So, now what?
The Blue Jackets have their 2014 NHL Entry Draft selections settled and on the way to prospect camp, took care of one of the major question marks of their early offseason, and are in process of finishing up another - so what's next for GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the rest of the organization?
It's been a busy weekend for Jarmo Kekalainen. Fresh off turning R.J. Umberger's trade request into Scott Hartnell, the Blue Jackets GM also locked his backup goalie in for another season at a quite reasonable $600k, managed to scavenge back his 5th round pick via Nikita Nikitin, and came to terms with one of his two major RFA defensemen.
Oh, and there was also the matter of the draft itself, where he managed to grab an impressive young forward and some major boosts to the team's defensive pipeline.
Ordinarily I'd say he's earned a rest, but with Free Agency beginning on July 1st, there's no time for sipping margaritas beside the pool, right?
The answer to that is: Well, maybe.
Free Agency Shakeup
One of the biggest pieces of news to come out of the draft was the report that Buffalo used their compliance buyout on defenseman Christian Ehrhoff - one of the final remaining artifacts of the summer of Pegulamania. Suddenly an unrestricted free agent, Ehrhoff is a proven quantity at 31, able to run the power play and munch top line minutes. There was some talk that Columbus was taking a look at the German d-man at last season's trade deadline, but it's worth remembering that was also while the team thought they might be without Fedor Tyutin and Ryan Murray for quite some time.
With the team's top four defensemen all healthy, I don't think they're likely to go for Ehrhoff as a FA, but this sudden shift in the free agency market seems likely to set off a lot of other reactions that Columbus may want to keep an eye on. (There's also the matter of teams like Boston or Philly who are trying to open some cap room, but that's more likely going to involve some of the clubs desperately trying to make it up to the cap floor.)
Internally, the team has until the evening of June 30th to qualify their remaining Restricted Free Agents, or allow them to walk.
With Dalton Prout done, and indications from Aaron Portzline that a deal is close for David Savard, that leaves three (or four, depending how you look at it) roster players still unsettled, and just over a half dozen other players in the farm system that the team will need to make a decision on.
Ryan Johansen is obviously the big one - the team and his representatives are said to be working towards a deal, but it hasn't sounded terribly close. While I think the team is sincere about being willing to match any offer sheet if this stretches to July 1st, I also think they'd prefer to get this finished before that becomes a potential problem.
Below that tier you have three guys who saw at least some roster time this season - Matt Frattin, who came over in the Gaborik deal, Corey Tropp, and Tim Erixon.
I don't really see Frattin as likely to stick here, though the team may surprise us (his QO would cost the team about $890k), but the organization really seemed to like what they saw in Tropp this year - as did many of the fans. He was making just above league minimum, so it would only take about $650k to retain his rights while they worked out a deal. The team's forward depth has grown significantly, but Tropp seems like a good, inexpensive option to fill out the fourth line.
That leaves Tim Erixon, and I genuinely don't know what the plan is here. There's no question that Erixon has been productive down in Springfield, but he hasn't shown that he can push Savard or Prout out of the way for a permanent roster spot. Does the team give him a little more room to prove he can make an impact at the NHL level? It's not necessarily a bad thing to have a reliable guy ready as your first call up, but everyone believed he had more potential than that, going back to his time in the Rangers organization, and he hasn't taken that step.
Qualifying him would cost about the same as Frattin - I don't think that's an either/or situation, but you're still putting money on the books that might need to go elsewhere.
A little further down the depth chart, there's another group of free agents who the team may decide to thin down: Forwards Oliver Gabriel, Jake Hansen, Sean Collins, and Dana Tyrell, & D-men Will Weber, Cody Goloubef, Anton Blomqvist, and Ilari Melart.
There have been indications that Melart intends to return to Europe, and it wouldn't shock me if Blomqvist does the same. I think that the team is almost guaranteed to QO Goloubef, given the way he's been able to step in when needed the last two seasons. (In fact, I almost wonder if he's jumped Erixon on the depth chart). Weber also seems likely, so that would leave the four forwards to consider.
Gabriel impressed a lot of people a few years ago on a camp invite, but has struggled since leaving Junior, including a couple of trips down to the ECHL. He seems like a good candidate for an AHL deal, but I don't see him receiving another two-way contract right now. Collins, on the other hand, has turned in some impressive work since leaving Cornell, and has been given a couple of quick looks at the NHL level by the club. I'd call him another guy who is likely to be qualified.
Jake Hansen seemed to need an adjustment period, but started putting up some points for Springfield last year, and I think the team is likely to give him a bit more time to see what they really have. Tyrell, acquired from Syracuse, has been the very definition of a journeyman player, and I feel like he's another guy likely to get an AHL deal if he's retained at all.
If that all shakes out, the team's lineup will look something like this:
Hartnell - Johansen - Horton
Foligno - Dubinsky - Jenner
Calvert - Anisimov - Atkinson
Boll - Letestu - Tropp
Tyutin - Johnson
Wizniewski - Murray
Prout - Savard
There's not a lot of glaring needs there.
If the team is serious about bringing back UFA Derek McKenzie, there's going to be at least one forward sitting in the press box every night. The same goes if Erixon or another d-man is qualified with a one way deal.
If the team makes any moves in free agency it would seem like they'd mostly be looking to fill depth in Springfield. A move for a top six guy like Matt Moulson or even a depth defender like Mark Fayne would mean pushing someone out of that depth chart via waivers or moving them in some kind of a trade. If the team was intending to do that, why not just re-sign Jack Skille or Nick Schultz? (Well, OK, maybe not Schutlz, but you get the point.)
If the team sees an opportunity for a signing or trade that's too good to pass up, it's going to mean significant changes to the lineup, and I don't know if the front office is really interested in that.
I wouldn't be shocked at all if the team's focus is on settling Ryan Johansen, cleaning up the remaining RFAs, and then looking at how the market is developing as free agency opens. After all, in chaos, there is opportunity.