- Blue Jackets prospect center Alexandre Texier will remain overseas for at least one more year, GM Jarmo Kekalainen confirmed to Steve Gorton of the Columbus Dispatch (Twitter link). The 18-year-old was a second-round pick (45th overall) back in 2017 and is coming off a quality showing at the World Championships where he picked up three assists in seven games despite being one of the youngest players in the tournament. However, the team would like to see him get a little stronger physically and have decided that keeping him with KalPa of the SM-liiga is the best way to go.
Blue Jackets Rumors
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.
The Blue Jackets would like to keep defenseman Ian Cole in the fold, notes Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (subscription required). The pending unrestricted free agent was acquired from Ottawa (who had previously added him from Pittsburgh) at the trade deadline and he played an important role, logging over 18 minutes a night in 20 regular season games and better than 19 minutes per game in the playoffs. Cole is set to earn a considerable raise from the $2.1MM cap hit on his current deal; Portzline surveyed some NHL agents and their expectation for his next contract checks in around $4.5MM per year.
In Elliotte Friedman’s latest 31 Thoughts column for Sportsnet, he breaks down the situations of several coaches—both employed and unemployed—around the league. One of those he touches on is Glen Gulutzan, who Friedman says received offers to become an assistant coach in both Edmonton and Buffalo.
There’s no indication that Gulutzan has made a decision yet, but with teams offering him roles as an assistant or head coach in the AHL, it seems unlikely that he’ll remain unemployed very long. The former Calgary Flames head coach was fired after a disappointing season, in which the club missed the playoffs entirely.
- Ian Clark, the goaltending coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets, will leave the team at the end of June. His contract is expiring and will move on to new challenges, leaving Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo without their coach next season. No word on who will be replacing him, though Clark believes that “sooner or later, teams will have a director of player personnel and a director of goaltending.”
- One interesting connection that Friedman makes regarding the New York Rangers’ vacancy, is that of D.J. Smith. The Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach has a history with Rangers’ Special Assistant Adam Graves, and has been considered for various jobs in the past. Interestingly, the Maple Leafs have recently promoted Kyle Dubas to GM, where he could have an impact on coaching hires over the next few months.
- Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski underwent shoulder surgery yesterday and he may not be the only one going under the knife. GM Jarmo Kekalainen told Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (subscription required) that at least two others could be facing surgeries in the weeks to come although he wouldn’t specify which players are in that situation. In the meantime, they’re resting in the hopes that doing so will be enough to avoid going the surgical route. If that doesn’t work, Werenski may not be the only player whose status heading into the start of next season could be in question.
Another young European forward has signed his entry-level contract. The Columbus Blue Jackets have inked prospect Jonathan Davidsson to a three-year deal, after a solid season in the SHL. GM Jarmo Kekalainen praised the newest member of the Blue Jackets organization in a press release:
Jonathan is a fast, skilled player who put up good numbers in the Swedish Hockey League this season. He is a smart player and mature young man and we believe he has a very bright future with our organization.
Davidsson was selected in the sixth-round last year, his third year of draft eligibility. Originally ranked 64th among European skaters in 2015, he has continued to develop in the SHL and broke out this season with 31 points in 52 games, adding 8 more in 11 playoff contests. His best attribute is a patient playmaking approach, waiting just long enough for lanes to open up which would be otherwise missed.
His younger brother Marcus Davidsson was selected in the second round last year by the Buffalo Sabres, but is still a long way off from the NHL. Jonathan, now 21, could make it there first if the development he showed this season continues. If he comes over to North America in 2018-19, he’ll play for a Cleveland Monsters team that struggled this season and lacked dynamic young talent. Players like Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand have graduated from the program, leaving room for someone like Davidsson to try and pick up the offensive slack.
According to Brian Hedger of NHL.com, Columbus Blue Jackets star defenseman Zach Werenski underwent shoulder surgery this morning and will be out for five to six months. The issue apparently had bothered Werenski since October 30th, when he first suffered the injury. In a statement, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen explained the decision to undergo surgery:
Zach has been dealing with this injury since early in the season and while he was able to play through it, our medical team determined that surgery was the best option at this time. The surgery went very well and the expectation is Zach will be ready to play by the start of the season or shortly thereafter
Five months would allow Werenski to start the season on time with the Blue Jackets, but it means he will at least miss all of training camp. Columbus is dealing with another early exit from the playoffs, and will be trying to overcome the other top teams in the Metropolitan. Losing one of their top pairing defensemen for any length of time is disruptive to that goal, and if he misses the first whole month of the season they could find themselves in an early hole.
Fortunately for the Blue Jackets, they also have Seth Jones and the rest of an impressive defense corps that can come to the rescue. Just like the Anaheim Ducks signed Francois Beauchemin to help deal with injuries to Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm to begin the year, you can bet that Columbus will ensure their depth is fortified this summer.
The fact that he was dealing with a shoulder injury all season could explain why his point totals dropped from 47 to 37 this season, but certainly should make Columbus fans excited for what comes next. If this season’s 20-year old Werenski—nearly 23 minutes a night and excellent even-strength production—was him at less than 100%, one can only dream about what he’ll be in a few years. Werenski is eligible for an extension on July 1st, and could be locked up long-term this summer.
