The most interesting restricted free agent situation to watch this offseason is going to be the one involving the Blue Jackets and center Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Not necessarily because Dubois is the best unsigned RFA (though he is close), but because of how these situations have previously played out for the Blue Jackets.
The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reported this week that talks between Dubois and the Blue Jackets appear to have stalled, and could lead to a chilly fall of negotiations (or non-negotiations). What makes this whole thing worth watching is the way the Blue Jackets have had a tendency to use their leverage with RFA’s in contract negotiations and draw things out as long as possible.
As Portzline points out, the Blue Jackets are no strangers to messy RFA situations.
In 2014 it was with former center Ryan Johansen, who at the time appeared to be on his way to becoming a franchise cornerstone. He was 21 years old and coming off of a 33-goal breakout season. The two sides did not agree to a new deal until three days before the start of the regular season following a very ugly, and very public negotiation.
Johansen ended up being traded a year-and-a-half later for Seth Jones (to be fair — a great trade for Columbus)
In 2017 a similar situation played out with Josh Anderson with him not signing a new deal until four days before the start of the regular season. It sullied the relationship, and when it came time for the two sides to work out a new deal this offseason Anderson turned down a long-term contract with Columbus and was traded to Montreal (where he would sign a seven-year contract).
[Related: Blue Jackets trade Josh Anderson to Canadiens for Max Domi]
Last year Zach Werenski did not get signed to a three-year, $15 million contract until just four days before the start of training camp.
The precedent here: The Blue Jackets tend to draw these things and play hardball in these negotiations with restricted free agents. And that is certainly well within their right because, well, that’s the way RFA situations work. The player is limited in where they can go outside of an offer sheet that is too right to match, leaving the Blue Jackets with pretty much all of the power.
But there is also a risk with that, and the Blue Jackets learned that with the Johansen and Anderson situations.
How should Kekalainen play it?
This isn’t to suggest that the Blue Jackets should just hand the players a blank check and allow them to name their price. There has to be some give-and-take. But absolutely hammering then in a contract negotiation and not budging at all can potentially burn bridges that lead a relationship that is beyond repair.
Obviously the Johansen for Jones trade worked out exceptionally well for the Blue Jackets. But the jury is still very much out on the Anderson-Max Domi swap, and there is no crystal ball to see how Werenski’s Blue Jackets career plays out. The harsh reality is that Columbus does not exactly have a strong track record of retaining talent as it gets close to free agency.
Dubois is an important player in Columbus because he is clearly the best forward on the roster, and should be viewed as a centerpiece for the long haul. He is still only 22 years old and is already a 20-25 goal, 50-plus point player that drives possession and impacts the game in all three zones. He was also an absolute monster in the playoffs this past season. This is a player you should be trying to build around long-term.
How these negotiations go over the next few months could go a long way toward determining whether or not that happens.
If they take on a more combative, hardline and public stance — like the previous Johansen and Anderson negotiations did — it might give you an idea on where things are headed.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.