Trade Deadline Coming - Do We Know Who We Are?
<em>IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a hockey team in possession of good draft picks must be in want of an identity.-Jane Austen. Probably.</em>
As we tick down the final days to the 2016 NHL trade deadline, the Blue Jackets are in a strange, almost precarious spot.
After identifying the team's core and charging into the playoffs just two short seasons ago, the club has been upended in the face of crushing disappointments. Changing their coach, redefining how they wish to play, and trading a player who had previously been considered untouchable have been the highlights of this season, and as they approach the trade deadline, it could be a very different looking team finishing out the year compared to how they began.
With several players who could be quite highly valued on the trade market for teams in the hunt, and a decent supply of draft picks going into this summer's NHL entry draft, the Blue Jackets need to figure out what kind of team they want to become, and they need to do it fast.
With the acquisition of Brandon Saad and Seth Jones, it's clear that the front office values skill and speed, and while John Tortorella can coach players with that kind of skill, it's not clear how well he's really integrating that into his plans for the Jackets. Do you double down, let the kids run, and hope for an Auston Matthews? Do you accept that the team will go even younger than they already have, and perhaps give up a more "back to basics" vet like Scott Hartnell or Fedor Tyutin to help stack your deck on draft day?
Alternatively, the rumors that Cam Atkinson and Kerby Rychel might still be available for trade, despite both performing quite well this season, makes you wonder if the front office might lean the other way, concerned about going too young and too "small", in which case perhaps they hope to keep those vets around and attract, acquire, or draft players who can add more of a physical edge, even if it comes at the expense of skill.
Or, if you believe the issues were more from mistakes in Todd Richard's coaching and a certain return to "country club" culture that has been corrected, do you think your team is close enough to becoming a true contender that you are willing to give things one last spin, and try to keep the roster together at the expense of the potential assets yo u might have acquired?
Of course, that's easier said than done, since Jarmo, JD, and the front office have to keep a wary eye on the team's salary cap situation as they look at the hefty paydays being handed out next season AND their crop of upcoming restricted free agents.
It's doubtful the team will face a drawn out contract battle from Boone Jenner, Seth Jones or William Karlsson, but all will need paid - particularly in the case of Jenner and Jones - and the team must be mindful of that fact as they try to plan their strategy. When you look at the dollars on the table for some of their veteran players, it becomes another reason to potentially trade an asset they'd rather not part with, like Hartnell, because there simply may not be enough dollars to go around.
In a perfect world, Jarmo Kekalainen would find some way, any way, to jettison the millstone of David Clarkson from the team's collective neck, but with his salary about to hit $7 million in real dollars, plus his $5.25 million cap hit, it's doubtful he could find a trade partner that wouldn't involve taking back a raft of someone else's problems. That's a pity, because it would at least give the team some maneuvering room.
Oh, and if the decision does come down to betting on the team in two years from now (or further), and hoping you can get back to the "brick by brick" building process, you'll also face the challenge of trying to keep the fanbase happy after another frustrating campaign that ends in being told the club "isn't there yet", and must once again go back to the drawing board.
I don't envy Kekalainen, Tortorella, or John Davidson this week, but I do know that if the team wants to find any success, they are going to need to make some hard decisions - because simply trying to muddle through without any blueprints in hand after their unexpected success is what got our bricklayers into this mess to begin with.