It was another strong regular season for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2017-18. The team had its second-best finish with 97 points behind the strong efforts of all-world goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, blossoming young defensemen like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, rookie forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and game-changing acquisition Artemi Panarin. Yet, the Jackets were again ousted in the first round and still have yet to advance past that stage of the postseason in their 17-year history. In evaluating what area Columbus needs to improve in next season, some will point to poor special teams or a lack of shots on net. However, the major issue this season was the center position, where everyone not named Dubois had a disappointing campaign. The scoring depth, defensive ability, and face-off success of the group was all lacking this year. Entering the off-season with more than $13MM in salary cap space, many think the Blue Jackets should make a competitive offer to John Tavares or even Paul Stastny or Tyler Bozak in an effort to solve their problems down the middle. As The Columbus Dispatch’s Steve Gorten describes, that is unlikely to be the case.
While on surface level Columbus seems to be in fine shape regarding the salary cap, Gorten feels that GM Jarmo Kekalainen needs to tread carefully when contemplating adding salary to the current roster. In the short term, the team already faces several free agency dilemmas. Restricted free agents Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray are in need of new contracts and the team is surely to be interested in retaining several impending unrestricted free agents such as Ian Cole, Matt Calvert, and possibly Thomas Vanek. The team’s long-term considerations are more pressing though; Columbus will need to pay Panarin, Werenski, and Bobrovsky after next season, all of whom will command significant contracts in both term and salary.
Given these spending limitations, both this year and in the future, signing a top free agent center is unlikely to be the right move for the Blue Jackets. Instead, Gorten suggests that Columbus stand pat and wait for their current centers to rebound from down seasons. 23-year-old Alexander Wennberg showed 60+ point potential last season, but injuries and long stretches of poor play kept him to just 35 points in 66 games this year, the first season of a six-year, $29.4MM deal. Health may be all it takes to get Wennberg back into that true #1 center range and the 2013 first-rounder may still make his contract look like a bargain and could even end up being a superior player to Dubois. For his part, Kekalainen has trust in the young forward, telling Gorten “I’m 100 percent confident with Wennberg that he’s going to have a great year next year.” What Kekalainen may be more focused on is improvement in the bottom-six, where the Jackets need a return to form from veteran Brandon Dubinsky. The 32-year-old is midway through a six-year, $35.MM deal but did not play to that level this season. Dubinsky was held to just 16 points in what was easily the worst season of his career. A buyout at this point in the contract would be very costly to Columbus, who are left to hope that he can bounce back. Gorten also suggests that the depth down the middle could be substantially bolstered by a prospects like Lukas Sedlak, Alexandre Texier, or Jonathan Davisson taking a step forward in their development, while there is also the off chance that the Jackets could land a potentially pro-ready pivot like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Isac Lundestrom, or Barrett Hayton at pick #18 in the first round.
Even if all of that doesn’t work out, Columbus will also have options like Jenner and captain Nick Foligno, who they have hesitated to leave at center full-time, but are more than capable of playing the position if necessary. Rather than handcuff themselves with a free agent contract that could cause problems down the road, Gorten seems right in his take that hoping for the in-house options to step up their game seems to better suit the Blue Jackets this off-season.