For at least two years now, the narrative looming over the Columbus Blue Jackets is that — for a combination of factors — they struggle to retain top talent. It defines their reputation around the league, as reflected in this tweet from The Athletic’s Montreal writer:
At some point, Columbus is going to have to address the fact almost everyone eventually leaves.— Arpon Basu (@ArponBasu) July 23, 2021
This comment was made as news broke about the trade of Seth Jones. It’s been known for months that Jones was not going to sign an extension, and therefore the team would explore a trade to get something in return. The package from Chicago turned out to be very lucrative, so the short term loss was cushioned by the long term assets gained.
Saturday’s trade of Cam Atkinson was much harder to accept, however. For one thing, it took everyone by surprise. The Jones trade was inevitable, but Cam was not reported to be on the block. He even appeared at the draft party on Friday night! Even more jarring is the fact that Atkinson is a player who had much success here and wanted to stick around. He signed a long-term contract extension in 2017 that had four years remaining on it. It would be one thing if he were traded for future pieces, but instead it was one-for-one for an even more highly-paid veteran player.
This trade goes directly against something general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in 2019, right before the expected free agency departures of stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky: “Yeah. The guys that want to be here are going to be here and the guys that don’t want to be here, good luck.” That fall, the team opened the season with a video trumpeting the importance of “LOYALTY” which MrSwift13 criticized at the time.
It was cringey at the time, and it’s laughable to watch now. Cam spoke there about how he wanted to finish his career here. Now he’ll likely finish it in Philadelphia. Next up was Nick Foligno, the captain, who was traded to Toronto in April. Finally, a quote from head coach John Tortorella, who nearly quit last fall and finally made a mutual parting of ways with the team when his contract expired at the end of the season. Look at who else appears in the video: Jones, Savard, Nash? Traded. Wennberg? Bought out. Of the four players to wear a letter last season, only Boone Jenner remains and he has just one season left on his contract. Does anyone think he’ll be here past the trade deadline?
Look, I’m not naive. I always understood deep down that it was just a marketing slogan and in the end these are business relationships and both management and players will make business decisions. If you think you can get paid more elsewhere? Go get that cash, bro. Is this player aging, declining, and overpaid? Better replace him with someone younger, cheaper, and better.
Even if I knew that talking point was BS, I resent that our intelligence was insulted by being lied to. As a marketing figure, I feel that Kekalainen has completely blown his credibility. I still believe he has skill as a GM, but I have little reason to take anything he says to the media at face value. He suggested last fall that the Blue Jackets could bolster the roster via trade thanks to teams that faced a cap crunch. No such trade came to pass. He suggested this summer that the Jackets could make a trade with a team looking to avoid losing a valuable player to Seattle in the Expansion Draft. Many such trades happened, but none involving the Jackets. The team now has $25 million in cap space which they can use as an asset to collect picks and prospects in exchange for taking on bad contracts, but I won’t believe that until I see it.
If Kekalainen can’t be an effective mouthpiece for the organization, there’s always John Davidson ... who also left here in 2019, and only returned because he was fired from his dream job.
I have a friend, Sean, who has become a Jackets fan in recent years. This winter, he posed an interesting question to me: who are the best players who played their entire NHL career as Blue Jackets?
Among retired players, the only answer is David Vyborny. The rest of the “Mount Rushmore” were active guys, with Cam Atkinson topping the list. With him gone, you have Zach Werenski and Oliver BJORKSTRAND. After them...yeesh. Boone Jenner? Elvis Merzlikins, just two years in? Plus, can we be certain that any of them will last? BJORKSTRAND is the only one signed long term, and I desperately hope that he stays but I’m not justifiably nervous that he won’t. That’s tough to take, as a fan. It can be harder to become attached to a player if you know they’re here for a short time. We accept this in something like Ohio State football, but the player is always identified with the university after they graduate to the next level, and every team is playing by the same rules. Alabama isn’t getting its stars for 10 years, whereas the top players on our Metropolitan Division rivals are staying on their teams for that long.
The 2010s Blue Jackets had a lot more success than the 2000s teams, thanks to five playoff appearances in a seven year stretch. The core of that team is gone now, and one hopes that the wave of prospects collected this weekend will be part of the next playoff core. Can we keep that group intact? Thankfully we don’t have to worry for awhile, since they’re under team control for many more years. Beyond that, above all else the team needs to win. If they can have repeated success and deep runs, it can form a bond among these players that have come up together. The hope is that will be a reason to stay, like the cores of teams like Pittsburgh, Boston, or Tampa Bay.
A New Start
I mentioned in The Cannon Cast last week that we could expect the roster to change quite a lot over the weekend. Indeed it did.
As the 2021 season got out of hand, it left many of us concerned about the long-term outlook for the team. The route to improvement was unclear. I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better now. At least it feels like there’s now a plan. There is commitment to a rebuild, and it is now well underway.
The expiring contracts of Foligno and Savard were traded for first round picks, and the Jones trade upgraded one of those picks so the team was able to get a top center prospect in the Columbus-born Cole Sillinger. Having nine picks in a seven round draft means we have that many more chances of at picking players who could reach the NHL. The three first rounders all have high upside, and third round pick Svozil was a fringe first round choice according to some rankings.
For the short term, Boqvist and Bean will replace Jones and Savard on defense, and to my surprise Dean Kukan is still there, too. Throw in the great Zach Werenski and the promising Andrew Peeke and that’s a young, skilled blue line.
On offense, Voracek is a playmaking winger we’ve lacked since Panarin left. He is still an elite passer and point-producer, so it seems a natural fit to pair him with Patrik Laine. If Laine can return to form with Voracek’s help, it could increase the chances that Laine and management will seek a long-term union (currently Laine is debating whether to accept the one-year qualifying offer). Kevin Stenlund is still here (thanks, Seattle) and will finally get a chance at regular playing time, especially while Max Domi is hurt. Domi will have a chance to return to form once he recovers from shoulder surgery. Best case? He thrives and re-signs. Next best case? He plays well and gets traded at the deadline.
I don’t expect this team to contend for the playoffs, but the roster now looks good enough to not embarrass themselves and the young players can use the season to grow and develop and launch themselves to success in 2022, 2023, and beyond.
Matt Calvert announced his retirement from the NHL this week. The former fifth round pick played a total of 566 games over 11 seasons with Columbus and Colorado, and also recorded 17 points in 32 playoff games. I wrote in April about how Calvert was the quintessential Blue Jacket.
We wish nothing but the best for Calvert and his family in his post-playing career. He’ll always hold a special place in the hearts of Columbus fans.
Play me out
The Foo Fighters rebranded as “the Dee Gees” to record an album of Bee Gees covers entitled Hail Satin. Yeah, ok, sure.