The Columbus Blue Jackets played the best team in the league on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning. If that game was to be a test to see if the Jackets stacked up as contenders, then they failed.
Now, there isn’t shame in losing to a team like that. Tampa is beating most teams they face this season. But what stood out is how they had better talent at the top of the lineup AND better depth. Yanni Gourde is on the third line and has 11 goals and 17 assists. Mathieu Joseph is on the fourth line and has 11 goals. No bottom 6 forward in Columbus has more than 9 goals (Anthony Duclair).
So, can the Blue Jackets compete in a seven game playoff series against the Lightning? It sure doesn’t seem like it at this point. But that’s not an issue until the Eastern Conference Finals, hopefully, and we’d be thrilled to get to that point. But what about our Metro rivals, Washington and Pittsburgh? They have the same depth of talent and elite stars like Tampa does. That depth has carried them past the Jackets the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, this kind of star power doesn’t grow on trees. It’s generally not available in trades, either. Columbus got fortunate to acquire Seth Jones, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Artemi Panarin in this fashion. But the latter two may be on their way out of town sooner rather than later. More on that later.
Most of the top players in the NHL were drafted by their teams, and were drafted at the top of their class. This is the consolation for bad teams: at the end of a disastrous season, you can get the prize of a future franchise player. In that way we got Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
As it stands now, the Blue Jackets are a good team but not a great team capable of breaking through and making a deep run. Not this season. At some point, just getting into the playoffs and losing in the first round is not enough. So what choices does general manager Jarmo Kekalainen have? How does he avoid the plateau?
And how does he balance the short term future (i.e. this season) with the long term (every other season after this) given that two of the stars may not re-sign?
The first choice is to tank. Sell off everything that is not nailed down and collect prospects and draft picks. I don’t think this is a plausible path forward for this franchise, however. It is already a young team, so there are not many expensive veterans that would a) be attractive on the trade market and b) would generate much in return. Panarin and Bobrovsky are not likely to agree to a new deal with their new team if they are traded this year, so their return would be at a rental price. The assets coming back would not significantly help this season OR future seasons. The rest of the best players on the team (aside from Cam Atkinson) are still under the age of 25! Those aren’t players you move, those are players you keep and build around.
The other problem with tanking is that even getting those picks is no guarantee. Remember 2011-12, aka the worst season in Blue Jackets history? They had the worst record in the season, lost the lottery, and drafted Ryan Murray. Thankfully Murray has been very good this season, but prior to now he has not lived up to his draft position. Had they won the lottery, they could have drafted Nail Yakupov, who was the consensus top pick but who failed as an NHL player and is now back in Russia. So, tanking is a big risk.
The other option is to make aggressive moves to radically improve the team. Some of you have been suggesting since the summer that the Blue Jackets go “all-in” on this season. The philosophy there is mortgaging the future to push for a Cup run this season while the Russians are still on the roster.
I have now come around to this way of thinking, but with a modification: the front office should seek to radically improve the roster, but in a way which benefits this season and the next several ones. Seth Jones is making a meager (for this talent level) $5.4 million a season for the three seasons after this one. Dubois and Werenski are also under team control through that time. Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Boone Jenner, and Markus Nutivaara are also under contract through then.
So: the task should be to build a team to compete for a Cup over this season and through 2021-22. The only untouchables should be Jones, Werenski, Dubois, Atkinson, and Panarin*. Everyone else - and all prospects and draft picks - should be made available. Now, I’m not saying that every other player and every pick/prospect be dealt. But enough to make a couple major additions.
What would be looking to gain? Established, all-star quality players (forwards, specifically) under contract through 2022. Currently no older than 30, ideally. One name that has come up in the comments a few times recently is Vladimir Tarasenko of St. Louis. He’s 27, his no trade clause doesn’t begin until the summer, and he is signed through 2022-23 at a cap hit of $7.5 million a year. If St. Louis is looking to rebuild, we could send them several attractive pieces. Maybe Oliver BJORKSTRAND, Markus Nutivaara, and a first round pick? (Yes, it pains me to put those two on the block)
If you can think of any other players that fit this mold, share your ideas in the comments.
My goal in holding on to Panarin through the end of this season is to hope that he recognizes the commitment to winning and decides it is worth re-signing with the Jackets. But if he does decide to leave in free agency, then there will be new players to fill that hole without taking too big of a step back next season.
*Note: As I first started outlining this idea, I had included Sergei Bobrovsky among the untouchables. My concept is to keep the very best players and build around them for this year’s playoff push. After Bob’s unofficial suspension yesterday, I no longer believe that keeping him through the season is a viable option. He is visibly unhappy here this season and I worry about his attitude poisoning the locker room. I’ve long argued that his previous playoff performances were a small sample relative to the rest of his career and are no guarantee of future playoff failure. But this season his regular season stats have seen enough of a decline that I have less confidence that this is the year he will find his Vezina form in the postseason.
Therefore, I believe there can be addition by subtraction in trading him, and that even if his trade value has dropped, I’ll take whatever we can get now. There’s still a chance that some desperate team will overpay based on his past accomplishments.