Since the season ended, much discussion here in the comment section and on Twitter is how the Columbus Blue Jackets can add another player or two to allow this roster to take the next step. Anyone picked in this year’s draft won’t contribute this season. There is no prospect waiting to break through - at least, not any that didn’t already play in this postseason. The free agent market lacks many big name forwards outside of Taylor Hall. Any UFA would be into their late 20s already and would take up a lot of cap space that the Jackets won’t have after signing their restricted free agents.
This leaves a trade as the most likely move for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. He is no stranger to blockbuster deals, bringing in such players as Marian Gaborik, Scott Hartnell, Brandon Saad, Seth Jones, Artemi Panarin, and Matt Duchene via trade. As the saying goes, however, you have to give something to get something. Whether it’s draft picks, prospects, or active players, the trade partner needs to receive something that makes their team better as well.
With that in mind, I wanted to separate the roster into tiers to determine who is the “core” of this team and who are most likely to be traded. I ranked players individually last year just before the deadline but this time I think sorting into groups is more useful.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski
These are clearly the three best players on the roster, and Jarmo is going to hang up if a team reaches out with a proposal to take one of them. Center is a premium position anyway, and especially for a franchise that has struggled to find a long term answer there. PLD’s stock has never been higher than now after a dominant postseason.
Jones and Werenski are one of the best defensive pairs in the entire league, and could remain that way for five or more years (if they both re-sign in 2022). Jones isn’t flashy, but does all the little things which make things easier for his teammates. Werenski is already one of the top offensive defensemen, leading the league’s blue liners in goals scored this season.
On this week’s Cannon Cast, we discussed whether Werenski may be useful as a piece to get a top 10 caliber forward in the league. Someone like a Jack Eichel. I think it’s worth a discussion before rejecting it, but I feel like other pieces would have to be thrown in to get a player like that, making it far more costly for the Jackets than if it were just a 1-for-1. Therefore, from a practical standpoint, no deal that is good enough for the Blue Jackets will include Z.
Part of the core, but available for a high price
Oliver BJORKSTRAND, Josh Anderson, Vladislav Gavrikov, Joonas Korpisalo OR Elvis Merzlikins
Since John Davidson came in as president, the front office mantra has been “brick by brick.” But they’ve shown through their trades that any brick can be removed...if replaced by another brick. Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones. Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin. Kerby Rychel for Scott Harrington (just checking to make sure you’re still paying attention). These players are young talents you can build around, but not as talented as the Big 3.
BJORKSTRAND led the team in goals this season despite missing 21 games to a couple of injuries. He was on a 60 point pace. His offensive production plus his advanced defensive stats made him an exciting, young, two-way forward. He added three goals in the postseason, but was a non-factor for long stretches. Is he consistent enough to be counted on as the long term first line right wing? I say yes, but he’s less of a sure thing than the three players in the top tier.
Anderson possesses a rare combination of size, speed, and scoring ability. He has produced on the top line, but has also shown he can create for himself on a less-skilled line. The problem? He’s coming off of a nasty shoulder injury. Furthermore, it seems he and his agent are unhappy with negotiations on a contract extension, so this pending RFA may be forcing his way out of town. His skills - when healthy - make him a player worth building around. But they also make him a valuable trade chip for any other team that is confident in him making a full recovery.
Gavrikov had a rough post-season but his debut regular season was stellar. He will be the rock of the shutdown second pair going forward, even if David Savard is no longer part of it.
As for the goalies, conventional wisdom says you trade from a position of depth to strengthen a position of weakness. The Jackets have two productive young goaltenders, each signed for two years on reasonable contracts, but can only play one at a time. They can easily proceed with a tandem for the next two seasons (keeps them both fresh) but eventually they have to commit to one. Now is as good a time as any to trade the other. Korpisalo’s stock will never be higher after the postseason he had. One thing that hurts the goalie trade market is the number of big names entering free agency: Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford, Robin Lehner, Jacob Markstrom to name a few. Our goalies are young than all of them, however, and more affordable.
The Young Guns
Alexandre Texier, Liam Foudy, Emil Bemstrom, Kirill Marchenko, Dmitri Voronkov
Last spring, as Jarmo negotiated with Ottawa in two separate trades, he made it clear that Texier, Foudy, and Bemstrom were off-limits as trade chips. Texier and Foudy both made an impact in the post-season and should get big opportunities next season. Never say never, but I still consider them to be untouchable.
What about Bemstrom? He had growing pains as he adjusted to the NHL. After a midseason injury, he finally started to heat up in February. During the playoffs, however, his ice time dwindled and he missed half the games as a healthy scratch. The ceiling is still high, but I think his stock has fallen from a year ago when he was lighting up the Swedish league.
Marchenko and Voronkov are very intriguing forward prospects, but each is under contract in Russia for several more seasons. On one hand, the Blue Jackets could trade them now and gain more in the short term. On the other hand, each provides a free upgrade in 2022 or 2023 when they finally come over to North America.
More valuable to us than to anyone else
Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray
First of all, Foligno and Atkinson are literally untradeable since their contracts contain no-trade clauses. Technically they could waive those clauses if asked, but both are well settled into the Central Ohio community with their families, so are unlikely to want to make a move. With each being past 30 and with a cap hit over $5 million, it’s unlikely the return would make up for the leadership role they fill and the off-ice contribution they make to the franchise and the city.
Jenner doesn’t have an NTC but is also a team leader and fan favorite. His game has declined, but there may be some interest from a team looking to add some “grit.” Will the price match his intangibles?
When healthy, Murray is a very good defenseman. Sadly, he is seldom healthy. Only once has he played more than 70 games in a season (all 82 in 2015-16), and he has played in fewer than 50 games in three of his seven seasons. The Jackets may be the only team willing to take the chance on him staying healthy enough to contribute. As a pending UFA in 2021, however, he could be on the block at the trade deadline rather than during this offseason.
I believe every other player and prospect in the organization is in play. Each has reasons to be kept, but no reason to be immediately hesitant to include in a negotiation. None are obviously part of the long term “core” of this team.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Would you slot any players differently? Are there any tiers or groupings you would add? Who do you consider the core of this team over the next three to five seasons?