Blue Jackets Desperately Need Help Down the Middle

When the Columbus Blue Jackets began their 20th season this year, the club could finally feel confident in their strength at center. The position has long been an issue in Columbus, but after the trade for Max Domi and signing free agent Mikko Koivu behind top-line budding star Pierre-Luc Dubois, it seemed the club had a group of pivots that could contend, as my colleague Pete Bauer discussed.

Then, all of a sudden, it was gone. Dubois asked for a trade – although his play on the ice demanded it – and he was shipped to the Winnipeg Jets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. After seven games with the CBJ, Koivu, 37, suddenly decided to call time on a fantastic 16-year career. Domi was benched early and often by head coach John Tortorella before being moved to the wing and demoted down the lineup, deservedly so. The team struggled all season with their transition game, generating offense and scoring, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Pierre-Luc Dubois Columbus Blue Jackets
The Pierre-Luc Dubois trade has left the Blue Jackets struggling at center (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Roslovic, acquired in the Dubois trade, has flashed legitimate top-6 center potential despite running into benching issues with Tortorella too – this season, who hasn’t? Maybe he’s a long-term answer. Perhaps, with a new coach expected to come in next year, Domi will find the offensive play-driving game we saw when he was with the Montreal Canadiens and rebound into a top-6 center. Maybe Alex Texier will finally establish himself as an NHL-caliber center and demands more ice time with his play.

Reload or Rebuild?

However, none of that is certain. In fact, it all may be a long shot. This offseason, and probably the next half-decade, will be determined by the direction Seth Jones takes in his negotiations with the club. If he decides to sign an extension and stay in Columbus, then general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s insistence on a ‘reload’ instead of a rebuild is legitimate. With the Jones-Werenski pair intact on the blue line, strong forward options on the wing with Oliver Bjorkstrand, Patrik Laine, Gus Nyquist, among others, and depth in net, management’s attention will turn to immediate help at center.

Should Jones decide he wants to test the market, then the Blue Jackets will be forced into a full-blown, multi-year rebuild. Jones should be traded immediately, but would a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) fetch a top-line center in a one-for-one trade? Probably not, unless the ever-rumored but rarely seen sign-and-trade is pulled off. A rebuild is perhaps the better way to ensure the team finds a long-term solution at center through drafting and developing, but that would be a bitter pill to swallow. If Jones walks, it would be a huge black mark on the CBJ, whose reputation for failing to retain top talent would be cemented.

Seth Jones Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones holds all the cards in upcoming contract negotiations (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, let’s look at the optimistic version of the plan and who Kekalainen can target for immediate help. The top option approaching the free-agent market is undoubtedly the Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He makes $6 million per season and will probably be looking for a raise in the $8 million range long-term, and the Oilers have exactly $0 in cap room. I’m sure GM Ken Holland will try to extend him by shedding some players, and Nugent-Hopkins likes playing in Edmonton, so he might not hit the market, but if he does, then Columbus could be an option for him.

Nugent-Hopkins is a relatively consistent 20ish-goal, 50-60-point player, but he receives a significant bump, both in points and analytically driving play, when placed on Connor McDavid’s wing. Who wouldn’t, I know, but his play independently is not top-line center material on a Cup-contending team, but it would be a significant upgrade for the CBJ.

2018-19 through 2020-21Corsi For %Goals For %Expected Goals For %Scoring Chances For %
McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins52.0951.225353.94
Nugent-Hopkins w/o McDavid46.5249.3847.3246.49
Data from naturalstattrick.com

Two more possible UFA targets are Montreal’s Philip Danault and the Nashville Predators’ Mikael Granlund. Making $3.1 and $3.7 million, respectively, both should be interested in the pay increase and expanded role that Columbus could offer.

Danault has struggled a bit this season production-wise but is still one of the better 200-foot centers in the league, routinely shutting down the opposition’s top lines and driving play exceptionally well. Granlund used to be a premier passer, and although he hasn’t quite found that level in Nashville, he’s still a well-above-average player that would help the CBJ. Ultimately, Danault would be a really good 2nd-line center and a great fit alongside Laine, but neither he nor Granlund are likely to be the difference-makers Columbus requires.

There are a few other free agent options out there that are less likely. The Boston Bruins’ David Krejci will need a new deal, but he will almost certainly re-sign and stay a Bruin until he retires. Florida Panthers’ Alexander Wennberg has had a small resurgence this season after a brutal decline and subsequent buyout in…. oh, right, Columbus. Marcus Johansson could be had, but he’s sharply declined the last few seasons and wouldn’t significantly move the needle for the Blue Jackets.

