Trade deadline season is upon us, and thank goodness. For hockey fans, it’s one of the four significant days marked with an asterisk on the yearly calendar – other key dates being draft day, the opening date of free agency, and opening night.
One of those teams who are certain to be active before the March 21, 3 pm deadline is the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’ve had assets on the block that have been the subject of speculation since the season kicked off in October. Headlined by Max Domi, Joonas Korpisalo, and even Jack Roslovic and Patrik Laine.
The Blue Jackets lost a key four-point swing game to the Washington Capitals on Thursday, pushing them 13 points out of a playoff spot with 20 games left. Thursday’s loss seemed like a signal bell that the playoffs are now out of reach for this team (from ‘Bold moves backfire on night of bad-luck bounces for Blue Jackets: 5 Observations,’ The Athletic, Mar. 17 2022). So, it’s time to sell off some assets and start planning for next season with no reservations held for a playoff push in 2021-22.
What Do I Consider Being Tied Down?
Okay, maybe it was a bit of a clickbaity title, but let’s define the term here.
In this instance, “tied down” is referring to anyone who is not projected to be a key part of the franchise past this season, maybe even next season. That would be based on age, contract status, or players who could be seen as expendable based in anticipation of needing to make space for other players coming in.
The Jackets have a plethora of prospects on the horizon who are going to earn roster spots, they’ve got some older players mixed in with a core group of younger players, and a few expiring contracts coming off the books in the next year or two.
Who is Tied Down?
Before we look at who isn’t tied down, let’s have a look at who is. Let’s start with the obvious names.
Zach Werenski will be a franchise cornerstone defenseman and was just signed to a six-year contract extension. Oliver Bjorkstrand is still only 26 and leads the Jackets in scoring once again. He is also one of the more underappreciated forwards in the league and signed for four years after this one at a fair cap hit. Consider them tied down.
32-year-old Jakub Voracek’s $8.25 million cap hit for the next three years ties him to the Blue Jackets through the deadline. In this climate, no contending team will have the space or risk the uncertainty of adding that contract through his age-35 season, despite how Voracek remains an impact player for Columbus.
Contrary to some speculation, Patrik Laine is not going anywhere. The Finn has exploded this year, showing why he was picked right after Auston Matthews in 2016. He’s 23 years old, with a ton of experience. He’s 6-foot-5, yet fleet of foot. He looks like the next Alex Ovechkin on the powerplay. He says he enjoys playing in Columbus, and the city has fallen in love with the spunky forward. With restricted free agency coming after his contract expires this spring and the potential to score 50 goals in any given year, he’s not going anywhere, especially not this year.
Other untouchables include anyone in the youth movement. Those who have seen action this year like Cole Sillinger, Yegor Chinakhov, Adam Boqvist, Jake Christiansen, and Daniil Tarasov. Along with those who haven’t but are primed to be a part of the team’s future like Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Tyler Angle, Samuel Knazko, and so many more.
Who is Not Tied Down?
So, let’s take a look at what players probably won’t be a huge part of the Jackets’ roster two or more seasons out.
Starting with the name on everyone’s mind, Max Domi. He brings so much to the Blue Jackets locker room and organization, but just seemed destined to head to a new organization. We’ve done a lot of analysis on him, including an exclusive interview. So instead of kicking that dead horse again, I’ll direct you to some of our work on it. Long story short, he is a solid name-brand option for the Blue Jackets to gain some assets, especially with the uncertainty of his first chance at unrestricted free agency at the end of the year. It won’t be easy for Jackets fans to lose one of their fan favourites, but it seems likely that it will happen.
Related: 3 Destinations Where Max Domi Could Land at the Trade Deadline
Joonas Korpisalo has been playing himself out of a trade and not in a good way. I’ve seen a strainer stop a greater percentage of water escaping from my mac and cheese pot than pucks Korpisalo has stopped this year. He has had the opposite of puck luck, anti-puck luck, even kicking one into his own net on Thursday. His injury situation in recent weeks certainly hasn’t helped his trade value either. Anything in return for Korpisalo at this point would seem like a win.
