It’s 7:00pm on July 16th. NHL Free Agency is a whopping 368 hours old. Yet the Columbus Blue Jackets have not signed a single player this off-season with pro experience. In fact, other than trading for Scott Harrington and drafting Pierre-Luc Dubois with the 3rd overall pick, the Blue Jackets have not added anyone who could even have an impact on the 2016-17 season.
They’ve lost players, though. Rene Bourque is the only Columbus unrestricted free agent who has yet to sign elsewhere, as Fedor Tyutin, Jared Boll, Justin Falk and others have all found new homes. Don’t forget about promising winger Kerby Rychel too, who was the outgoing player in the Harrington trade. So what is the plan for a team that finished the 2015-16 season with 76 points, good enough for fourth worst in the league and 13 points behind their 2014-15 mark and has only made subtractions thus far? Columbus has shown that they are not a team that is afraid to make a big deal, trading for both Brandon Saad and Seth Jones in the past year or so, but the deafening silence thus far this summer means that GM Jarmo Kekalainen is either confident in what he has or no longer ready to be that “up and coming team” that the Blue Jackets have been pegged as since their unlikely 93 point season two years ago.
Roster Resource shows that the Blue Jackets are a team that is very young and not very deep. There is a solid young core formed by Saad, Jones, Ryan Murray, and Boone Jenner and joined by reliable mainstays like captain Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, and Jack Johnson, but the rest of the roster isn’t exactly full of household names. The team has high hopes for the aforementioned Dubois, who many considered to be a reach at #3 though, as well as young roster players like Alexander Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand and high-upside prospects like 2015 first rounder Zach Werenski and Sonny Milano. However, a Calder Cup championship for their AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, seems unlikely to be enough to get this team back to the NHL postseason.
Another factor contributing to the Blue Jackets quiet off-season is their inability to spend the money necessary to get the impact free agents. After re-signing Jones to a six-year deal worth $5.4MM per year, Columbus is projected to be between four and five million dollars short of the NHL salary cap limit. How is it possible that a team that certainly seems to be in a rebuild is also spending more than the Washington Capitals or Dallas Stars? David Clarkson and Scott Hartnell combining to take up $10MM in cap space doesn’t help, and the team seems almost eager to deal either one. Some also doubt that the $7.425M given to goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is quite worth it at this point, as his numbers have gotten progressively worse each year since his breakout campaign in 2012-13.
Columbus is not that far from being back to a playoff-caliber team. Goaltending is deep and talented for the Blue Jackets and there are young difference-makers on offense and defense. The team could choose to scoop up free agent stragglers like Kris Russell or Jiri Hudler and try their hand at a unlikely return to the postseason, or even take a chance on some young castoffs like Brandon Pirri, Sam Gagner, or Luke Schenn, but their inaction to this point seems like an indication that they are headed in another direction. Instead, the Blue Jackets seem poised to rebuild around a growing group of high-ceiling homegrown players, even if that means a couple more season of bottom five finishes. It’s not a wild off-season for Columbus, but it is a bright future, and if management thinks that no additions are needed this season or for their rebuilding plans, then Blue Jackets fans will just have to sit tight and wait for Opening Night.