I hope you took a few pictures and acquired a few mementos. The Columbus Blue Jackets, as you’ve known them over the last five seasons, are about to undergo a radical transformation. The recent past has been good -- by our standards, at least. We won our first playoff series. We had our first 100 point season. We had a Vezina winning goaltender, twice. We weren’t the laughing stock of the NHL. We competed, gained respect, and entertained, but ultimately fell short. Now the prospect pool is dry, players are leaving, and what’s left is a shell of what was. I hope you didn’t recently buy a jersey with a name on the back.
A rebuild may have become inevitable when Artemi Panarin officially signed with the New York Rangers. After sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2019 NHL Playoffs, there was only one way the Columbus Blue Jackets could go - down. We lost one of the best players in the world and gained nothing in return. We lost a Vezina winning goaltender, intentionally or not. We traded prospects and draft picks for rentals. We had fun, and saw some success, but it’s time to admit what’s glaringly obvious: there’s no Cup contender coming out of a roster sans Seth Jones and (possibly) Zach Werenski.
One parting of ways has been leaked publicly and the other may be more likely than not. Elliott Friedman broke the news on Saturday that Seth Jones, who has one year left on his contract, will not be re-signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets. This likely triggers a domino effect that will force Columbus GM Jarmo Kekäläinen to enter rebuild mode. It’s hard to imagine Zach Werenski, who can be a UFA as soon as 2023, signing anything more than a one year qualifying offer next summer. That puts him in the same boat as Seth Jones, one year away from UFA status. Who can blame him? Why commit long-term to a team with more question marks than prospects?
If Zach Werenski is still wearing Union Blue in October, the blue line will still be severely depleted. Without Seth Jones, that leaves Andrew Peeke as the likely candidate to pair with Werenski. The remaining defensemen with NHL experience that have active contracts are Vladislav Gavrikov, Gabriel Carlsson, Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan, and Adam Clendening. That is simply not a defensive lineup competitive enough to make the playoffs. From the prospect pool, one can hope for a surprise, but there is not one defenseman held in high regard and considered a future top four defenseman in the NHL. The forward group may be more promising, but there will likely not be enough firepower to counteract how many pucks will be ending up in the back of their own net. If Jarmo can manage to trade for a proven defenseman, he’ll likely be giving up a valuable offensive piece (or two) to do so. There isn’t much left outside of moving into a rebuild.
The good news is that the Blue Jackets do have some valuable assets that can be moved for promising futures - certainly more than they did after the terrible 2011-2012 season. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski would both fetch massive hauls individually. If it is known that either of the two will not be sticking around long-term, they must be traded. Holding onto them is simply not an option. Each would likely bring back a hefty combination of picks and existing prospects. There will also be a very long list of interested teams. Jarmo would likely start looking for existing prospects that are close to making or have already made their NHL debuts. A few players come to mind: Alex Newhook in Colorado and Alex Turcotte from LA. Both players are highly touted center prospect for teams that either already have high end talent (Colorado) or a deep prospect pool (LA). Draft picks for 2022 will also be envied, as that class could be the best since 2016.
There are offensive pieces that could be traded as well. Patrik Laine comes to mind, although Jarmo would probably need to be blown away to flip him this quickly. Cam Atkinson is aging and still has value. Boone Jenner would be enticing for a team looking for more bite. Although we may not see a full fire sale, anyone not named Oliver Bjorkstrand may not want to stay too far away from their phone this summer.
The most obvious building blocks are those that are currently in the organization, but as we’ve touched on, those are getting dangerously thin. Large question marks loom over young players such as Alexander Texier, Liam Foudy, and Emil Bemstrom. However, their development isn’t over yet. Across the pond, the Columbus front office must convince Kirill Marchenko and Dmitri Voronkov to come to North America when their KHL contracts are up. Fellow countryman Yegor Chinakhov already committing to making the move should help, along with Daniil Tarasov looking like a future NHL goaltender. If either Marchenko or Voronkov show any hesitation, Jarmo needs to move their rights. They are highly regarded prospects and could make some deals happen that may not have happened otherwise.
The other major building block is the draft. The Columbus Blue Jackets have three first round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft. This cannot be understated: first round misses in the next two drafts may have devastating consequences (no pressure, Jarmo). Kekäläinen has hit on both of his top ten picks (Dubois and Werenski), and this year’s number five pick can be no different. Next year’s pick, in a deep draft, could potentially be high as well. Outside of the first round, Jarmo typically does well, but he hasn’t drafted a high offensive contributor in those rounds since Oliver Bjorkstrand in 2013. Tampa drafted Brayden Point 79th overall, Carolina drafted Sebastian Aho 35th overall, and Detroit drafted Tyler Bertuzzi 58th overall. Hits like that are rare for any GM, but one would go a long way for Columbus.
Ask someone that knows me well and they’ll likely tell you that I’m an optimistic, but also realistic, person. I do think it’s important to leave room for luck to strike or for miracles to happen. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, after all. GMs make trades they shouldn’t. Unexpected UFAs sign with new teams. Unknown prospects blow up (paging Tyler Angle and Yegor Chinakhov). Maybe Zach Werenski does sign an eight year deal and the team can be built around him. One trade tilted in Jarmo’s favor could make a huge impact. If one or more of those phenomenon do happen, we could see a winning team sooner rather than later.
As fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets, we’ve felt too much heartbreak, seen too many disappointments, and watched too many hopes vanish. These next couple of years could be hard and we may see a lot of losses. No one wants to relive the worst years of this franchise, but it may be a necessary evil. When an engine is missing too many pieces or is beyond repair, you rebuild it or find a new one. Hopefully that new one has a few more cylinders than the last.