Make no mistake about it. This offseason for the Columbus Blue Jackets has been historic for them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lingering questions.
This offseason started with anticipation wondering what moves were going to come. Then out of nowhere, the Blue Jackets dropped a bomb on the entire NHL offseason by landing the biggest prize available in Johnny Gaudreau. As you might expect, the news was well received amongst fans.
There was a catch however. Knowing that Patrik Laine was negotiating a new deal, there were going to be salary cap issues to deal with. Once Laine’s extension was announced on Friday, the Blue Jackets wasted no time in taking care of their cap issue.
The cap relief came in the form of trading Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was one of their best players and was a fan favorite. This news as you can imagine was not received well.
In the span of about two hours, Blue Jackets’ fans felt a wide range of emotions from the high of Laine signing on for four more years to the low of seeing one of their favorites move on to Seattle. It also didn’t help that the trade happened while Bjorkstrand was on his honeymoon. He and his wife Jill were married in Cleveland last weekend.
The question on the minds of many fans now is “how am I supposed to feel about all of this?” It’s a fair question to ask given all of the circumstances of this offseason to date. While we have some answers now, we won’t know all of the answers right away. The good news for fans is that this offseason will make more sense in time. Let’s dive into why.
The obvious question off the top was why Bjorkstrand? He had a team friendly deal and was under control for four more seasons. He’s also coming off one of his best seasons to date and was primed to have a role in the top-six.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen spoke to the media on Saturday from Finland. In regards to making the Bjorkstrand trade, he called it the “ugly” part of the business. He also said it was the hardest move he’s ever made as GM of the Blue Jackets.
“There were no good options available for us, really,” Kekalainen said. “This was the best of the no-good options that was available for us to become cap compliant.”
Other players could have been included in such a discussion. Gus Nyquist’s name was heard a lot. So was Jakub Voracek’s name. Each had higher dollar contracts that if moved could get the Blue Jackets under the cap. But Kekalainen chose Bjorkstrand. He also didn’t wait to act. So why now when they have the entire offseason to figure it out?
“The funny thing about cap space is that once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Kekalainen said.
Moving Bjorkstrand gets them back to cap compliance without having to make another trade. They are now able to set a compliant roster with the players they have signed. While they could have waited, the prices may have gone up even more.
Outside of Bjorkstrand, there are some other lingering questions out there. What about the defense? Are the Blue Jackets set there when they said it would be a top priority for them? Kekalainen did admit he is happy with where that stands now with Erik Gudbranson in the fold.
How are the lines going to look? Kekalainen said that Brad Larsen will figure that stuff out eventually including if Laine will get the chance to play with Gaudreau on a line together. Laine on Saturday said he’s never been more pumped to play hockey than now given the possible chance to play with Gaudreau.
What does all this mean for the future? Like we said above, despite all of the big moves that have happened, questions remain. Although the Blue Jackets have changed course thanks to the Gaudreau signing, they still have a plan and their goal hasn’t changed. Their goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But that doesn’t mean fans are over how the Bjorkstrand deal went down.
This Will Make More Sense Eventually
Let’s look at this from the lens of what the Blue Jackets do get in the Bjorkstrand deal. First, they get two additional draft picks in a loaded 2023 draft. Their scouts now get two extra shots at landing a good talent.
More importantly though now and in the future, that cap hit of $5.4 million comes off the books completely. It makes the Blue Jackets cap compliant now. It also allows flexibility in the future too. Then when you consider Nyquist’s deal is up after this season and Voracek’s deal is up in two seasons, there’s more cap room to make future moves with.
Now consider the role of Bjorkstrand in a few seasons. We would expect Gaudreau and Laine dominating on the top line. By then the kids will have more experience and could possibly be ready for a more full-time role. In other words, this conversation about Bjorkstrand may have come up again when he had 1-2 seasons left instead of four. His departure does open up a valuable spot for someone to lay claim to. Maybe Kirill Marchenko?
While the return looks underwhelming, just a third and fourth rounder in the 2023 draft, it’s better than giving a pick away if someone else was involved. Offloading Nyquist may have been easier to stomach initially, but is it the same if the Blue Jackets had to attach a 2023 first rounder? Given where the franchise is at, they can’t be trading first-round picks at this time.
So when Kekalainen said Bjorkstrand was the best of the no-good options, this is likely what he meant. All other alternatives would have likely involved giving up picks.
Blue Jackets’ fans, I understand if you’re upset. I understand if things aren’t making complete sense at the moment. Given the suddenness of the Bjorkstrand trade, that’s expected.
The Blue Jackets are still in a much better spot now than they were before the offseason started. Landing a game-breaking player in Gaudreau makes some of the bumps and bruises worth it.
The Blue Jackets are also nowhere near done with making other moves now and in the future. Kekalainen reiterated this on Saturday that their work is never done and will continue to explore all avenues to improve their team.
But here’s why it’s ok to be happy with what the Blue Jackets did. Look at their core now. Gaudreau is locked in for seven years. Zach Werenski is locked in for the next six years. Laine is locked in for the next four years. Elvis Merzlikins is locked in for the next five years. This perhaps is the best core of players this franchise has ever had. For the next four seasons, fans will get to watch this night in and night out.
The Blue Jackets still have many things to work out. They still have questions to answer. But allow this one some time to develop.
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Think back to now when you see the Blue Jackets making a huge move to address center ice in a couple of seasons. Why would they be in position to make such a move? That’s because they chose to trade Bjorkstrand now opening up the cap space.
While fans will still feel hurt at the way the Bjorkstrand situation unfolded, that is part of the business that happens on a regular basis. But when you see how the team looks in 3-4 years, the trade will make more sense.
You are about to see the best hockey you’ve ever witnessed at Nationwide Arena starting this season. It truly is a new era of Blue Jackets’ hockey that is upon us.
So cheer up. Things will eventually make sense for these Blue Jackets even if you think it doesn’t now.