Prologue: Well, That Sucked
It’s not news that the Columbus Blue Jackets have some built-in disadvantages relative to other teams in the NHL, including some in the Metro Division. They don’t have the history and lore of an Original Six franchise. They are not located in a major market. Unlike other smaller cities like Winnipeg and Buffalo, there is just not much hockey history here prior to the arrival of the NHL team.
Since the installation of the hard salary cap in 2005, the playing field was leveled a bit. If the Jackets had cap space, they could outbid other teams for free agents looking to cash. Enter Adam Foote and Nathan Horton. Eventually, as the level of play improved, those players who were chasing a ring would want to join for a chance to win a title. Of course, if the team could draft and develop well, then that cap space and the winning culture would keep that homegrown talent in the fold, without question.
Sadly, that has not been the case. The first homegrown star was Rick Nash, who they succeeded in locking up long term. But the team wasn’t good enough and he begged to be traded. Sergei Bobrovsky was acquired as a reclamation project, put in seven mostly great seasons, but no longer saw eye to eye with management. More recently, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene were brought in to be those last pieces to get the team over the hump - but then each left money on the table to move to a city more to their liking.
It just sucks that suddenly money and winning weren’t enough to keep this elite talent on board. It shouldn’t be this way, right?
I’m not here to complain about that, however. That’s not what this article is about. While Monday was a final punch in the gut after a year of worrying, there is evidence that GM Jarmo Kekalainen has had a Plan B all along if any or all of those players left.
I: Stocking up on youth
In the midst of the push to the playoffs and the historic sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jarmo was making moves with an eye towards the future, signing a large number of players to entry level contracts (ELCs):
Plus Veini Vehvilainen and Jakob Lilja after the season, plus Liam Foudy and Alexandre Texier last summer. All are in the mix for roster spots in training camp (with the exception of Tarasov, who will be loaned to a Finnish team). In the case of Merzlikins and the young defensemen Gavrikov and Peeke, the signings burned the first years of their ELCs, meaning they will reach RFA (restricted free agent) status sooner.
ELCs are one of the most valuable assets to a GM in a hard cap league. Why? Because you can get elite production from a young player and pay them less than $1 million for it. Just look at the value the Jackets have gotten from Zack Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois the last few seasons, while they’ve made so much less than their linemates.
So why is Jarmo burning these ELC years? Because it’s an incentive. For those that make the team soonest, they can get a healthy raise on their next contract. Just look at all of the players who earned a million dollars or more per year from Jarmo based on what their ELC performance:
Sergei Bobrovsky (2013): 2 years, $5.625M AAV (average annual value)
Cam Atkinson (2013): 2 years, $1.15M AAV
Dalton Prout (?!)(2014): 2 years, $1.075M AAV
Ryan Johansen (2014): 3 years, $4M AAV
Brandon Saad (2015): 6 years, $6M AAV
Ryan Murray (2016): 2 years, $2.825M AAV
Boone Jenner (2016): 2 years, $2.9M AAV
William Karlsson (2016): 2 years, $1M AAV
Seth Jones (2016): 6 years, $5.4M AAV
Alexander Wennberg (2017): 6 years, $4.9M AAV
Josh Anderson (2017): 3 years, $1.85M AAV
Markus Nutivaara (2018): 4 years, $2.7M AAV
Oliver BJORKSTRAND (2018): 3 years, $2.5M AAV
If a player manages to win a top line or top pair or starting goalie position within a year or two, he can earn at least a 5 year term or $5 million cap hit. Not too shabby.
II: Hope is not a strategy, but healthy competition is
Late Cannon writer Jeff Little had a saying he liked to repeat: “Hope is not a strategy.” I am an optimist by nature, and I find that when projecting the future of the team I tend to err on the side of the best case scenario. But then Jeff’s saying pops into my mind and forces me to reconsider. Certainly we don’t want Jarmo just crossing his fingers and praying things work out, right?
If he were to say “Alexandre Texier will be the second line left wing to start the season,” that would be a problem. He had a great debut, but that’s hardly a guarantee of future success. Against Boston he was physically outmatched. Can he handle an 82 game schedule? What if he gets hurt? (aka Ryan Murray Syndrome). These are all valid questions, and I would be concerned if this were the only option.
Instead, Jarmo is hedging his bets by giving John Tortorella and his staff multiple options for each open position. Therefore we don’t need just Texier (for example) to pan out. That top six forward spot can go to Texier, or Emil Bemstrom, or Liam Foudy. Positions on the fourth line can go to the aging Brandon Dubinsky, or the patient backup Markus Hannikainen, or the young bruiser Eric Robinson. The sixth defenseman will be a very difficult decision between Gavrikov, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington, and Adam Clendening. We’re not all-in on Elvis Merzlikins to replace Bob. We just need him OR Joonas Korpisalo to prove they’re a capable NHL starter. Some of these battles will be resolved in camp, while some will carry on into the regular season.
III: Enjoy the show
Still not convinced? That’s OK. As much as we want to continue the playoff streak, and see the core of this team build on their second round appearance, it may be more prudent to keep expectations low. It’s much less stressful that way! If you don’t expect much, you can’t be disappointed.
Even if the team misses the playoffs, that doesn’t mean that the season can’t have fun moments. I enjoy watching rookies having success and showing improvement. I like seeing a team come together and finding a way to win, even if it comes with some growing pains first.
The 2016-17 Blue Jackets were not expected to make a run by anyone (except yours truly). Early in the season, it was enough to see them avoid the slow start that plagued the 2015-16 team. Then they kept winning and winning and suddenly they were winners of 16 in a row and on their way to the playoffs.
Will this team be that good? Probably not. For one thing, the Metro Division has gotten much, much more competitive. But there is a solid core (Atkinson, Dubois, BJORKSTRAND, Anderson, Jenner, Foligno, Jones, Werenski, Nutivaara, Savard, Murray) and a lot of exciting prospects who can contribute this year. Enjoy the ride, and trust that Jarmo has made the right bet.