The lead-up to 2022’s free agent frenzy continues. It’s a time of optimism when teams, fans, and reporters look toward the free agent class and identify legitimate targets that would make a good fit in their organization. That’s what we’ll be doing here today for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It will be a look into the realistic additions at each position that the Blue Jackets could sign on July 13. These players would also fill a need that the team has and could reasonably be added within their current salary cap structure. As of the writing of this piece, the Blue Jackets have $16,916,667 in projected cap space. We’ll need to put some money away for Patrik Laine‘s new contract; we’ll say his contract comes in at $9.5 million, so that leaves approximately $7.42 million to play with.
Around $7.5 million would probably only be enough to sign one, maybe two of these candidates, so keep in mind that each of these scenarios would be mutually exclusive with depth signings used to fill in any of the other needs. Alright, now that we’ve laid everything out, let’s have a look at the realistic free agent signings for this offseason.
Goalie – Collin Delia
Let’s be clear, the Blue Jackets do not need a goalie. Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo, and Daniil Tarasov will be their top-three for this season. However, if they did sign a goalie, it would be a depth signing with some experience at both the NHL and American Hockey League (AHL) level who could step up if needed in an emergency situation. The top choice in that regard for me is Collin Delia.
Delia has been in the Chicago Blackhawks organization since 2017-18 and played remarkably well in a depth role. In each season that he’s played over 20 games in the AHL, he’s recorded a save percentage (SV%) over .900. Delia has fared particularly well in those emergency situations, looking at his 16-game call-up to the Blackhawks in 2018-19 when his SV% was .908. He was always a player that got pushed down the lineup in Chicago, but was still a good depth piece. He could do that again with the Blue Jackets.
Do not expect the Blue Jackets to add a top-tier goalie on the free agent market. This is the least predictable position for them to add to. When it comes to depth goaltending, the player that will be signed might just be the first player to accept an offer. They could also decide to just keep what they already have in Jet Greaves, who played well in that depth role last season.
Other realistic goalie targets: Antoine Bibeau, Tyler Parsons, Cory Schneider, Garret Sparks, Malcolm Subban
Defenseman – Josh Manson
This is the only player from yesterday’s “perfect world” free agent signing piece that could be realistic. Josh Manson checks all the boxes of what the Blue Jackets’ defense needs. He is a hard guy to move around at 6-foot-3 and over 210 pounds. He brings a blue-collar work ethic that comes from grinding his way through three years of college hockey after being recruited out of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). The other big factor that he would bring to the roster is a recent Stanley Cup win with the Colorado Avalanche. He also has a lot of experience that would be great to pass along to the next generation of Blue Jackets that have championship aspirations.
Manson will be 31 years old when the next season kicks off, which is nearing a dangerous age range for a physical player, but regardless, his veteran presence would be a great help on the blue line. Even if his physical style catches up with him, think of how beloved the veteran tough-nosed defenseman Shea Weber was to the youngsters on the Montreal Canadiens, even though he was out often with injury.
Manson is going to be a hot ticket on the free agent market, so the concern is that a bidding war could get out of hand. Getting dragged into a bidding war could be worth it or an absolute disaster. Giving him a deal comparable to Tyler Myers at around $6 million only makes sense if he plays on the first pair with Zach Werenski for the duration of the contract. If he slots in on the second pair, between $4-5.5 million would be a reasonable number with an ideal three-year deal for him at his age.
Other realistic defense targets: Ben Chairot, Michael Del Zotto, Eric Gudbranson, Brett Kulak, Colin Miller, Jan Rutta, Nikita Zadorov.
Winger – Ilya Mikheyev
Another position that the Blue Jackets do not need to add to is on the wing as they have at least 10 legitimate NHL wingers on their roster heading into next season. If they were to add a winger, it would be someone with a physical edge, be it in the form of a heavy hitter or a big body.
Ilya Mikheyev would be a player who could add a different dimension on the middle-six wings of the Jackets’ forward corps. He’s been a decent offensive contributor with Toronto Maple Leafs, including his first 20-goal season in 2021-22, and if he consistently does that moving forward would be a great asset. Although he doesn’t hit very often, his 6-foot-3 frame brings that bigger body that’s needed up front. His skillset also ties into the need to add defensive responsibility to the roster as he was a fixture on the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill. That’s not even mentioning how wicked fast he is.
To add a winger of Mikheyev’s style, either Gustav Nyquist or Oliver Bjorkstrand would need to be moved. I circle those names since they bring a similar role to the team and one could be moved to add more of a two-way forward in Mikheyev to the roster. The drawback to him is uncertainty, which could see him overpaid on the free agent market. He’s been repeatedly hit with injuries and while he did hit 20 goals this year, his previous high in goals was eight. If you’re a general manager, you do not want to be the guy who signs the next David Clarkson.
Reported to be looking for a deal over $4.5 million, Mikheyev could be a little out of the Blue Jackets’ price range but he does meet their needs. Although at a lesser cap-hit, he could be a great add to the middle six.
Other realistic winger targets: Nick Cousins, Dominik Kubalik, Daniel Sprong, Frank Vatrano.
Center – Nico Sturm
The Blue Jackets have a need for a legitimate center who can play in a legitimate top-nine role. The other key is finding someone who can improve on their faceoff percentage, which ranked 21st in the NHL at 48.5 percent. A decent candidate who could come in at a reasonable cap hit and fills that need is Nico Sturm.
Sturm has never been relied on in a top-nine role at the NHL level, but he has shown the ability to produce with increased responsibility in his college years. He’s coming off of a Stanley Cup run with the Avalanche, which alone is great experience, but he’s also strong in the faceoff dot, consistently winning over 50 percent of his draws throughout his career. At 6-foot-3, Sturm brings more size, which is also desperately needed on the roster, and at 27 years old, he’s still hungry to show he can do more at the NHL level.
Sturm has a physical game that excels in a defensive situation. I would think of him as a younger guy in the Boone Jenner/Sean Kuraly-type mold with a bigger frame. At the right cap-hit, Sturm could be a low-risk, mid-reward signing for the Blue Jackets.
Other realistic center targets: Adam Gaudette, Victor Rask, Sam Steel, Derek Stepan, Dylan Strome.
Regardless of who the team signs, July 13 will be the next steps in what will surely be an interesting summer for the Blue Jackets and their management team. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled to The Hockey Writers for all the latest bits of news and analysis as we continue through the 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.