SvoNotes: With Free Agency Open, Where Are We Now with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

By Jeff Svoboda on July 3, 2017 at 7:30 am
The Blue Jackets said goodbye to Scott Hartnell last week
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is a lot like Christmas in any sport. So when Saturday at noon hit, Columbus Blue Jackets fans raced to the tree, opened up their packages and found ... a pair of depth defensemen.

When I was a kid, my mom would always tell me I'd be getting socks and underwear for Christmas. When you're 10 and there's a new video game system on the market, this sounds awful. Now that I'm a full-fledged adult, this is actually a pretty useful gift. 

So in a way, the first two days of free agency were a bit like that. Yes, the 10-year-old in all of us wanted to find a shiny new top-six forward under the tree. Instead, there were Cameron Gaunce and Andre Benoit, who we'll probably be pretty happy to have down the road. 

But now that things have settled down a bit on the market, we have a better sense of the shape of the team that will take the ice three months from now. From the Brandon Saad/Artemi Panarin swap to the expansion draft to the regular ole draft to the buyout of Scott Hartnell, a lot has happened in a few weeks.

It all begs the question my favorite podcaster/ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser is fond of asking guests on his show: Where are we now?

This seems like as good a time as any to answer that very important question, so I'll go take for take down the list as we try to unpack what the last two weeks have been like.

Top-Six Swap: There was no smoke before the fire June 23 when the Blue Jackets and Blackhawks fairly shocked the NHL world with the trade that sent Saad back to Chicago for one of the league's top scorers in Panarin. 

My phone immediately blew up from Columbusites (Columbusians? Columbusonians?) wanting to know if it was a good deal. I think yes.

Saad will certainly be missed. He was a target of some in the fan base for a perceived lack of production given his obvious talents, but the numbers show he was one of the top five-on-five producers in the league. It's tough as heck to score five-on-five goals in the NHL, and so even though it felt like he was just scratching the surface of his potential, he was a joy to watch and his production was real.

But Columbus hasn't hidden its major goal this offseason, that being to find legit high-caliber goal-scoring threats. Snipers, if you will. After watching Pittsburgh's stars shine in the first-round series – Evgeni Malkin had a silly 11 points in five games, Phil Kessel had eight, Sidney Crosby seven and young gun Jake Guentzel had five goals – the Blue Jackets' brain trust put a premium on finding elite talent.

And Panarin certainly qualifies. The Russian winger won the Calder Trophy in 2015-16 with 30 goals and 47 assists then added 31 goals and 43 more helpers a year ago. More than that, he's proved to be a power-play threat with 41 man-up points the last two seasons, and the team's power play sorely needed someone like that the second half of last season. Yes, there are concerns – Panarin won't have a Patrick Kane by his side anymore, and his contract is shorter than Saad's – but it seems like a good hockey trade, as some would say.

It also became clear there just wasn't really a spot for goalie Anton Forsberg, one of the other pieces of the deal. Joonas Korpisalo finally won that battle when he re-signed, and Chicago needed a goalie, so it made sense. And Tyler Motte made the Blackhawks a year ago as a rookie, will be reunited with college teammate Zach Werenski and will be a legit threat to make the team. Jarmo Kekalainen hasn't shied away from making big deals, and this one on the surface benefits each team.

Hartnell Down: The buyout of Scott Hartnell told me a few things about the Blue Jackets' thoughts about this offseason.

One, it seems Hartnell not scoring a goal the last three months of the season was just too much to overcome. Certainly, he would have been an expensive bottom-six forward given his nearly $5 million cap hit, but on the whole, his five-on-five numbers were solid a year ago and pretty much in line with his previous seasons. As disappointing as his finish was, that meant he had to be pretty effective the first half of the year, so I thought it would have been pretty reasonable to bring him back. But the reality is at his price and his age, and in a league that's getting faster by the second, it was reasonable to think he was expendable.