The Arizona Coyotes are moving on from a top executive. The team announced today that they would not renew the contract for Assistant GM Chris O’Hearn. O’Hearn had been with the Coyotes for eleven years and was in his third year as AGM. O’Hearn handled much of the legal and administrative operations for Arizona, such as contract negotiations, salary arbitration, and cap management. GM John Chayka will now have to find a replacement or delegate those duties to others in the front office.
- Perhaps O’Hearn can throw his hat in the ring for the Minnesota Wild GM job. Owner Craig Leipold is certainly expanding his search, adding two new names to the mix alongside Nashville Predators’ AGM Paul Fenton and Columbus Blue Jackets’ AGM Bill Zito. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that Boston Bruins’ AGM John Ferguson Jr. interviewed for the position today, while New Jersey Devils’ AGM Tom Fitzgerald will make his case tomorrow. Ferguson Jr. was previously the GM and Vice President of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the mid-2000’s and has entered the potential-GM market in a big way this week, now connected with both Minnesota and the Carolina Hurricanes’ vacancy. Fitzgerald had already dropped out of the Hurricanes’ hunt, citing “bad timing”, but the timing appears to be right for a potential move to Minneapolis. The Wild now have four legitimate candidates for Leipold to choose from and he may not be done yet.
- Another job search is ongoing in Dallas, as GM Jim Nill has his hands full finding a new head coach. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that Nill is considering at least ten different candidates to take over for Ken Hitchcock as the Stars’ new bench boss. That was in response to TSN’s Frank Servalli’s note that University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery is the newest addition to the list. Montgomery has been dominating college hockey over the last five years, leading the Pioneers to a NCAA Tournament berth each year and winning the National Championship last season. Montgomery has been a popular candidate the last couple of years and would be an excellent choice for Dallas.
Finland has announced their final roster for the upcoming World Championship, and it is filled with young NHL talent. The Dallas Stars will be quite pleased with the results, as both Miro Heiskanen and Julius Honka will be present on defense. The entire group is as follows:
Affiliated NHL organization in parenthesis
Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars)
Julius Honka (Dallas Stars)
Niko Mikkola (St. Louis Blues)
Markus Nutivaara (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Ville Pokka (Ottawa Senators)
Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes)
Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild)
Kasperi Kapanen (Toronto Maple Leafs)
Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche)
Teuvo Teravainen (Carolina Hurricanes)
Heiskanen’s presence on the team is especially noteworthy given that he is only 18 years old still, and made it over other top young players like Olli Juolevi. The third pick in the 2017 draft, Heiskanen is an incredibly mobile two-way defender that should be an impact player in the NHL before long. The Stars will watch to see if he and Honka get any time together and can start to build chemistry, as the pair could be used together for years to come.
For Rantanen, a good performance at the Worlds would be just another feather in his cap for the 2017-18 season. After scoring 20 goals last season on a dreadful Colorado team, he and Nathan MacKinnon formed one of the league’s most dangerous duos this season and racked up the accolades. Rantanen finished with 84 points, a huge total for a 21-year old winger still learning how to best use his big frame in the NHL.
Two long-time veterans seem to be on the outside looking in this offseason as the Columbus Blue Jackets as both defenseman Jack Johnson and center Brandon Dubinsky struggled last season and saw little to no playing time in the playoff. Johnson didn’t play in any of the Blue Jackets playoff games against Washington, even though they lost four in a row. Dubinsky ranked 10th among forwards in average ice time and only played 4:09 in the final playoff game.
While the team is highly unlikely to bring back Johnson as he is an unrestricted free agent and Columbus is overloaded in solid blueliners, Dubinsky is another situation, according to Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (subscription required). The 32-year-old still has three years remaining on the six-year deal he signed in 2014 at $5.85MM AAV. He is the third-highest paid player on the team behind goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panerin. Portzline writes that with his drop in production this year (16 points compared to 41 in 2016-17), the veteran has no trade value and a buyout at this stage isn’t worth it. That means the team is stuck with him and only a renewed effort by Dubinsky could regain him his old role.
- The Athletic’s Scott Powers (subscription required) writes the Chicago Blackhawks, who will pick eighth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, the highest they’ve drafted since they chose Patrick Kane with the first overall pick in 2007, might be looking for the most NHL ready player when they pick. “You never know,” head coach Joel Quenneville said after the season ended. “You can’t discount that. They say that there’s a lot of good players in this year’s draft. Getting a player at the number is going to be a good opportunity for our scouts, there’s some excitement in that area.”
- Previously rumored, but Sportsnet’s Rick Dhaliwal reports that Vancouver Canucks prospect Elias Pettersson and backup goaltender Anders Nilsson have each made the preliminary roster for Sweden for the World Championships this summer in Denmark. Pettersson, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, who had the best season ever for a 18-year-old rookie in the SHL, is expected to compete for a roster spot with the Canucks in training camp.
- There were a few surprises Saturday when the U.S. released their preliminary roster for the World Championships this summer when Buffalo Sabres’ Casey Mittelstadt wasn’t on the roster. The Buffalo News’ John Vogl reports that Mittelstadt didn’t make the roster due to the fact that he’s battling a groin injury, although general manager Jason Botterill said it wasn’t serious. “It’s a groin, but it shouldn’t be anything more than a couple weeks,” Botterill said. “But obviously with the tournament starting next week, it just didn’t make any sense for him to go over there.”