It’s Christmas morning for armchair general managers everywhere. The NHL Draft is here, and with that, the hockey world is anticipating some blockbuster trades, a top-rated prospect to slide down the ranks, or a jaw-dropping surprise selection. One team that has the draft capital to take a swing at a big move is the Columbus Blue Jackets.
With two early first-round picks, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has reportedly made it clear that he’s open to trading one of them for the right price. They own the 6th and 12th overall picks, which are hot tickets. The gap between the player ranked 3rd overall and around 20th is varied, so it will be a wild-card race to see who goes where in that range.
Here’s a look at the teams that might be interested in either of those first-round picks and what pieces they would need to give up to realistically get a shot at one of them. We’ll be using the criteria from Kekalainen’s tweet above to identify targets, which are:
- A player aged 20-22
- Already has made an impact on an NHL roster
- We’ll make an exception for age – considering the length of their current contract
The player targets may be players that would never be traded for $300 million and a million alpacas but who would need to be in play to facilitate a deal to meet the criteria. The old adage “even Wayne Gretzky was traded twice” applies here.
We’ll start off with a player who has already been circling the rumor mill. Jakob Chychrun has been on the market for quite some time, and he’s one of the few bright spots on a team that has been burning up in the desert.
The Coyotes have gone full scorched earth in the hopes of bottoming out to a level that would help them acquire a couple of franchise players to jumpstart a rebuild. As one of the more aggressive teams gathering future assets, they have seven picks through the first two rounds of the draft. Their first pick is at third overall, but after that, they have to wait until 27th and 32nd for their next selections. They may be ready to jump into the mid-section of the draft if they see a player they like slip down the first eleven slots.
Rumours of in-depth conversations between the Jackets and Coyotes for the young defenseman have circled recently but have reportedly cooled. Still, it would be a good fit for the Blue Jackets as Chychrun is exactly what they are looking for to help shore up their backend. However, the asking price may be more than Kekalainen is willing to surrender, going through a rebuild of his own.
The only other candidate that could turn Kekalainen’s head is the 2018’s 5th overall pick Barrett Hayton, a center who is much less of a sure thing than Chychrun. I would assume the Coyotes would have to package something else if they wanted Hayton to be a cornerstone of a deal, which could be one of those later picks in the first or second round. Don’t be surprised if Kekalainen is content trading down if he thinks he can gain more assets and still get the player he likes at a later selection.
The draft is in Montreal. The Montreal Canadiens are picking first overall. Their new general manager, Kent Hughes, has reportedly been clear that he’s interested in making a big splash in front of his home crowd. The motivation is there to add another pick in the first half of day one at the draft.
Where this deal gets a little sketchy is who the Jackets would be looking to get in return. Not many of the young talent that has broken through the Habs’ ranks lately, are likely up for grabs. Last season, I could see the only Finnish general manager asking about young Finn-Jesperi Kotkaniemi as a possible fit to make this deal work, but the current contingent may be a little too far out of the price range that Kekalainen is willing to pay.
If the Jackets are willing to give up 6th overall, and likely another significant piece, they might have the slightest shot at the only Hab who fits the Kekalainen criteria: Nick Suzuki. Suzuki is a legitimate first-line center, and with a $7.875 million cap hit, it’s looking like that contract will be a massive bargain.
This deal isn’t far from having merit, as it wouldn’t be the first time the Blue Jackets traded for someone at the draft who had just signed a mega-extension – looking at you, Jeff Carter. If the Canadiens draft Shane Wright first overall, Suzuki defaults long-term to the second-line center, and unless you’ve got Evgeni Malkin or Leon Draisaitl, paying almost $8 million for a second-line center could be a lot when they’re looking to fill out the rest of their roster.
The only other piece that kind of fits the Kekalainen criteria is Alexander Romanov. He’s young and was top five in hits in the league last season. Romanov would make the Blue Jackets’ defense harder to play against, which fits another need they’re looking to serve this offseason. A deal looks unlikely between these two partners, but if there’s any chance for the Canadiens to persuade the Blue Jackets, they would probably have to include Suzuki or Romanov.
Okay, this one could be fun. It does stretch the Kekalainen criteria a little but stay with me.
The Edmonton Oilers only have one pick through the first four rounds of the draft. That makes them a prime candidate to try to add another pick somewhere. They also have a talented player who is reportedly disgruntled and looking for a change of scenery and also has a history of playing with Columbus star of the future, Patrik Laine, to great success. Have you guessed it?
It’s Jesse Puljujarvi. The 24-year-old is a little older than the criteria, but he has finally begun to show some of the potential that was expected of him when he was drafted 4th overall in 2016 and led by some pretty promising underlying numbers. He ranked highest on the Oilers in SAT% percentage last season, despite being sixth in average ice time among forwards.
At 6-foot-4, Puljujarvi is not an easy one to knock off the puck. He fits more of a playmaking role and was a beast with Laine not too long ago at the World Junior Championships. Just picture Puljujarvi being the one that feeds Laine pass after pass for the foreseeable future. It’s not too far out of the realm of possibility and could be enough for Kekalainen to bend a little on the age criterion – especially if he could lock up the restricted free agent long-term shortly after the trade.
Los Angeles Kings
These last teams revolve a little more on players given high ceilings in their draft years but haven’t quite cut it at the NHL level. The Los Angeles Kings are without a first-round pick as they shipped it out for Kevin Fiala last month. Fiala could provide enough of a boost to warrant missing out on a first-round selection this year – as they already have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL. However, they could also see a player they like fall to 12th and feel the need to hop into the mix.
They would probably have to dip into that prospect pool to add one of those first-round picks from Columbus. Names that quasi-fit the Kekalainen criteria include Rasmus Kupari, Arthur Kaliyev, Mikey Anderson, Sean Durzi, and Gabe Vilardi. With such a deep talent pool to draw from, you’d have to wonder if the Kings would be willing to part with one or a couple of those pieces to make a deal for 12th overall or if they are content to miss out on the first round.
The team that originally owned the Blue Jackets’ 6th-overall pick could be looking to worm their way back into the first round. However, I don’t see a Chicago Blackhawks deal that doesn’t involve Alex Debrincat, and we’re not going to go there because, as far as I’m concerned, the Blue Jackets have been priced out of that market.
At 12th overall, the Blackhawks could be a fit. The name that jumps off the page here is Kirby Dach. The Blackhawks seem to have soured on Dach, but the former third-overall pick is a giant with skill, at 6-foot-4, but hasn’t been given the opportunity to show it off, relegated to a third-line role behind Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome.
My money is on Dach not being moved quite yet, as they wait to see how he fares under new head coach Luke Richardson before making any permanent decision. He is also not quite a lock to be a legitimate top-line NHL center, which is presumably the role that Kekalainen is trying to fill. This is probably not a fit either unless something extraordinary happens.
While there are all these options, you can never rule out the possibility that Kekalainen will go a bit off the board to bring in a quality piece that no one would have expected in a blockbuster deal. We’ve seen it before, and that’s what keeps us coming back every year – the excitement that lies ahead on the draft floor in Montreal tonight.
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.