Other trade chips include really anyone on an expiring deal who could garner a pick in return. Jean-Francois Berube, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington and Brendan Gaunce, are all players who’ve donned a Blue Jackets jersey at least once this season and could garner some sort of return on the market.
Who Could Be Not Tied Down?
Consider this the Brandon Hagel category. It’s the weird grey area that a few Jackets players fall into. Players who could be a big part of the team’s future, but could also be realistically sold should a Hagel-sized offer appear. A logjam on the roster also puts some of these names on the list as a sneaky trade chip.
Roslovic is also in speculation, but similar to Laine, he has one year left of restricted free agency on his expiring contract. Unless they get a Hagel-sized offer, don’t expect GM Jarmo Kekalainen to move on from him just yet.
The closest comparable to Hagel on the Blue Jackets roster is Alexandre Texier. He is young and impactful, but the uncertainty of his leave of absence following a personal tragedy pushes him out of the conversation for this year.
Now we move to the logjam. Many expected the Jackets to be bottom-dwellers this season, not seeing an abundance of name-brand elite talent. While they don’t have any former Hart Trophy winners on their roster, there is still an abundance of NHL talent, mainly littered with middle-six forwards and top-six defensemen. This creates a bit of a logjam for talent, which saw a couple of players depart after losing their spot on the roster. I’m looking at you, Gregory Hofmann and Mikko Lehtonen.
Up front, Gustav Nyquist is a piece that likely won’t be moved this year but is a name to watch moving forward as the 32-year-old still has one year left on his deal. For the right price, he could be moved as he’s not getting any younger and is already on the wrong side of 30. Though, since he brings so many intangibles to the locker room, a trade seems unlikely at this point.
On the back end, the emergence of Andrew Peeke as a top-four option has given the Blue Jackets five legitimate choices moving forward. The others being Werenski, Boqvist, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Jake Bean.
For my money, the odd one out of that group is Bean. At 23 years old, he is still young. He’s billed as more of an offense-first defenseman, but has a decent overall game, and has two years remaining at a reasonable cap-hit ($2.33 million). He could be a great asset to a contending team from a hockey and money perspective.
Other players who could be on the block include Emil Bemstrom, Gabriel Carlsson and Gavin Bayreuther, who’ve been playing in fringe roles for the Blue Jackets this year but aren’t on expiring deals or are restricted free agents after this year.
With no urgency on moving these players, it doesn’t seem likely they will be moved at the deadline unless offered a king’s (or at least a prince’s) ransom. These are more players to watch as candidates to gain future assets moving beyond the deadline.
Trade Them All
Come Monday, the Jackets should accept the highest bidder for any of those players not tied down and seriously consider any head-turning offer for one of those sneaky trade chips. They’ve got the depth to fill those roles in the short term, and with the organization brimming with young talent, they simply need to open up opportunities for that talent to flourish.
The teams that have succeeded the most in the salary cap era, and even beforehand, are teams that bottomed out and built themselves through the draft, supplementing here and there through trades and free agency.
The dynastic Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks of the 2010s, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era, and the Tampa Bay Lightning of recent years all were very bad before they got very good. In the cap era, it seems as though success can be seen as a pendulum. Middling organizations generally stay middling, while the best teams seem to swing from very bad to very good within a few years. Just look at the teams who followed this model and are now on the upswing, highlighted by the Colorado Avalanche, the New York Rangers, and the Kings among a few others.
The Blue Jackets have the staff in place to build something special. They’ve found gems in the draft recently with Johnson, Sillinger, Chinakhov, Marchenko, and so many more. It’s time to rip this team down to the studs, get as many future assets as possible, trust their drafting and development, and build the team that Blue Jackets fans have been waiting over two decades for.