Some tough decisions loom this summer for the Columbus blue line

What will the defense look like next season?

On Wednesday, the Columbus Blue Jackets announced they had signed defenseman Dean Kukan to a two year contract extension. Earlier in the season, it had been rumored that Kukan would return to Switzerland next season. What is notable about this new contract is that it is one-way, meaning he will make the same salary whether he plays in Columbus or Cleveland. This suggests the team intends for him to spend more time in Columbus next season.

This is just the first in a series of moves that GM Jarmo Kekalainen will have to make between now and the start of the 2018-19 season.

Here is the current defensive depth chart, and each player’s contract status after this season (source: Cap Friendly):

Under contract
Seth Jones (4 years remaining, $5.4 million cap hit)
Zach Werenski (1 year, $925,000)
David Savard (3 years, $4.25M)
Dean Kukan (2 years, $725,000)
Scott Harrington (1 year, $675,000)

Unrestricted free agents
Jack Johnson ($4,357,143 cap hit this season)
Ian Cole ($2.1M)
Taylor Chorney ($800,000)

Restricted free agents
Markus Nutivaara ($817,500)
Ryan Murray ($2.825M)

Entry Level Contracts
Gabriel Carlsson
Ryan Collins
Jacob Graves
Doyle Somerby
Blake Siebenaler

Here is my recommended course of action this offseason:

Sign Markus Nutivaara. Pay him whatever he wants. He literally makes every partner better (red square is without Nuti, black square is with):

2. Either trade Ryan Murray’s RFA rights, or make a qualifying offer but encourage him to sign elsewhere. He’s still too good to let him walk for nothing, but I feel like both sides would be happier with a change in scenery. He misses too much time to injury and John Tortorella was clearly frustrated with the pace of his latest recovery.

3. Zach Werenski’s new contract can wait. Z is able to sign an extension after July 1, but there are other looming free agents who deserve attention first. Why sacrifice the cap space when you can pay an elite defenseman under a million dollars for one more season? Seth Jones, Josh Anderson, and Alexander Wennberg all waited until their ELC expired before signing their new deals.

4. Let Jack Johnson walk, but re-sign Ian Cole. Cole is younger than Johnson and has played better than Johnson, and yet is likely to earn less on his next contract. Both are great clubhouse guys and it’s clear that Cole has had a positive impact both on and off the ice in the short time he has been here. I say offer him 3 years at a $3M yearly cap hit.

With these moves, my 2018-19 defensive depth chart would look like this:

Left Right
Zach Werenski Seth Jones
Dean Kukan Markus Nutivaara
Ian Cole David Savard
Scott Harrington Blake Siebenaler (Minors)
Gabriel Carlsson (Minors) Ryan Collins (Minors)
Doyle Somerby (Minors) Jacob Graves (Minors)

Of course, a lot could happen between now and then. One also has to plan for eventually inserting one or both of Vladislav Gavrikov and Gabriel Carlsson into the lineup in fall 2019. What moves would you like the Blue Jackets to make?

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