The Columbus Blue Jackets are in a bit of a tweener stage at the moment; some think they’re ready to surprise and contend for a playoff spot while others think they’ll find themselves near the bottom of the standings once again this season. Realistically, they’re likely somewhere in the middle. They won’t be comfortably in a playoff spot nor will they be contending for the top pick in the draft either. As a result, there will likely come a time when discussion begins about moving players on the roster either to upgrade the team or prepare for the future. When this time inevitably comes, the Blue Jackets only have a few players who should be viewed as untouchable.
Offensive Star Power and Youth
There are a few players that aren’t untouchable in the Blue Jackets forward core but management would likely prefer not to move, including Patrik Laine and Boone Jenner. If the right offer comes along, it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume they’d be made available. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly some forwards who have reached untouchable status, the first of which is Johnny Gaudreau. The former Calgary Flame has a full no-movement clause in the contract he signed with Columbus last offseason. That alone takes him off the trade market, but his star power and contribution on the ice make him too valuable to the organization to even consider moving on from him.
It’s not every day that a superstar player makes the decision to come to Columbus, and Gaudreau’s willingness to do so will forever be an important moment in the history of hockey in Ohio. His first season with the Blue Jackets was forgettable in regards to the team’s performance as a whole, however, as an individual, he had a strong season and showed that he is worth every penny of his large contract.
Next, the newest Blue Jacket is also one of the most valuable. Adam Fantilli has yet to make his NHL debut but has the potential to be one of the most important players to suit up for the franchise. He has the makings of the organization’s first true superstar center. He almost instantly slots in as the best center on the team, which considering the young talent including Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson coming up through the ranks and a veteran such as Boone Jenner, is impressive for any rookie. He may not be the grand prize of the 2023 NHL Draft, but he’s certainly a great consolation prize that will be a key part of the Blue Jackets for many years to come.
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The final forward whom the Blue Jackets should consider as being off the market is another former Michigan Wolverine, the aforementioned Kent Johnson. As a former fifth overall pick, his value was already high coming into his rookie season. However, his impressive performance last season only made him more valuable to the organization. Putting up 40 points as a 20-year-old at the NHL level isn’t something every top prospect can do, but Johnson did it in style. In a generation of players that are starting to become defined by their high-end skills, he is right up there with the best of them. He may not have the track record of a player like Trevor Zegras, but given the opportunity he’ll catch up to him fairly quickly. Not only will Johnson continue to put points on the board, he’s the type of player who will bring fans into the seats on a nightly basis whether he’s scoring or not.
The Future of the Blue Line
On defense, there are only a couple of names that fit into this category. Similar to Gaudreau, Zach Werenski is a cornerstone of the organization and has earned himself trade protection due to his stellar play. The other will be the face of the next generation of Blue Jackets defenders, David Jiricek.
Werenski has devoted his prime to Columbus, he’s one of the best players in recent memory who has elected to stay rather than walk in free agency. Following the departure of names such as Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky after the 2018-19 season, fans were pessimistic about whether the organization could hold onto any of their high-end talent. Two years later, Werenski went the road less traveled and decided to extend with the team for six years. The first year of his new deal didn’t go to plan, with him missing a majority of the season due to a torn labrum, however now he’s healthy and ready to contribute this season.
Jiricek on the other hand, is still on his entry-level contract and may not even be on the NHL roster to start the season. With that being said, his performance at the American Hockey League level as a member of the Cleveland Monsters last season shows his superstar potential. Most seasons, he’d be a lock to make the opening night roster, however, a major logjam of defensemen, many of whom would require waivers to be sent to the AHL, has put Jiricek in a less-than-ideal situation. Within the next five years, he’ll be one of the rising stars of the NHL. While he may not be there just yet, if the Blue Jackets opted to trade him, it would be a decision they’d regret for many years to come.
There are just a few players in each skater position that have earned the title of untouchable and not a single goaltender fits the bill. While it’s unlikely that the organization will make any major moves at this point in their building process, there are some notable names left off the list if they decide to. Players like Jenner, Laine, and even Cole Sillinger won’t be shopped around by management, but they’re likely not deal-breakers if an opposition general manager makes a call inquiring about them. Considering the abundance of NHL-caliber players that the Blue Jackets have both at forward and on defense, it’s likely some smaller moves will be made at some point; however, the aforementioned players should certainly be off the table.