After Pierre-Luc Dubois requested a trade in the offseason and then forced action with his play on the ice (or lack thereof) and subsequent benching, Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen swung a massive trade, bringing in former second overall pick Patrik Laine and Columbus native Jack Roslovic for the disgruntled center.
With all due respect to the trade for Brandon Saad and the trade for Artemi Panarin, this is the biggest trade of Jarmo’s career. He gave up a third overall pick that he bucked conventional wisdom to take just four years later, acquiring the second overall pick from the same draft. In doing so, he acquired a less talented overall player but a better pure goal scorer, albeit with less time under team control.
The Blue Jackets, as a franchise and a roster, are coming to a crossroads. After the 2021-22 season , the only pieces signed are Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Gustav Nyquist. The Blue Jackets have an opportunity to jettison old voices and rebuild around young talent on the roster while signing core pieces and shedding old, tired players.
Jarmo’s job may hinge on how he navigates the delicate tight rope. He has an opportunity to remake the entire roster as he sees fit, provided he is able to sign his key free agents. Blue Jackets fans will know his track record doing so, and will judge him (and his future here) accordingly. Let’s take a look at his potential outcomes.
Door Number One - Jones, Laine, Werenski, and Domi sign long term extensions
The best case scenario.
Behind this door, Columbus signs arguably one of the best pairings in the NHL through the rest of their primes, a former 70 point center, and a pure goal scorer to fill the net. You could do worse building the team.
Unfortunately, this outcome is probably the most unrealistic. Columbus has seen lots of young talent come through these revolving doors in the last few years without signing long term here: Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson to name a few. Were there mitigating factors? Of course. But the fact remains that Columbus has seen numerous players arrive, play some games in the sweater, and leave for greener and richer pastures. That has an impact around the league, fair or not.
If Columbus is able to sign all four of these players, however, this will have an incredible impact on the future of the franchise. The Blue Jackets will have a core in place that would allow them to tinker around the edges, work on incorporating young talent and those players potentially coming over from the KHL, allowing them to build toward something that could resemble a contender.
Fans and the front office would be over the moon to find themselves in this scenario. It would require a delicate balance, including convincing two players with arbitration rights and an unrestricted free agent that it’s worth it to re-sign in Columbus rather than leave for a bigger stage or greener pastures. That has, historically, not been a strength of this front office. Can this time be different?
Door Number Two - Part of the core signs extensions, several players walk as free agents
The most likely scenario.
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: a team offers Max Domi a deal for more than Columbus did per season, so he walks. Then, imagine Seth Jones wants to play on a bigger stage in California, so he goes to the up and coming Los Angeles Kings. But Columbus, at the same time, is able to keep Patrik Laine on a medium term deal and sign Werenski to be their top defenseman of the future.
Underwhelming, but realistic, no?
As a franchise, where do you go from there? You’re not good enough to win the Stanley Cup, or even seriously compete for it, but you’re too talented to tank for the top of the first round at the same time. You’re worse than you are now, but similarly stuck. The worst of all worlds. A team perpetually stuck in the middle of the league, with little hope of improving or contending.
The front office must consider if they even want to go down this route, if it appears to present itself. What does the organization gain from being perpetually just “there” in the standings? The team could, in theory, bring back players like Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner, but those players do not realistically bring this team closer to the overall goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
Door Number Three - Everyone walks
This is every Blue Jackets fans’ worst nightmare as well as immediately the end of Jarmo’s tenure as general manager. The franchise cannot afford - in fan interest, in roster construction, in anything except actual factual cap hit - for all of their best young players to leave as soon as the option is presented to them. That is a catastrophic appearance for a team and franchise that already has a league-wide reputation for not keeping talented players, especially young players with free agent rights.
At that point, you have to blow up the front office (figuratively, until an actual curse is discovered). The team will be unable to employ a general manager with a reputation for losing talent when it could retain it.
This is Jarmo’s biggest risk. If he fails to lock down any of the talent he has brought in long term, he knows he is out of a job. He has surely built that calculus into his roster decisions and his trades. Now it is time for him to prove that he has an ability to close talent and keep players here long term, through their prime, and build a team that can compete for more than a first round exit.
One can presume that Jarmo has a plan to deal with this contingency. Obviously the team cannot go into the 2022-23 season with Kirill Marchenko, Yegor Chinakov, and Oliver Bjorkstrand under contract. But losing so many talented players will turn heads, and possibly fans. It’s hard to imagine Jarmo holding onto his job if he loses all four of those aforementioned players.
The next 18 months will go a long way toward determining the future of the franchise. Leaguewide reputation teeters on a knife’s edge, numerous players have walked out the doors in Columbus, and there is little talent under contract for the long term or in the pipeline.
Jarmo’s work is cut out for him. How well he handles it will determine not just his future but the future of the club.