The NHL Draft is always a busy time for general managers, and even more so for the Columbus Blue Jackets. It seems like most of the Blue Jackets’ big acquisitions on the trade market are made on draft weekend — see Artemi Panarin, Jakub Voracek, Jeff Carter, and Adam Boqvist.
While general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has a penchant for sneaking any player into a deal if it will make his team better, there are a few pieces that he should avoid trading for any price that is less than Connor McDavid. Here are five pieces that the Blue Jackets should consider ‘untouchable’ heading into the 2022 NHL Draft on July 7-8.
We could open and close this conversation with one sentence: Zach Werenski is a legitimate number one defenseman at the NHL level who wants to play in Columbus.
His status as a legitimate number one is something that may have been a question at the beginning of the season but was proven through his play this past year. Werenski was not simply a benefactor of having often played with former Jackets star Seth Jones but a top-end talent in his own right. Jones may have provided some training wheels for the defender, but the wheels are off, and Werenski is an NHL star.
Werenski loves Columbus. Before last season, he signed a contract extension with the Jackets that will keep him in Ohio through 2027-28 at a reasonable cap hit ($9.583 million) for a legitimate number one defenseman. Werenski is the guy to lead the Blue Jackets’ defense of the future. Both sides have committed, and now we see where that marriage will take them. He is off limits on the trade market.
No, Patrik Laine‘s not re-signed to a new contract yet. And no, I’m not worried about it. Maybe we’ll revisit our level of concern should he remain unsigned in late August or heading into training camp, but it’s clear that Laine likes the Blue Jackets, and they feel the same about him.
And what’s not to like? The forward had a bounceback season and almost led the team in scoring, finishing only six points from the lead in third place, despite only having played 56 games. He also hit his own career high at 1.00 points per game, which is a mark that has only been hit by Artemi Panarin and Rick Nash in Columbus.
The Blue Jackets writers for THW voted him as the MVP of the team for the season. He showed incredible character throughout the season, battling through multiple injuries and the loss of his father to be a leader for the team. The question isn’t if Laine will be back but for what money and for how long?
Elvis Merzlikins is the Blue Jackets’ starting goalie, no question. This could be a different conversation in future years. It’s dependent on the development of goalie prospect Daniil Tarasov, who is seen as the one name in the Blue Jackets organization who is capable of supplanting Merzlikins as the top dog of the crease. For now, the Blue Jackets have three goalies under NHL contract, and it’s clear that the Latvian is the one they trust to lead them moving forwards.
Merzlikins was a man on a mission this year and was a capable starter in his first season as a full-time starter despite being put in a tough situation. That on its own would be quite a challenge, but he was also often hung out to dry by the Jackets’ soft defense. Merzlikins was shelled with the second most shots per 60 minutes of any starter at 34.7. For context, Vezina-winner Igor Sheshterkin only faced 31.7 shots, and Merzlikins was only behind Karel Vejmelka, who faced 36.1.
He had a heck of a workload, starting the third-most back-to-back games, doing it five times, and made just over half of his 59 starts with one day or less of rest. Facing all of that adversity and still recording a .907 SV% is a win for Merzlikins. The Jackets put him to the test, and he succeeded, making him untouchable ahead of this draft.
Gavrikov was a valuable part of the defense corps this year. The Russian has a big frame and a personality to match. At 6-foot-3, he’s one of the bigger pieces on the back end and one of the harder players to push around in the corners. As the team is looking to add muscle, it would be counterintuitive to move one of the few pieces that already possess that trait.
At only 26 years old, Gavrikov was already counted on to be one of the veteran leaders on defense. That modest age was still enough to make him the oldest defenseman to play in over half of the team’s games this year. While that fact does highlight the need to add a veteran defenseman, his performance in that role highlights why the Blue Jackets should keep him.
With his added responsibilities, Gavrikov brought his offensive production to a new level. Through 80 games, he scored 33 points, which smashed his previous high of 18 points. He maintained his physical presence on the ice, finishing third in total hits and second in blocked shots. In any behind-the-scenes footage, it’s clear that Gavrikov is beloved by his teammates. Although he only has one year left on his deal and there will be a market for him as a rental, the priority for Kekalainen should be on re-signing Gavrikov long-term, not testing the market to see what else is out there.
The Kids — Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger
The Blue Jackets bottomed out as an organization with the 2020-21 season. It’s not time to sell off any future assets; it’s time to acquire and build upon those assets. That means it’s not time to sell any prospects in their organization. That class is highlighted by last year’s first-rounders, Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger.
Johnson was the fifth overall pick and had a standout sophomore year at the University of Michigan. The forward has some of the silkiest hands to ever come through Ohio and is primed to be a playmaking extraordinaire with the organization for years to come. Despite a slow start in his first stint with the Jackets, his work ethic and raw talent will have him swinging for the fences in his first full season with the club.
Sillinger was the only player from the 2021 NHL Draft to play for the entire season this year and fared well, playing 31 more games than he’d ever played before in a single season. Scoring 16 goals, he matched the rookie total of Patrice Bergeron and Boone Jenner. His points per game was in the neighbourhood of Evander Kane, Zach Parise, and Alexander Frolov.
Both of these players stepping in just after being drafted bodes well for the confidence that Kekalainen and Co. have in them. Sillinger marked the first time that an 18-year-old had ever dressed for opening night under the Kekalainen regime, so you can continue to expect unprecedented things as the Jackets continue into their next era.
Columbus Will Be One To Watch
The Blue Jackets are always busy in the lead-up to the draft. As they continue to iron out what their next core will look like and who will lead the charge, these are five pieces that must stay put. Look for some surprises and maybe a trade or two as we head onto the draft floor in Montreal. The Jackets are an organization where nothing seems to be happening, and then out of nowhere, Kekalainen makes a franchise-altering trade. He tends to keep those with an eye on his organization on their toes, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case again 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.