Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.
1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?
This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.
Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.
Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.
Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.
This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.
Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.
Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.
The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.
3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?
Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.
That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.
Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace this season.
Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.
No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.
Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.
With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.
These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.
Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers
It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”
The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).
They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.
What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.
Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.
His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.
He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.
At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.
There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.
It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.
Other than that, things are pretty good.
If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.
Really, really, really good.
Championship contending good.
The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.
But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.
The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).
Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.
Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.
Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.
Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.
No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.
Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.
Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets
He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.
It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.
Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.
Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?
Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).
The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.
Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.
Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres
This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.
The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.
Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I dolike it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.
But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?
The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.
Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.
This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.
With less than 48 hours to go before his arbitration date, Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets are reportedly millions apart in valuation for the top-pairing defenseman.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Wednesday that Trouba is looking for $7 million per season while the Jets, at the moment, are sitting at the $4-million mark instead.
This isn’t unusual for a team to be low-balling ahead of an arbitration case while a player shoots for the moon — it’s an oft-used strategy.
Trouba’s underlying numbers suggest he’s among the league’s best rearguards, but when it comes to goals and assists, he doesn’t show as well. And with Trouba, there’s always the question about his durability, having completed 81 games just once in his career and never playing more than 65 in a season in his four other seasons in the NHL.
Arbitration is no fun for either side, where the dirty laundry is aired and teams tell players why they don’t deserve the money they think they do. But it appears increasingly likely that Trouba’s July 20 date will come to fruition in what would be a first for the Winnipeg Jets and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
The St. Louis Blues d-man signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer after a 35-point season and put up the same total in 2017-18.
Another deal that can be used as a comparison is Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Josi signed a seven-year, $28 million deal prior to the 2013-14 season.
In the two years before signing the deal, Josi’s numbers were comparable to Trouba’s and Josi is now likely going to get a significant pay raise after hovering around the 50-point mark for the past four seasons.
The end game, at least this season, likely results in a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 to $5.5 million for Trouba. The Jets have the option to give Trouba two years, but he would become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019-20 season, so a one-year deal makes sense for the Jets and will put both sides in the same scenario next season if a long-term deal isn’t hashed out before then.
Both sides have said they’d like to commit to one another long-term. The Jets would like to see Trouba’s production go up, and if he can hit the 45-50-point window this season, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be a second arbitration case but rather a long-term deal to stick in Winnipeg.
Trouba has been given everything he wanted after initially wanting out of Winnipeg two years ago. He’s on a contender playing on one of the league’s best shutdown tandems and commanding big minutes every night.
If he wants to get paid like an elite defenseman, he needs to score like one and will have every opportunity to earn the raise next summer, assuming the Jets hand him a one-year deal after their arbitration hearing on Friday.
Like most things in San Jose last year, Mirco Mueller’s progression didn’t go exactly to plan.
Mueller, the 20-year-old blueliner San Jose took 18th overall in 2013, started out the year in the NHL as part of GM Doug Wilson’s “tomorrow team” movement, only to see his ice time dwindle by early December.
From there, he was loaned to Team Switzerland for the World Juniors and, upon returning, was shuffled back and forth between San Jose and the club’s AHL affiliate in Worcester, before a thumb injury in late March ended his year.
All told, Mueller appeared in just 39 games for the Sharks, three for Worcester and six for Switzerland — not a ton of hockey for a youngster that needs all the reps he can get.
Which begs the question — where will he get them this year?
On paper, Mueller appears to be part of the club’s six-man defensive unit, along with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and newly acquired Paul Martin. But the Swiss rearguard will have some pretty heady competition for that spot, particularly in the form of Matt Tennyson, who appeared in a career-high 27 games last year, and Dylan DeMelo, a 22-year-old prospect who, according to AHL bench boss Roy Sommer, is ready to make the leap himself.
Speaking of the American League, it could end up being the place where Mueller starts this season.
There were worries San Jose rushed him to the NHL last year and it’s important to remember that, of all the d-men taken in the first round in ’13, only Seth Jones and Rasmus Ristolainen have emerged as regulars; some have argued that Nikita Zadorov, taken two spots ahead of Mueller, was also rushed to the NHL (and has since been traded to Colorado).
What’s more, the likes of Philly’s Samuel Morin (No. 11), Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey (No. 13) and the Islanders’ Ryan Pulock (No. 15) have yet to even make their big-league debuts.
Mueller knows that, based on his age and number of players looking to stick with the Sharks, this fall’s training camp will go a long way in deciding his fate.
If you truly subscribe to the belief that defense wins championships, then you’d have to rank the Nashville Predators high on any list of Stanley Cup contenders.
As detailed in this post, they’re maybe the only team that could afford to even ponder trading a defenseman of Shea Weber’s caliber while not being in rebuild mode. Roman Josi and Seth Jones both boast futures that seem even brighter than their quite-brilliant presents.
Pekka Rinne stands as a sturdy last line of defense, too. The 32-year-old bounced back after a couple of rough seasons by winning 41 games and generating a .923 save percentage.
It’s not just about defense in Nashville any longer – Filip Forsberg and James Neal rank among the weapons Peter Laviolette can unleash – but it’s still the reason to get most excited about this team.
That brings up an intriguing question: what should we expect of Nashville? More specifically, should they be the Central Division favorites?
The Chicago Blackhawks are suffering from a rough off-season in nearly every way imaginable. The St. Louis Blues maintain an impressive core group, yet there’s a funk in the air after another postseason letdown. The Winnipeg Jets haven’t won a playoff game during their time in Winnipeg or Atlanta. The Dallas Stars loaded up this summer, although they still have questions on defense, while the Colorado Avalanche almost seem like a hockey lab experiment at the moment.
Nashville resides in what is likely still the best division in the NHL, but pondering the paragraph above, is it out of line to wonder if the Preds might jump from a second-place Central finish in 2014-15 to the division title next season?
You can’t really fault fans for clamoring to see a first division title banner up in the rafters … and maybe something even more prestigious.