The Next Steps
With the draft and the lion's share of free agency squarely in the rear-view mirror, what are the next steps for the Blue Jackets' front office?
The Dog Days of summer are upon us, with the excitement of the off-season horse trading now behind us. That horse trading was productive, however, as in just over a fortnight, the Blue Jackets boldly added to the stockpile of young talent and transformed the existing roster without abandoning the commitment to the "brick by brick" methodology of growing and improving the club. Brandon Saad adds elite talent to the contingent of forwards, and those types of deals do not come around frequently. Sure, it stung to lose Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano, but good hockey trades customarily involve a bit of pain on each side, and the Saad deal certainly fit the bill. Now the question becomes: what's next?
Before discussing where the club might be going, let's look at where thing stand. Here's one possible configuration for the forward lines:
Saad -- Johansen -- Foligno
Jenner -- Dubinsky -- Atkinson
Hartnell -- Wennberg -- Borque
Calvert -- Campbell -- Clarkson
Missing here are Jared Boll and newcomers Sonny Milano, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Kerby Rychel. Alex Broadhurst, who had a nice showing at the Prospects' Camp, could also figure in the competition for forward slots.
Turning to defense, here's a similar take on the top six:
Tyutin -- Murray
Johnson -- Savard
Connauton -- Goloubef
Waiting in the defensive wings are Dalton Prout, Justin Falk and newly-acquired Michael Paliotta.
The specifics of the lines and pairings are inconsequential for the time being. Instead, focus on the quality of the names, particularly in the forward slots. Now look at the forwards waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit. There is some serious productivity in those ranks, and the ability to truly roll three or four lines is at hand.
Equally striking -- at least to me -- is the degree to which the Blue Jackets' personnel fortunes have turned 180 degrees in the course of the past year. Entering last season, defense was viewed as the towering strength of the roster, with hopes that a "scoring by committee" scenario would puts some goals on the board. Then Ryan Murray could not shake the injury bug. Jack Johnson's personal issues contributed to a horrific start for him. James Wisniewski contributed on the power play, but proved more detriment than asset in his own zone and at even strength. (I know, I know . . .we all loved Wiz, but Exhibit A is the fact that he appeared in just 13 games for Anaheim, wore street clothes in the playoffs, and was traded for a back-up goalie.) Dalton Prout hit a plateau. Somewhat ameliorating these effects were the deft acquisition of Kevin Connauton, the maturation of David Savard, and the smooth play of Cody Goloubef down the stretch. Still, what had been viewed as the cornerstone of the club was now in question.
The depth of the forward ranks enabled GM Jarmo Kekäläinen to focus on the blue line a bit more, building organizational depth in the draft (including 1st Rounder Zach Werenski), and adding an intriguing piece with Michael Paliotta, who Jarmo described as a key piece of the Saad deal and impressed in Development Camp. Still, the blue line had more than its share of risk. Murray has yet to play an injury free season. Fedor Tyutin is not getting younger, and some injuries have crept into his life as well. Can Jack Johnson avoid his slow starts and bring his "A" game for 82 contests? Can Connauton progress in his defensive game? Can Goloubef continue his progress and become an NHL regular? Those types of questions led the club to look for an experienced D-man to augment the current roster, and provide some relief while those questions are answered. It proved more difficult than anticipated.
Columbus was apparently very active in the pursuit of Boston's Dougie Hamilton, but was foiled by the temporary insanity of the Bruins' front office, which presented Calgary with an early Christmas gift. Paul Martin slipped away, and Johnny Oduya ultimately signed with the Dallas Stars. That leaves Cody Franson and Christian Ehrhoff as the most desirable free agents remaining, at least on the free agency side of the ledger. Some rumors of a trade with St. Louis for Kevin Shattenkirk were floated, but were quickly shot down by the Blues and Shattenkirk's agent. Kekäläinen has consistently maintained a willingness to enter next season with the existing slate of blue liners. Failing that, his expressed preference was for a trade, rather than free agency. However, as time has progressed, his options have become a bit more limited, due to the salary cap. Let's take a look at that in a bit of detail.
Over the past couple of weeks, it has become somewhat fashionable to predict a cap version of Armageddon for Columbus, with fears that they will join the likes of Chicago, Boston and New York over the next few years, and end up on the wrong side of a Brandon Saad-like trade out of necessity. It seems that the Blue Jackets' front office is in a bit of a no-win situation. If they don't spend to the cap, they are a "budget team." If they do, they are "reckless". As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. (All cap information courtesy of NHLNumbers.com and CapFriendly.com)
With a full complement of 23 players under contract, the Blue Jackets sit just about $3.7 million under the cap ceiling of $71.4 million. However, they have potential bonus exposure of $3.19 million this season ($2.6 million to Ryan Murray, $475K to Alexander Wennberg, and $116K to Boone Jenner) Those bonuses do not impact this year's cap numbers, but if the conditions are met, will hit next year's cap allocation. The only bonus presently on the books for next year is another $475K to Wennberg, which again would apply toward the following year's cap. So, assuming that all of the bonuses are triggered at 100%, the Blue Jackets squeak under the cap by a few hundred thousand bucks.
