As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Columbus Blue Jackets offseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets Offseason Primer
After two years of being the playoff upstart, the Blue Jackets went into the 2020-21 season optimistic. Sure, officially they went out in the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But they needed to win a play-in series against the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs to get there. That counts! The offseason was a pretty big deal, ridding themselves of the disastrous Alexander Wennberg signing and shipping out long-time Jackets Ryan Murray and Josh Anderson. They brought in the young Max Domi and added veterans Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikko Koivu. They finally got their star Pierre-Luc Dubois signed. So… Looking good? In short, no. In long, NNNNOOOOOOOOOO.
The 2020-21 season was nothing short of a disaster. Their star player rebelled, idling his way into a trade. That trade brought sniper Patrik Laine… who was outplayed by Jack Roslovic, accompanying him from the Winnipeg Jets. Virtually everyone underperformed, the team fell to the bottom of their division, and their coach of six years won’t be returning. An offseason of upheaval was followed by a season of chaos leading to what? A bid for stability, certainly, as they took advantage of a strange decision by the New York Rangers to bring back John Davidson. He has some work to do, but at least the head coaching position has been filled. Moving assistant coach Brad Larsen up to the head coach position is a deep breath in the midst of turmoil.
Pending Free Agents
The Columbus Blue Jackets offseason is going to include lots of space for new players. Of the unrestricted free agents, the well-travelled Zac Dalpe produced well enough to earn another look. The strange hold Michael Del Zotto has on the league might finally be broken, putting him in the AHL for the first time in a decade. For almost everyone, it’s going to be thanks-and-a-handshake and that’s it. What plans Davidson has alongside Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t known yet, but options abound. They have three first-round picks in this year’s draft as trading chips, if needed. At the core of their next moves is one restricted free agent.
The Patrik Laine Question
Let’s get philosophical for a second. Which came first, the coach or the star? That the Blue Jackets need scoring is indisputable. That Laine can provide it, likewise. That he didn’t is right there in black and white. After 45 games, a sniper is supposed to have more than 10 goals and 21 points. Laine was unhappy in Winnipeg because he lacked a centre who could get him the puck. In Columbus, he spent the most time with… Roslovic. The restricted free agent’s price is going to go up, from the Blue Jackets’ perspective. They had only been paying $5 million in the retained salary deal, with his full paycheque closer to $7 million. But after this year, what can he ask for? He didn’t work well in John Tortorella’s system, but Laine also has little talent around him. He’s arbitration-eligible, but that would be a disastrous route to take.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Blue Jackets offseason involves shedding a lot of money. Two retained salary deals are coming off the books in Nick Foligno and David Savard, saving nearly $5 million. Brandon Dubinsky‘s $5.85 million long-term injured reserve hit is also gone. The failed Grigorenko experiment is done. There’s going to be room to add skill this year, physically and financially. And while the unrestricted free-agent list looks pretty good, it’s a mirage. Teams aren’t going to re-sign players until after the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, so some of those names aren’t really there. On the other hand, this makes them a big possibility for taking on contracts.
Major Likely Departures
Major Likely Re-Signings
Potential Free Agent Additions
That all being said, where the Blue Jackets need the most help simply isn’t going to be available. Skilled, top-line centres aren’t hitting the open market. The Columbus Blue Jackets off-season needs to include wheeling and dealing, not just free agents. On the other hand, they do need to find a replacement for Jones – and Dougie Hamilton just happens to be a free agent this year. Hamilton has moved from team to team a surprising amount for someone with his skill set. The Blue Jackets need those skills. They can afford to pay him for them. And he wouldn’t even cost them a player. And if, say, a new general manager wanted to tell his star scorer that the team is transitioning from grinders to skills, there are worse ways to do it.