Free agency is now less than two weeks away and many teams are already looking ahead to when it opens up. There will be several prominent players set to hit the open market in mid-July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. Next up is a look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Key Restricted Free Agents:
F Emil Bemstrom – A fourth-round pick in 2017, Bemstrom had a strong debut in 2019-20, putting up 10 goals and 10 assists in 56 games for Columbus seeing just over 12 minutes a night of ice time. However, after his debut, he was limited to just 20 games in 2020-21, where he tallied only five points and didn’t fair much better this season, having 11 points in 41 games. Concerning as the bit of regression is for Bemstrom, he does have two things on his side: Columbus’ transitioning period as they search for talent to move forward with, and age, at just 23-years old. Because of those factors, Bemstrom is a likely candidate to be brought back into the fold with the Blue Jackets and have a chance to prove himself, but it may not be for much more, or even as much as, the $925K AAV he had on the ELC that is set to expire.
F Patrik Laine – The Blue Jackets don’t have too much in the way of free agents this offseason, but they do have one of the most discussed RFAs of the summer in Laine. After Laine held out in the summer of 2019 and was eventually traded from the Winnipeg Jets, Columbus fans might fret about their team’s ability to get a deal done with the winger, but not to worry, as The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports, the two sides are speaking regularly and amicably with the goal of a long-term extension for the Finnish sniper in mind. Having concluded a one-year, $7.5MM contract that saw Laine become a point-per-game player for the first time in his career, albeit in just 56 games, the 24-year-old is due for a raise, especially if the Blue Jackets would like to keep him around for the long haul. Fortunately for Columbus, the question seems to be “how much” and not “can it happen?” A long-term extension with Laine would, most importantly, provide the retooling franchise with a cornerstone player for it’s next build locked in at a guaranteed rate for years to come, making future decisions easier and more predictable.
D Adam Boqvist – One of the more exciting prospects in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Boqvist was selected eighth-overall by the Chicago Blackhawks and was later traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets as one of the centerpieces of the Seth Jones trade. Though Boqvist has certainly not been bad in his young career, he has yet to reach the heights projected for him by many. His most complete season to date came in 2021-22, where the defenseman had 11 goals and 11 assists in 52 games. Still, as his been the story for much of his professional career, Boqvist missed significant time with injury. There’s no question the Swede will return to Columbus and aim to be a significant contributor if healthy, but he won’t see the massive extension given to fellow 2018 selection Quinn Hughes or the one due to Noah Dobson.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents:
The Blue Jackets are in an interesting position, with no significant UFAs to deal with this offseason. Of the names listed below, only Harrington and Berube played in the NHL this year, each only playing in a handful of games. Those two as well as Sikura could be candidates to be re-signed as depth for the NHL club and to round out the Cleveland Monsters AHL lineup, with Gerbe and Rinaldo not having played since the 2020-21 season. Johnson is an intriguing name, having been serviceable in 20 games in the AHL this season, he was phenomenal for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, helping the team win the Kelly Cup.
Despite the lack of key UFAs, Columbus could look ahead to a pair of UFAs to-be in forward Gustav Nyquist and defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, who will both hit the market in 2023. It’s unclear what the plan for these two is in Columbus, however Nyquist has continued to produce the steady offensive output that helped him sign his current four-year, $22MM contract, while Gavrikov has established himself as a defensive backbone on the team’s blueline.
Projected Cap Space:
The Blue Jackets will enter this offseason with just over $19.5MM in available cap space, plenty to return all expiring contracts if they wish. Though it’s plenty, Laine’s extension, which should include an AAV higher than the $7.5MM he made in 2021-22, will take up a significant portion of that space. It’s likely the club will look at some additions to help round out the roster and perhaps help if the team is more competitive than expected, but it appears the organization will take the time to evaluate its talent and give as much time and experience as possible to younger players they want to build around, like Boqvist and forwards Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson. One of the brightest spots for the organization is, once a long-term deal with Laine is complete, the team will still have a comfortable amount of cap space to work with, while having all of their experienced building-blocks, including Laine, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Zach Werenski, and Elvis Merzlikins, already signed long-term.