Now time to look at the salary moves that are looming. This season is set -- pending the discussion of what moves may be feasible. Next year, Rene Borque and Justin Falk are UFAs, while Jenner, Murray, David Savard and Kevin Connauton all reach RFA status. Unless Borque absolutely knocks it out of the park this season, he seems unlikely to return. returning $3.3 million in cap hit to the coffers. Justin Falk has a very cap friendly $600K deal, but with Zach Werenski and Michael Paliotta itching to pounce on the NHL line-up, he may be the odd man out. That brings us up to $3.9 million. The cap itself will undoubtedly increase, as it has done every year, except for the "re-set" to $60 million after the most recent CBA negotiations. Being conservative, we'll plug in just a $3 million boost to the cap itself, putting the Blue Jackets with just about $7 million in cap room entering next year.
Most factor in a big raise for Boone Jenner, and he will see a nice increase. However, he is just 22 years old, missed most of last year due to injury, and needs to put up some numbers this season. Even if he does, history teaches that the organization will likely come up with a three year bridge deal, as he will need to demonstrate consistent production before getting the big deal. Murray will be in the same situation. Savard and Connauton hold their fiscal futures in their own hands. If Savard can show consistency and a continuation of the upward trajectory he demonstrated late last year, he could receive a nice pop as well, but not in the Savard range.
The following season, Jared Boll, Gregory Campbell, Cody Goloubef and Curtis McElhinney come up for UFA status, which are relatively minor events from a fiscal standpoint. However, Ryan Johansen and Alexander Wennberg are RFAs. At the same time, both Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin enter the final years of their deals, accounting for a combined total of just under $9 million in cap hits.
Financial prognostication is difficult under the best of circumstances, but some general steps can be identified. The key to the specifics lies on the blue line. Can Ryan Murray stay healthy and perform? If so, he gets a nicer bridge deal, and roster flexibility is provided. If not, his bridge deal goes down in value and the need for greater depth continues. Similarly, much will depend upon the fortunes of Savard, Goloubef, Connauton, Werenski and Paliotta. If those five pan out as viable NHL defensemen, there are no issues for the foreseeable future. To the extent one or more of these guys fails to produce, more issues arise. Such is the stuff of roster and cap management.
From where I sit, it seems probable that Jared Boll and Dalton Prout get moved either this year or next, in exchange for picks/prospects, netting another $2.775 million in cap relief. There is simply no room at the inn for Boll, and Prout will likely fall victim to the players referenced above. In addition, don't be surprised if either Tyutin or Johnson move somewhere in this time frame. Johnson is under pressure to produce consistently during the regular season this year. His age (28) and the lack of a no-trade clause make him marketable. At age 32, Fedor Tyutin is slowing down a bit, but remains a savvy and consistent performer on the blue line. He will be 34 when his contract expires, so his value is probably higher sooner. He does have a modified no-trade clause, however. Both guys need new deals at the end of 2017-18. and it seems highly unlikely that both will remain with the club at that point. Atkinson and Calvert are the only other free agents due with new deals then, and over the following two years, both Scott Hartnell and David Clarkson likely come off the books. However, predicting anything that far out is folly.
The point is that the critical time for the Blue Jackets is over the next two seasons. However, in all likelihood, the moves identified above, combined with the anticipated increases in the salary cap, will more than likely prevent any drastic moves made solely for cap purposes. Cap management is an art, and the Blue Jackets have simply joined the ranks of those clubs that need to pay attention to the numbers. The front office has thus far shown the ability to reach sensible contracts, and management of the flow of new talent will continue. As guys like Oliver Bjorkstrand, Kerby Rychel and Sonny Milano show that they are ready for prime time, their entry level deals will replace those of the more expensive veterans whose jobs they have usurped. Such is the NHL food chain, and it is ultimately a good place to be, if properly managed. Surprises will happen, but by definition, you really don't know what those will be, so you have to manage to the most likely events.
So, what does all this mean in the short term? Can the Blue Jackets afford a veteran defenseman?
Let's look at the free agent market first. Cody Franson is apparently seeking big bucks, but has not signed on with anyone as yet. The prevailing feeling is that he has priced himself a bit out of the market, but that a few teams are working to create some cap room. It's unlikely that his numbers will fit in the Blue Jackets' salary structure. A more promising free agent prospect is Christian Ehrhoff, with whom the club has had conversations. The 33-year old made $4 million with Pittsburgh last season, but for a deal to work in Columbus, that number needs to start with a "3", or maybe even a "2", with some performance bonuses laced in. Ehrhoff would be a nice short term add to provide depth and experience, but not at any cost.
In terms of the trade route, the Blue Jackets would likely target clubs with severe cap issues. St. Louis and the Rangers come immediately to mind in this category. The Blues have just $2.5 million of cap space, but have three roster spots to fill. A Shattenkirk deal would be tough to swing at this point, but could be done if it were done for somebody like Borque and picks/prospects. Through the moves outlined above, the Blue Jackets could likely absorb the net $1.2 million differential. More likely would be somebody like Carl Gunnarsson, a 28-year old with a $2.95 million cap hit. Kevin Klein from the Rangers, with a $2.9 million cap hit, would also fall into this category, with a deal likely involving picks/prospects going the other way.
Ultimately it boils down the front office cost/benefit analysis of the need to add veteran defense. I think that Jarmo can bring the RFA signings in within the $7 million of added cap hit referenced above, and the existing cap space covers the bonuses for next year, plus about $500K. A new defenseman could be funded largely through a Boll/Prout move, and the move of Johnson or Tyutin, combined with Gregory Campbell's expiring deal, would fund the increased hits for Johansen and Wennberg in 2017 -- 18.
It looks good -- if tight -- on paper. Now we need to see how it plays out. Stay tuned.