MONTREAL — First, there was the terrible season that caused the Blue Jackets’ roster to restart. Then, last season, came the growing pains that are sure to follow when the roster is filled with players who barely know how to shave.
But Blue Jackets fans can rejoice that the worst of the “restart” is behind them, at least if GM Jarmo Kekäläinen reads the trajectory correctly.
Kekäläinen made some big moves last summer – trading Seth Jones to Chicago, trading Cam Atkinson for Jakub Voracek to Philadelphia – but he showed a patient hand, allowing younger players to play and at the front office a chance for a thorough evaluation.
This summer is different.
The Blue Jackets are not ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. (Hell, they haven’t really earned the right to talk about it yet, have they?) But they were a lot more competitive in 2020-21 than expected, and that has Kekalainen in a good frame of mind. different as the busy NHL season arrives this week.
Kekäläinen is ready to trade his precious draft picks. He was once deeply involved in trade talks involving a veteran NHL defenseman (and possibly more). He can also dive into the free agent market if trades don’t pan out.
There are a lot of moving parts here, but the Blue Jackets should expect a busy few weeks. If Kekäläinen has his way, the Blue Jackets roster could look significantly different not only by the end of July, but also at the start of training camp in September.
Let’s take a look:
The Blue Jackets have picks No. 6 and 12 in the first round on Thursday. Kekäläinen pretty much said he wouldn’t trade those two picks to move up the order. I’m not sure he would trade them both to get to No. 1, but it’s not something he would discuss publicly.
My feeling: If Kekäläinen moves up the order, it would be No. 6 overall and a roster player. If you’re New Jersey (No. 2), Seattle (No. 4) or Philadelphia (No. 5), that might make sense, depending on how the table plays out.
My Feeling Part 2: Kekäläinen would absolutely trade the No. 12 overall pick for immediate help, but only if it’s a young player with either a young player with several years left on his contract or a player who is a restricted free agent for several more seasons.
Now imagine that Kekäläinen keeps picks No. 6 and No. 12, Director of Amateur Scouting Ville Siren walks up the dais, walks to the lectern and announces the name of the next great Blue Jacket in his booming voice with a strong Finnish accent.
My feeling: One of the best defenders – Simon Nemec or David Jiricek, but probably Jiricek – will be on the board in the Blue Jackets’ No. 6 draft. (There’s no way in a draft like this that there won’t be surprises.) If that happens, it will likely mean power center Cutter Gauthier has jumped into the top 5. In this scenario, I don’t know what the Jackets are doing. I wouldn’t be shocked if they took anyone other than Jiricek, or dropped the order.
My Feeling Part 2: If the draft goes as planned — center Shane Wright and winger Juraj Slafkovsky, in some order, up top, followed by center Logan Cooley at No. 3 and then the two defenders — it looks like the Blue Jackets would take Gauthier and be thrilled.
As for number 12, Kekäläinen said he doesn’t feel much pressure to take a forward and a defender with these two picks. He could take two forwards. Don’t think he’s likely to take two defenders, but never say never. He really is in “best player available” mode, as he should be. But if all things are equal between two players, a certain privileged position could take precedence.
A final thought: my God, I love the draft.
First order of business: moving forward Patrik Laine has signed a new contract. He has been a restricted free agent since July 13, but the Blue Jackets hope to sign him to a long-term contract that will continue through his years as an unrestricted free agent.
But Kekäläinen has an equally big challenge in clearing space among their forwards. The Blue Jackets have 17 forwards who are either NHL veterans, players now set to become NHL regulars, and players of considerable value who would need waivers to be sent to AHL Cleveland.
Left wing: Patrik Laine, Gus Nyquist, Alexandre Texier, Yegor Chinakhov, Kent Johnson, Eric Robinson and Liam Foudy.
CenterBoone Jenner, Cole Sillinger, Jack Rosloivic, Sean Kuraly, Justin Danforth
Right wing: Jakub Voracek, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Kirill Marchenko, Emil Bemstrom, Mathieu Olivier.
Something has to give.
You might think Foudy and Bemstrom don’t belong on this list, but both players will need waivers to go to the AHL this season. It’s not the end of the world if Bemstrom is claimed, but losing Foudy — a first-round pick (No. 18 overall) in 2018 would be hard to swallow.
Kekäläinen must also be careful here. The only way to get something of value is to trade a top player. Nyquist is heading into the final year of his contract at Columbus, but Kekäläinen doesn’t want to play under that club’s veteran managers unless he has to, and Nyquist is a proud and respected leader.
But if he trades the depth guys – Foudy, Bemstrom, Robinson, etc. – the return will likely be prospects or mid-to-late-round draft picks.
This list does not include players like Carson Meyer, Joshua Dunne, Trey Fix-Wolansky, who are on the AHL/NHL bubble.
The Blue Jackets are trying to reshape their back-end, and Kekäläinen has been aggressive in that pursuit in recent days.
He was in trade talks with Tampa Bay for veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh before the Lightning traded him to Nashville, which should explain how intently Kekäläinen intends to make some big changes. McDonagh, 33, has four years left on his contract at $6.75 million per season (AAV)
The Blue Jackets have Zach Werenski and Vladislav Gavrikov on the left side of their top two pairs. The right side, featuring Jake Bean, Nick Blankenburg, Adam Boqvist and Andrew Peeke, has plenty of candidates, but none ready for top pair service.
Acquiring a right-handed defender would make a lot of sense.
Those reportedly in the trade market are Montreal’s Jeff Petry, Edmonton’s Tyson Barrie and Vancouver’s Tyler Myers, but there could be other players on the move due to salary cap restrictions.
There’s also left-sided defenseman Jakob Chychrun from Arizona, who has been on the market for several months now while the Coyotes wait for the right offer. Chychrun is only 23 years old and has a very reasonable contract: three years remaining at $4.6 million AAV.
Kekäläinen’s strong preference would be to trade for a defender, not jump into the free agent market in pursuit of a better blue defender. Free agency is an expensive way to do business, especially in top NHL positions.
(Top photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)