Strap In -- Wild Ride Coming!
With the draft just 72 hours hence, the wheeling and dealing could become fast and furious, with the Blue Jackets quite possible prime participants. Here's my take on what we might see leading up to the draft and beyond.
Prediction is always a perilous avocation. ideally, one would be outfitted with some form of extrasensory perception, or at least a crystal ball or some Tarot cards to aid in the process. Lacking any of these, all that is required is an unabashed willingness to make a fool of yourself, when your predictions fail to materialize. Fortunately, this is a criterion I can meet . . . in spades.
This year presents a series of intriguing circumstances that could combine for a high level of player movement in the days surrounding the Entry Draft. First, the draft itself is relatively deep, with some really good players likely available into the middle of the second round. From the Blue Jackets' perspective, that's terrific, as the club boasts ten total picks in the draft, with six of those coming in the first three rounds, and four in the first two. The depth of the draft pool makes those picks all the more valuable. That value can be realized in one of two ways: either draft those good players, or leverage that value into some tangible assets via trade.
Next, the free agent pool this year is, well, underwhelming.While there are some good players in the pool, it lacks those stellar difference makers that attract a feeding frenzy at the stroke of midnight on July 1. This poses both peril and opportunity. Sure, some clubs will find diamonds in the rough at a relative bargain. However, a vast pool of mediocre talent, combined with a number of clubs that need to spend to reach the salary floor, results in vast overpayment that raises the price of poker league-wide, and comes to roost a few years down the line. In the here and now, however, clubs that are looking to secure key assets to take the next step forward will be compelled to make those moves via trade.
Rounding out the Perfect Storm of personnel phenomena are those clubs that are hard against the cap, and are going to have to make some significant moves to gain any kind of breathing room. Again, it's the usual suspects here, with Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and the Rangers all in one level of difficulty or another. Philadelphia, Vancouver and Montreal are also within the realm of the fiscally challenged, That ensures that some legitimate talent is going to be put in circulation.
Put it all together, and the tea leaves suggest that the next two weeks will be extraordinarily active in terms of trades. Some will be eye-openers, others will be head-scratchers, but the landscape will move significantly over the course of the ensuing fortnight. So, let's delve into some of the details.
At the NHL level, I think the Rangers will make the single biggest splash by trading Rick Nash. There have simply been too many references to such a deal from credible sources to ignore the very real possibility that Mr. Nash could be on the move. Those who think the deal will happen cite his lack of productivity in the playoffs ( 9 goals in 56 playoff games in New York) and the deleterious impact he has on chemistry. Consider that Nash scored 42 goals this year -- and managed only 69 points. 27 assists for a forward playing with the talent the Rangers possess is borderline criminal. Nash is the quintessential power forward, a great guy, and loves the game of hockey. However, he is also a black hole from which no puck can escape. If the puck goes to Nash, it's going to result in a shot, far more often than not. When he's hot, it's terrific, but when the intensity is ratcheted up, and time and space become sparse, his production dives. The St. Louis Blues would be the perfect destination, as Ken Hitchcock knows how to get the most out of Nash, loves his size, and could use the veteran influence with his young forwards. Toronto might be a dark horse candidate, but I'm not sure they have enough to offer in return.
Turning to the Blue Jackets, I suspect there will be several moves, due to the need to bolster the defense, potentially get a new backup goaltender, and generally bring order to a roster that has a surfeit of forwards. With 10 draft picks, plenty of young talent, and some attractive veterans, John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäkäinen have a number of available options to achieve their objectives.
After weighing all of the pros and cons, my view is that Cam Atkinson has played his last game as a Blue Jacket. Atkinson and Artem Anisimov have been the foci of trade speculation for a while, but when all is said and done, I think Atkinson goes, and Anisimov stays. Atkinson is a young winger with loads of potential, and carries an eminently tradeable three-year contract with an AAV of just $3.5 million, and only $2.5 million payable this year. Anisimov is only a year older, and is in the last year of his contract, with an AAV of $3.283 million. With Anisimov playing the coveted center ice position, why would I say that Atkinson should be the one to go?
Simply stated, Atkinson presents more "glitz" in the trade market, by virtue of his speed and scoring ability. There are plenty of offense-starved clubs who would be more than willing to bring Cam into the fold. Anisimov can be a goal scorer, but his greatest value is as a "glue" guy -- a center who has great passing, solid defense, good face-off skills and can put the puck in the net when called upon. It's no coincidence that the Blue Jackets went on a tear after Anisimov's return, as he catalyzes the offense when he is on the ice. His injury last year and his impending free agency after next season hurt his trade value. I also think the Blue Jackets would love to see a full, injury-free season from Arty, surrounded by the talent the club now has. Atkinson is another guy who can bring it on the ice, but lacks a full 200 foot game, and shares Nash's proclivity for puck monopolization. Packaging Atkinson and one of the early 2nd round picks for a defenseman is an easily imaginable scenario.
In the event the Blue Jackets cannot swing a trade for a defenseman, there are free agent options. Foremost among these would be Johnny Oduya or Andrej Sekera. If the club is in a gambling mood, Mike Green also hits the UFA wire on July 1. Still, I think the trade avenue is the preferred course, as it enables the Blue Jackets to create space in the forward ranks, while gaining the defensive help they want.
Speaking of the forward lines, there is literally no room at the inn. Even assuming an Atkinson trade, the club sports Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano and Boone Jenner as locks. Mark Letestu is an unrestricted free agent, while Matt Calvert is an RFA. I think Calvert stays, and Letestu goes (unfortunately). With Rene Borque, David Clarkson (no giggles, please), Jeremy Morin, Brian Gibbons, Corey Tropp, Jack Skille and Jared Boll also available, it's clear bodies have to go. One way or another, I think you can bid adieu to Gibbons, Skille, Tropp and Boll. Yes, I think that the streak at the end of last season signaled the death knell for Mr. Boll, who simply lacks the skills to play at the NHL level in today's game. Add potential newcomers Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano to the mix, and there is still a logjam on the forward lines.
Some of that logjam will likely be cleared through other deals, either to further the depth of the defensive corps, add scoring and/or a backup net minder. I think a forward packaged with Dalton Prout could bring some decent return, as Prout seems to have topped out in terms of his development. If the Blue Jackets go for defense at the #8 slot, as expected, and make another move via trade or free agency, Prout becomes easily expendable.
Finally, I suspect that Curtis McElhinney will be moving on via free agency, and that a new back up goalie will be in the nets next year. Curtis did a credible job for the Blue Jackets, but I think he wants to test the waters of free agency, while the Blue Jackets would similarly like to explore other options. Jonathan Bernier, Anders Lindback and Antti Niemi are all available via free agency, and others could be available via trade.
I'd love to tell you that I had some marvelous insight that makes all of these prognostications likely to come true. Unfortunately, as I noted at the start, I am armed solely with the ability to make educated guesses based upon known facts, and the unmitigated willingness to make a fool of myself. We can never claim true insight into these kinds of deals, simply because we know nothing about the other side of the equation. It's easy to opine on what the Blue Jackets need or want to do, but quite another to be able to actually execute that intent. Asking prices can be too high, other teams can beat you to the punch, and the entire playing field can change with one ring of the cell phone. That's what makes this time of year so compelling. So, strap in . . . it will be a wild ride. Stay tuned.