Widely picked as a sleeper team for 2015-16, the Columbus Blue Jackets wound up at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings instead. Now, GM Jarmo Kekalainen must find a way to shuffle up the roster despite most of the team already being under contract for next season.
Key Restricted Free Agent: D Seth Jones – One of the biggest trades of last year involved Jones joining the Blue Jackets in exchange for C Ryan Johansen. Jones immediately became their top defenseman, logging 24:27 a night and picked up 20 points in just 41 games with the team.
At this point, the Jackets appear to be focused on securing a long-term contract with the former 4th overall pick, reports Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. That’s going to be a very pricey proposition as a 6-8 year deal should come in between $6MM – $7MM per season.
While a bridge deal is also a possibility, the odds of that are tempered with the threat of an offer sheet. Given his stature and Columbus’ cap situation (more on that shortly), Jones may be the prime target for one. If he signs (or comes close to signing) an offer sheet, it will most likely be a long-term pact.
Key Unrestricted Free Agent: LW Rene Bourque gets the nod by default as he’s the only full time NHL player that’s unrestricted for the Jackets. He’s coming off another disappointing campaign where he scored just 3 goals and 5 assists in 49 games while being a frequent healthy scratch. The 34 year old may be hard pressed to find a deal early on in free agency and is a likely candidate for a training camp tryout.
Other UFA: D Justin Falk
Cap Situation: The Blue Jackets already have 12 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goalies under contract for next season and have a little under $5.5 MM in cap space to work with according to Cap Friendly. Jones’ contract will likely cost more than that on top of potentially adding another player or two to the roster. Several players from their Calder Cup winning AHL affiliate in Lake Erie are close to being ready and the team would like to make room for some of them to play next season.
Kekalainen will have to try to move a fair bit of salary this offseason, either through buyouts (D Fedor Tyutin or RW Jared Boll are possibilities) or through trade; LW Scott Hartnell has come up in talks this offseason. That will be their primary offseason focus instead of the free agent market.