Overall, the free-agent options are…not great. Plus, teams generally have to overpay to sign UFAs, especially a team like Columbus, who are coming off a disappointing, drama-filled season. Players will see the talent – playing with Laine or Bjorkstrand wouldn’t be too bad – but Columbus has never been a destination spot for difference-makers, and I don’t think that starts now. So, let’s turn to another option.

Looking at the Trade Market

Sam Reinhart is a restricted free agent (RFA) this offseason and should be in line for a big pay raise from his $5.2 million per season bridge deal signed ahead of this season. At 25, he’s been a really good player on a really bad Buffalo Sabres team. He drives play exceptionally well, can be a good net-front presence on the power play, is a low-maintenance player, and is a safe bet for 50-60 points every season, which could jump significantly away from Buffalo.

The Sabres have top prospect Dylan Cozens likely slotted in at 2nd-line center long-term, and if they’re committed to keeping Jack Eichel around, those two may occupy ice time down the middle that would otherwise go to Reinhart. If Reinhart is available, which would be a mistake by Buffalo, the Jackets should call. But let’s say that there’s someone else out there…in Buffalo as well. Someone better for Kekalainen to swing for.

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Jack Eichel would be a perfect fit in Columbus (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jack Eichel. I know, the idea is a few seasons old now, but the Blue Jackets should seriously consider trading for Jack Eichel, or try to. He is a legitimate superstar, number one center that Columbus has never had – not Ryan Johansen, not Pierre-Luc Dubois, not anyone. No center who has ever suited up for the CBJ (the Sergei Federov retirement tour doesn’t count) is as good as Eichel is right now and will continue to be. He’s under contract for another five seasons at $10 million per year, which for a player of his caliber is well worth it even in a flat-cap world.

Eichel has scored at least 20 goals in every single one of his six NHL seasons, including 36 last year, and he has 78 and 82-point seasons under his belt. He is a point-per-game player for Buffalo when healthy. Read that again. He is a point-per-game player on the embarrassing, basement-owning Sabres. Over the past three seasons, his 178 points in 166 games are miles ahead of the second-best Buffalo scorer, Sam Reinhart, who has 155 in 36 more games.

Eichel is excellent in transition, effortlessly skating the puck from the defensive zone and gaining a controlled entry in the offensive zone, something the Blue Jackets are legally prohibited from doing, it seems. He’d immediately slot into the top line, and although I’m not convinced he’d be the perfect fit to pair with Laine, he gives you another player of superstar caliber that the Jackets need if they’re going to compete. He is elite on the power play, and at even strength, can shoot and distribute the puck, and desperately, desperately needs a change of scenery.

No one would blame Eichel for requesting a trade out of Buffalo. He’s had three GMs and four head coaches in six years. The Sabres have finished in the bottom five of the NHL in four of those seasons, and in the other two, they finished 8th and 6th from the bottom. The team has routinely blown draft picks, made ill-advised trades, and mishandled prospects. The fact that he hasn’t gone public with a trade request is a credit to him and his commitment to the franchise and part of the reason I don’t buy the ‘part of the culture problem’ that people tag him with. 

Those people said the same thing about Ryan O’Reilly when he was blunt about how much losing in Buffalo hurt. He’s now the Conn-Smythe winning captain of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues (2019). With owners like the Pegulas, who are blatantly uncommitted to winning, I don’t see how anyone can criticize Eichel.

Gary Bettman Ryan O'Reilly Conn Smythe Trophy
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents St. Louis Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly with the Conn Smythe trophy. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The cost for Eichel would be astronomical. It would begin with multiple first-round picks, but the Blue Jackets now have four over the next two years. It would also likely include a top prospect, whether that’s Kirill Marchenko, Daniil Tarasov, Liam Foudy…Buffalo would have their pick. They would also almost certainly demand Zach Werenski to go the other way in the deal, which would be a tough pill to swallow for Columbus fans.

A deal like that might be too rich for Kekalainen, but when a player like Eichel is acquired, it’s almost impossible to lose that trade. And, you never know, the Sabres traded O’Reilly for a first-round pick, two fourth-line players, and meh prospect Tage Thompson. Plus, GM Kevyn Adams just moved Curtis Lazar, Eric Staal, Brandon Montour, and Taylor Hall for Anders Bjork, a second, two thirds, and a fifth-rounder.

Kekalainen isn’t afraid to swing big, as we’ve seen time and time again, and if you miss out on Eichel, the options for elite centers drop drastically. I expect him to attempt to leverage cap space and first-round picks for teams in need of help for the upcoming expansion draft, but no one even close to Eichel’s level will be traded or left unprotected. The free-agent pool is underwhelming and wouldn’t propel the Blue Jackets to where they were over the last few seasons. Everything this offseason hinges on Jones and his negotiations but, if he extends in Columbus and commits to the franchise, the next step has to be finding help down the middle of the lineup, and that road should begin in Buffalo.


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