Circling back to this site after a long hiatus has got some of the super-fan nerd juices flowing again. So, after a few Busch Lates, and extensive use of capfriendly - I propose an offseason approach for the Jackets.
First, this is not a tear it all down rebuild, nor does it have any misgivings about the current state of the roster. My goal is to improve the product on the ice, while building for future success.
First, the blockbuster trade of Seth Jones. I hesitate to go for any of the classic, player-prospect-pick packages - unless you are talking about a potentially high 1st rounder in 21-22 which I feel would be a non-starter for those teams anyway. So in order to find a player, equal of Jones' caliber, where a trade would make sense for both sides...and I landed on Toronto. Their fanbase has lost patience with their core, and it seems that the writing is on the wall there - they will more than likely make a move this offseason. Ideally, I would want William Nylander, but the player I think would be realistic is Mitch Marner. Toronto would need to gain something in return for taking on the uncertainty of Jones' expiring contract, but I feel the cap flexibility moving on from Marners $10.9 million salary does just that. They get an elite defenseman in Jones, (a Reilly-Jones pairing would arguably be one of the best in the league) and a legit run at the Cup. They could resign him with the cap space created by moving out Marner, or let him walk in '22 and use the cap space to build depth around Tavares/Matthews. The Jackets would gain certainty, having a young star locked up through '25 who is an elite offensive talent - who has played on the wing, but was a center in junior. Either way, even if he did stay on the wing - elite talent is elite talent. The Devils went all the way to the '12 Cup Final with a team built around Parise/Kovalchuk - so while it is nice to build around an elite center, an elite winger is the next best thing.
Secondly, acquiring Jonathan Drouin from the Canadians. At this point in his career, Drouin is by all accounts a bust, and has failed to live up to the 3rd overall pedigree. He's 26, in his prime years, but took a leave of absence from the team, unable to handle expectations in Montreal. He could be acquired cheaply, in fact - I would speculate the Habs would even be willing to part with an asset to move on from his $5.5 million cap hit. If we are going to be a bargain basement team, we may as well weaponize our cap space. It would be a long shot reclamation project - but in a small market like Columbus, he may find his game - no spotlight, less pressure, and a spot on the powerplay next to Marner/Werenski/Laine should bring out the best in him, and there's no denying the raw talent he possesses. If he's still a total failure - he's only signed on through '23 so we could always buy out the final year of his contract.
Thirdly, the expansion draft. I know that I've just advocated for bringing in $16.4 million in salary, for a team that likely has an internal salary cap and still needs to resign Laine. If I'm running the show, I would expose Nyquist, with the hopes Seattle would draft him. Clears $5.5 million off the books, at 32 he's not likely to be a productive part of this team when they would be ready to contend, and it also frees up space for Texier, Bemstrom, Chinakhov, etc. to earn top 6 ice time, should they warrant it. Obviously if Seattle is not inclined to take him, this is problematic. But maybe we revisit the Drouin trade - a Nyquist/Drouin swap instead.
Fourth, Laine's new contract. The roster including the moves listed above brings the Jackets salary to $60.8 million, well under the $81.5 cap. Plenty of room to offer him ~$10-11 per and still be well under the cap, and maybe more importantly - should still be under the actual salary paid out this season, with Hartnell's buyout and Dubinsky's contract off the books.
So, we would have a roster on opening night, looking something like this:
Chinakhov, Gerbe, Foudy
Would probably need to sign a couple more depth guys, I'm not thrilled about Harrington in the starting 6 defense, but this most likely what we're going to be dealing with. The Jackets aren't going out to land any big fish in free agency, nor should they.
That said - with this roster, they wouldn't be contending for the Cup. I don't think they would be pushovers either though. They almost certainly, if I may say so, play a more exciting, and fun, brand of hockey. Fans like to see goals, players like to score goals. I think they can accomplish this, with a cheaper roster - and improved long term upside. We would have two star forwards in Laine (23) and Marner (24) who would be in their prime and capable of elite levels of offensive output (40-50 goals for Laine, 90-100 pts for Marner). If you get Werenski to stick around - that's a core you can build around. They would be in their primes over the next 4-5 years, and we have 3 first rounders to load up on young talent to add to the mix.
Either way, wrapping this up as my wall of text is approaching 1000 words. A tank job may be in the cards for the Jackets, but I think that might be a dangerous thing for an organization that has a bad reputation already. An honest effort to improve the product on the ice, is the way to go, in my opinion.