Normally when it comes to an offseason, a team’s unrestricted free agents (UFAs) are the focal point of speculation. This year on the young Columbus Blue Jackets, the main pieces that need to be re-signed are not yet eligible for unrestricted free agency – so restricted free agents (RFAs) become the ones to look at.
RFA negotiations can get tense, especially if they make it to the arbitration process, so they will be worth keeping an eye on. You don’t have to go back that far to see when those negotiations went awry for the Blue Jackets. We’re going to take a look at this year’s RFA class, which I’ve broken down into the big fish, little fish, and the question marks.
The Big Fish: Laine, Roslovic & More
The big fish are those players who are locks for the NHL roster next season and are very likely to be re-signed. Four players meet that criteria:
- Patrik Laine
- Jack Roslovic
- Adam Boqvist
- Nick Blankenburg
I don’t have to check THWBets to get the odds that Patrik Laine gets a deal done with the Blue Jackets. It seems imminent. Laine likes Columbus and how he’s been treated. Jarmo Kekalainen and the brass have been clear that they think he is going to be a big part of their future. The only tough part is actually putting a deal together – which is remarkably easier when both sides want to work it out. Assume he’ll get a raise over his $7.5 million cap hit that he carried last season.
Jack Roslovic‘s strong finish to the season bought him more time with his hometown team. Once captain and first-line centre Boone Jenner went down with an injury, he looked like a man on a mission. He assumed top-line duties, and his 10 goals and 13 points through the last 10 games of the regular season were key. He once again registered career highs in goals, assists, and points. Expect a modest raise over his $1.8 million cap hit that he’s had over the last two seasons.
The big fish defenders are where things get interesting. Adam Boqvist is a 21-year-old defenseman with three years of NHL experience. That’s rare. As the key piece coming back in the Seth Jones trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, he scored more than double the goals that Jones did this year (while Jones got way more assists). The drawback on Boqvist is his strength – or lack thereof. He’s easily pushed around which will need to change before he can make a true impact on the backend. His offense is elite, which will earn him at least a few more years to prove he can become a top piece.
On the other side of the coin, Nick Blankenburg came in as a free agent signing from the University of Michigan with Kent Johnson. Blankenburg instantly became a key piece of the Blue Jackets lineup, even out-producing Johnson who was billed as the bigger fish in the signing. He could slot into the top-four next season as he definitely didn’t look out of place in the time he spent there. He’ll be a big part of this roster moving forward, so his next deal will be an interesting one to watch out for.
The Small Fish: Tarasov, Foudy & More
The small fish are not 100-percent locks to make the NHL roster next season but are more than likely to be re-signed. Five players are on that list:
- Daniil Tarasov
- Liam Foudy
- Trey Fix-Wolansky
- Carson Meyer
- Josh Dunne
Daniil Tarasov is an in-betweener who has earned the chance to back up Elvis Merzlikins next season. However, the Jackets could also opt to bring in another goalie or even re-sign pending-UFA Joonas Korpisalo to try and shore up their goals-against issues. In the long-term, Tarasov isn’t going anywhere. He showed promise in his first NHL stint and could be counted on to step up his game to the next level. He could even challenge Merzlikins for the starting position eventually, but that’s still a few seasons away.
Former first-round pick Liam Foudy has been an interesting case this season. He most certainly would have found his way into some more NHL action with the injury situation this season, but he found himself among the casualties. Foudy played well with the Cleveland Monsters in the American Hockey League (AHL) this year, potting 19 points in 29 games. The speedy forward should get another kick at the can.
The rest are depth pieces. Both Carson Meyer and Josh Dunne play a heavier style of game and play well as energy pieces. Trey Fix-Wolansky is a smaller guy at 5-foot-7, but still found a way to bring energy to the bottom-six in his six NHL games. All three have shown to be useful in a limited capacity with the big club. They’re all younger than 25 which should get them another deal as they’ve likely got a bit more growing to do.
The Question Marks: Bemstrom, Stenlund & Carlsson
Regardless, there are a few question marks left in this year’s RFA class. Here’s a look at the guys who could be jostled out of the Blue Jackets organization this summer after failing to impress.
- Emil Bemstrom
- Kevin Stenlund
- Gabriel Carlsson
Will the real Emil Bemstrom stand up? Or have we already seen him? That’s an evaluation that Kekalainen and crew will have to make soon. Bemstrom is the biggest question mark on this list – may be the biggest in the entire Blue Jackets organization. With two points in his last 12 games and not even 20 goals through his first 117 games, he is a far cry from the lethal scorer that many thought he could become. Even with top-powerplay minutes, he has failed to produce which could be a nail in his coffin. Although it feels like he’s been around forever, he’s still only going to be 23 when the puck drops next season. I would lean towards him re-signing but for a shorter term, likely one more year to, as my grandpa would say, “crap or get off the pot.”
Stenlund will be 26 when the next season begins and is trending in the wrong direction. He played fewer games this year than in any of his last three seasons, only suiting up for three NHL games. After failing to lead the Monsters in any significant way this season, he could be on his way out.
It’s always tough to part with a former first-round pick, especially for nothing in return, but that could be the case with Gabriel Carlsson. The 6-foot-5 defender looks smaller than he is, on a blue line that’s trying to get bigger and stronger. He has shown himself to be a decent bottom-pairing option, however, with no significant aspect of his game that stands out, he could wind up on the outs as management searches for those stronger options.
The Jackets are primed for a busy summer with a lot of decisions to be made. Before they’re able to add new talent to their lineup, they’ll have to decide what pieces they would like to retain out of their current roster. Keep your eyes on how management handles this RFA pool as a signal for how they’ll look to attack this offseason.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.