Last off-season, no team took a bigger hit than the Columbus Blue Jackets. The club lost two of their franchise stars in forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency, along with expensive rental forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene were in fact the three largest UFA contracts handed out last summer. No one expected the Blue Jackets to be able to rebound from those losses, but one year later the team knocked out a talented Toronto Maple Leafs team in the qualifying round and gave the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the NHL’s best, a run for their money in the the first round.
Columbus showed that they still have what it takes to be a contender even with last year’s major losses. The team has discovered not one but two reliable options in net, has one of the top defensive pairs in the league and solid depth behind them, and a mix of youth, experience, skill, and grit up front. If there is one thing that the Blue Jackets still lack, it is what they lost in Panarin and Duchene: elite top-six forwards. While the team has a number of young players who may grow into that role, the club does not appear content to sit in wait, instead hoping to take action this off-season. The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline writes that whispers out of the organization is that GM Jarmo Kekalainen is preparing to add at least one if not two high-skill forwards this off-season, with a bona fide top-six center as the priority.
On the surface, this plan makes perfect sense. Portzline notes the Blue Jackets ranked second-to-last in forward scoring this season, which undoubtedly was partially the result of a rash of injuries up front but is still an indictment of the forward corps’ ability to produce. The team also has roughly $68MM committed to 20 players who were regular players this season with just a few restricted free agents to take care of, so there could be cap space to spare on the free agent market.
However, adding impact forwards will be easier said than done. While Columbus has approximately $13.5MM in cap space, should they opt for long-term contracts for budding top-six center Pierre-Luc Dubois and solid young defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, much of that space could be eaten up. On top of that, the team will have to make decisions on re-signing RFA forwards Josh Anderson and Devin Shore as well. If both return, the team will be right up against the cap ceiling without even touching the free agent market. They will also be facing a roster crunch with 17 players already signed to one-way contracts worth $1.6MM or more, including recent KHL import Mikhail Grigorenko but not any of the aforementioned RFA’s.
Even if the team does have space to explore the top names on the open market, they may find that no one fits their top-six center criteria. While the team will surely kick the tires on big names like Taylor Hall, Tyler Toffoli, Mike Hoffman, and Evgenii Dadonov, none of that group is a solution down the middle. The second tier also only offers players that are not necessarily natural centers: Mikael Granlund, Carl Soderberg, or even old friend Derick Brassard. Columbus’ best bet may be to target a younger, more moldable player with some center experience, such as Vladislav Namestnikov, Erik Haula, or Alex Galchenyuk. However, there really isn’t an ideal target to sure up the center position in the top six.
For both internal and external reasons, Kekalainen seems likely to explore the trade market in his efforts to add at least one of his target top-six forwards and most likely at center. Portzline also opines that this is a likely route and that the team could deal from their depth at forward or defense to make a deal. On the blue line in particular, the team will have eight experienced NHL defenseman once Gavrikov is re-signed and will likely have to thin that group. Portzline believes that David Savard would be the easiest to move, while talented but oft-injured Ryan Murray or useful Markus Nutivaara could also draw interest. Up front, the rights to Anderson or Shore could certainly be dealt and the team will likely dangle Alexander Wennberg again this off-season. The real question is whether the team would give up on a top young prospect like Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, or Liam Foudy. Portzline also believes that teams could come calling on goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, but dealing either one could just create another hole in the lineup.
With plenty of trade chips, the Blue Jackets could cash in on a desperate market. Given both the flat salary cap and the looming threat of the 2021 Expansion Draft, there will likely be many teams open to moving established forwards this off-season and Columbus has a much better chance of finding a true top-six center – and perhaps even another top forward – via trade. One way or another, the club has been inspired by its playoff run and has its sights set on improving immediately, so don’t be surprised to see the Blue Jackets make a big splash this summer.