NHL Free Agency: Reviewing the Blue Jackets UFAs

Who stays and who walks?

Yesterday we went over the restricted free agents on the Columbus roster. Today we look at the unrestricted free agents. All of these players have contracts that expire on July 1, and this week they may begin negotiating with other teams. However, only Columbus can ink them to a new deal before Sunday.

Most of these will sign elsewhere, but who should the Blue Jackets keep?

Jack Johnson

Johnson has faced well-documented financial troubles, which makes this next contract an important one. His wages have been garnished as part of his bankruptcy settlement, so he needs one more lucrative deal to satisfy his creditors and begin rebuilding his own nest egg. That won’t come in Columbus. No offer was strong enough to complete his trade request. After the acquisition of Ian Cole, Johnson ended up being scratched for much of the final month, including all 6 playoff games.

Prediction: It appears that Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Anaheim are interested in his services. Montreal has been rumored to have interest as well. The 31 year old made a base salary of $5 million this season, and I would expect him to make $4-5 million again, over 4 years. Kris Russell’s 4x4 contract with Edmonton would be a comparable.

Matt Calvert

Calvert is the longest tenured Blue Jacket, but it’s time for that era to come to an end. His toughness and hustle won him fans here, as did his thrilling short handed goals and playoff winners. A 4 point playoff series won’t be enough to keep him around. He had a base salary of $2.9 million this season and it’s not worth matching that again.

Prediction: The 28 year old signs a 3 year, $8 million deal, perhaps with a Western Canada team closer to his home in Manitoba.

Ian Cole

Ian “King” Cole was the most important of the trade deadline acquisitions. He added much needed stability to a blue line that struggled with injuries and depth. He and his fellow “Lumberjacket” David Savard formed a shutdown pairing reminiscent of the Savard/Johnson pair of the previous season. He became a valued mentor, as well, sharing his experiences with the Stanley Cup-winning Penguins with his young teammates.

Both sides have expressed interest in signing an extension prior to July 1. As reported earlier this month by Aaron Portzline in The Athletic:

“When you’re restricted, you’re kind of at the whim of whatever team has your rights,” Cole told The Athletic. “The ability to actually make a decision for yourself, rather than be told what to do, is an opportunity many players relish, to finally get to that status.”

Still, Cole is willing to forego becoming a UFA on July 1 if he gets “the right offer” from the Blue Jackets. The Jackets and Cole’s agent, Kevin Magnuson, have had multiple conversations about a new deal, Cole said.

“It’s a tough question,” Cole said. “As a player, you really look forward to this unrestricted free-agency status.

“However, I’m not opposed to signing something before (July 1). It has to be the right situation and the right factors, certainly, but it’s not something I’m dead set against. I’m certainly open to a lot of things at this point.”

Prediction: Cole is coming off a 3 year, $6.3 million contract he signed as a restricted free agent. Now that he’s finally an unrestricted free agent, the 29 year old will look for a raise - and he deserves it. The dilemma for the Blue Jackets is whether or not to hold room for prospects like Gabriel Carlsson and Vladislav Gavrikov. Will Cole be content to sign a 2 year deal, or will he prefer 3-4 years? I would go ahead and roll the dice on a 3 year contract worth $12-13 million.

Mark Letestu

“Test Tube” - a fan favorite during his earlier tenure - had purchased a home in Central Ohio last summer, with the intention of retiring here. He did not expect to return to Columbus so soon. After being acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline, he scored a goal against Washington in his first game back. Sadly, that was the only goal he tallied in his reunion tour, and his productivity and ice time waned as the season went on.

Prediction: Letestu’s career isn’t over, but it won’t end in Columbus. He remains a steady fourth line center, and is still an asset on faceoffs and penalty kill. I predict he’ll sign a 2 year deal for about $3 million total.

Thomas Vanek

Vanek was acquired at the trade deadline and made his debut later that week on the California road trip. After a 5 game adjustment period (which he predicted would happen), he finally clicked with linemates Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg. Vanek recorded 15 points in 19 games, plus a goal and assist in Game 1 vs. Washington. He was a nonfactor for the rest of the series, however.

Prediction: Vanek will sign another short term deal, and it won’t be with Columbus. But I think we should give him another look. There’s talk of signing Rick Nash, but why not sign Vanek instead? Both are 34. Vanek scored 24/32/56 in 80 games while Nash scored 21/13/34 in 71 games. Nash had a cap hit that was $5.8 million higher. If we could bring Vanek back on another one year, $2 million deal, that would be a steal.

Taylor Chorney

Remember this guy? He was claimed on waivers from the Capitals on February 21. With injuries to Dean Kukan and Markus Nutivaara, and likliehood of a Johnson trade, the Jackets needed another body. 5 days later, Cole was acquired and Johnson stayed put, and Chorney found himself scratched until the final game of the season in Nashville.

Prediction: Hope you enjoyed the extended vacation here. May you have a greater opportunity at your next stop.

Jeff Zatkoff

An alumnus of Miami University, Zatkoff was acquired by Columbus in late January to bolster the goalie depth in Cleveland. He posted a 3.22 GAA and .885 save percentage in 17 games with the Monsters. He was called up 3 times to dress as the backup goaltender for the Jackets, but did not play.

Prediction: Unlikely to be resigned by either Columbus or Cleveland.

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