The Columbus Blue Jackets, led by General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen, made a lot of moves over the last week, but it’s not clear whether the goal was to make the team better, or just to save money under the salary cap.
First, Josh Anderson was traded to Montreal for Max Domi and a third round pick. The negotiations for Anderson’s prior contract dragged through training camp and preseason, and it appeared things were at an impasse this time as well. Domi — also a restricted free agent — signed his new contract quickly, for two years at $5.3 million AAV. Anderson got his extension quickly as well and got his desired long term deal, too. He signed for seven years at a $5.5 million cap hit.
On a player level, the trade could be a “hockey trade” which benefits both teams. Montreal gets the power winger they need, and Columbus gets to plug a gaping hole in their center depth behind Pierre-Luc Dubois. From a financial standpoint, the two year deal gives the team a chance to see if Domi is a fit here, and makes him yet another player whose contract expires in 2022. (Currently just two players are under contract beyond then: Cam Atkinson and Gus Nyquist) Domi has a slightly smaller cap than Anderson, and is less of a financial commitment.
On Thursday, Jarmo took advantage of his last opportunity to buy out the contract of Alexander Wennberg at just 1⁄3 of the remaining value of the contract. The cap savings are immense. This move was a long time coming, with the production coming nowhere close to matching the cap hit. It was necessary to create space to re-sign Dubois, Domi, and Vladislav Gavrikov, let alone to make any other signings or trades.
Two more surprising moves came on the even of free agency, with defensemen Markus Nutivaara and Ryan Murray traded, for a prospect and a draft pick, respectively. It was not a surprise that these players could be on the move, but it was assumed that they would be part of a package for an impact forward, rather than traded for scraps in what Kekalainen admitted on Saturday were “soft moves.”
If they weren’t traded for an impact player, perhaps the extra cap space (roughly $11 million added from those moves) would allow the Blue Jackets to be players for one of the top free agents, like former MVP Taylor Hall. We eagerly anticipated the start of free agency on Friday afternoon, only for the Jackets to never reach the fireworks factory:
Basically my mood went from Milhouse to Moe over the course of the day.
Now, as of this writing, most of the top forwards remain unsigned. Unlike past years, there was no week-long period prior to the start of free agency during which teams could contact and negotiate with players and agents. Big deals could take more time to seal this time. But on Saturday, Aaron Portzline floated another possibility, that the extra cap space was meant to prevent another team from signing Dubois to an offer sheet. Jarmo confirmed this in a Zoom call with local media, frequently using the word “vulnerability” when describing the possibility of that offer sheet:
My reaction to that:
You know what the best way is to prevent another team from making an offer sheet to your prized player? SIGN YOUR OWN DAMN PLAYER TO A CONTRACT! This isn’t rocket surgery. Too often, Jarmo lets his RFAs dangle in the wind until just before training camp before signing their contract. How much does this limit the team’s ability to make other moves during the offseason?
In addition, offer sheets are extremely rare in the NHL. When Montreal signed Sebastian Aho last year, it was the first signed offer sheet since Calgary signed Ryan O’Reilly in 2013. Both offer sheets were promptly matched by the players’ original teams. Even if someone signed Dubois to something similar to Aho (5 years, $8.454M AAV), that’s something the Blue Jackets could easily match and still have room to re-sign fellow RFA Gavrikov (who isn’t eligible for an offer sheet). If more cap space is needed, THEN you move some pieces like Murray and Nutivaara. Now sure, at that point you lose your leverage when making moves to fit under the cap ... but those defensemen were traded for a low value anyway. Maybe a fifth round pick is all you could get for Murray anyway, given his injury history. But Nutivaara is young, proven, and has a very team-friendly contract. He had a down year in 2019-20, but that’s even more reason to not trade him when his value is at its lowest. Even a second or third round draft pick would be better compensation than a 22 year old minor leaguer who has yet to crack the NHL and can’t even score at the AHL level.
Maybe another move is still coming. We are still likely two months away from the season starting. Many teams are up against the cap and will need to make trades to create space. The Blue Jackets could capitalize then, and per his comments on Saturday, Jarmo left the door open for that kind of move happening. But it’s not likely such a player will move the needle as much as someone like Hall would, or even a Evgeni Dadonov or a Tyler Toffoli.
The final possibility with all of this is that the team is operating under a lower, internal salary cap. Jarmo declined to comment on that. We are, of course, in the middle of a pandemic and in addition to the lost home games at the end of last season, it is likely that when play resumes, fans will still not be allowed into Nationwide Arena. That gameday revenue is critical to the franchise making payroll. There could be a limit to how much John P. McConnell is willing to dip into his other assets to cover the team’s losses. I can understand that approach, even if I don’t like how it handcuffs management in terms of icing the most competitive team possible. All I ask is that, if that is the case, that the team be honest and straightforward with us. Don’t insult our intelligence to suggest that entering the season with less defensive depth was done for the benefit of the roster.
The week that was
Over the weekend, they signed veteran center Mikko Koivu. This feels underwhelming compared to what we expected to happen with all that cap space. On its own, however, the term is short, the price is low, and he’s a reliable depth player. A center corps of Dubois/Domi/Koivu/Nash is much better than Dubois/Jenner/Wennberg/Nash.
In our ongoing series of player reviews, Elaine wrote about what Nathan Gerbe brought to the Jackets when he was called up.
The Cannon Cast was dedicated to talking about the draft, with special guest and friend of the pod Jeremy Dewar. We touch upon prospects we thought the Jackets would take, but also talk a bit about draft philosophy.
Play me out
RIP to a virtuoso and rock legend, Eddie Van Halen.