NMC, and the team can protect both Anderson and Karlsson, there’s a good chance a player like Jack Johnson or David Savard would be headed to Vegas. A loss, but the team has strong enough defensive pipeline to replace those losses, and the cap space which will be freed up can go into free agency to help secure the pending RFAs and potentially fill any defensive gaps.
Hartnell would remain in the fold to continue mentoring the younger guys in the room, and he can play a solid bottom six role, perhaps kicking in a bit of scoring as a nice bonus. If the team does find success in the postseason before Hartnell’s contract comes to an end, it’s a great finish to a long NHL career, and perhaps he finds a role in scouting or coaching for the organization.
If Hartnell decides not to waive his NMC for the expansion draft, life gets complicated.
Hartnell’s already had a contentious relationship with the coaching staff and front office, and this is only likely to make things worse if they keep him in Columbus. (He might consider calling James Wisniewski and asking exactly how a very similar scenario has worked out for him!)
If the reports from the Dispatch are correct, the team might decide to buy out Hartnell rather than give up a slot to protect him. If the situation comes to that, he’ll be looking to land on a contending team, but finding one who will make space for him on their roster will be tricky - especially if he’s coming with a reputation of not working with a team that was trying to put themselves in the best position to compete for a championship.
Meanwhile, in Columbus, the buyout eats valuable cap space that was already going to be fairly tight, and even though the loss of Hartnell would open a roster spot for a forward like Sonny Milano or Oliver Bjorkstrand in the NHL, it means a fairly young team continues to get younger, and they could find themselves hurting for the lack of experience - particularly if they should reach the postseason again. Would the team find themselves looking for someone who could provide a similar voice in the room? How will the club’s chemistry be affected? The entire situation brings up more questions than it does answers, and and a good chance of pain all the way down.
There’s no fun in going through a messy divorce - especially one that could have been avoided on paper.
We have to hope that Hartnell and the club will work things out in the best interest of both sides - but it’s all too easy to see a scenario where everyone loses.