But it also showed me the club has a fair amount of faith in its young players, as that was one of the stated reasons to cut bait with Hartnell now. It would have been worth seeing what Hartnell had left – after all, a team that just made the Stanley Cup Final signed him immediately – but the Jackets clearly think they have the potential to replace his production. Could that be Pierre-Luc Dubois? Maybe Sonny Milano? Someone even further off the board? Either way, it's a good sign.

Two-Year Plan: The Hartnell buyout also drove home the point stated by Elliotte Friedman last week and endorsed by our own Rob Mixer: The Blue Jackets are going for it the next two years.

They could have taken a wait-and-see approach with Hartnell, but the buyout move saves the team nearly $5 million over the next two seasons, including more than $3 million this offseason. Between the buyout and the trade of David Clarkson's contract, as well as the NHL salary cap jump, the Jackets now have room to play with for the upcoming two seasons.

Obviously much of this will go to Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson, but there's also clearly room to add another contract of note. And the Blue Jackets are clearly trying to do that via the trade market, as there's been plenty of smoke about trade discussions between the team and the Colorado Avalanche over Matt Duchene.

The deal hasn't happened yet and may never happen, of course, depending on the Avs' asking price. But the Blue Jackets have made it very clear with their actions that they're willing to make a move, and if it isn't for Duchene, it wouldn't surprise me if the team has something else up its sleeve (Ilya Kovalchuk talk is still out there, and could a name like Alex Galchenyuk surface, perhaps?). Remember, no one saw the Saad deal coming until it happened (or the original Saad deal two years ago, for that matter).

All I know is the Jackets words and actions have said they're going for it the next two years, so everything is on the table. And it's a reasonable strategy given last year's progress, of course, but it's also part and parcel of today's salary cap-era NHL.

Very few long-term deals were given out in the early days of free agency, with teams preferring flexibility and big deals up front that won't clog up cap space six years down the road. As a result, not many teams are leveraged too far down the road.

The same is true of the Blue Jackets. Of the players who were on last year's roster, only Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Seth Jones, David Savard and Gabriel Carlsson are signed past 2018-19; I'm not saying the window closes by that time, but it is a reality in the NHL that you just don't often know what your roster is gonna be like two or three years down the road. For teams not in a full-fledged rebuild, certainty in the near term now trumps long-term deals that could blow up in your face down the road. 

And now, coming off the best season in franchise history, the Blue Jackets are one of those teams who see themselves as able to jockey for playoff position in the here and now.

No Gavrikov: I have no problem with Vladislav Gavrikov deciding to stay in Russia for two more seasons. The timing was a bit odd, with the young defenseman in Columbus visiting the team when the news broke, but it's his life and he wants to play in his home country. That's fine, and more than that, Columbus' defensive depth for the upcoming season is pretty strong as it is.

But two things were super interesting about his deal, which was announced as part of a trade from the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to SKA in St. Petersburg. First, how about this line from SKA's own press release about the signing (translation via Google): 

"The clubs work together to prevent the outflow of young players across the ocean that seems particularly important in view of the upcoming Olympic Games."

Press releases in the United States are generally used when you don't want to say anything interesting. I guess that's not the case in Russia, because essentially admitting intra-country collusion to keep a player in your league and country seems unique to me. (And I'll reiterate I'm fine with this as a strategy, it's just not the kind of thing you often hear people admit out loud.) 

Secondly, Gavrikov's quote in the press release features the defenseman admitting one of the reasons he chose to stay in Russia was the chance to play in the upcoming Olympics. I'm not sure that when the NHL made its choice to abstain from this year's Games that the league expected the decision to be used as a recruiting tactic against it, but here we are, and the Jackets have suffered as a consequence.

Bye Bob? Let's talk about something no one wants to talk about – is the end of the Sergei Bobrovsky era on the horizon?

This is getting away ahead of ourselves, of course, but Bobrovsky has two years left on his deal with a cap hit of $7.425 million. If he plays to his potential and the form of someone who has twice captured Vezina Trophies, his next contract will likely be a doozy.

How do we know? Montreal's Carey Price just signed an eight-year deal with an AAV north of $10 million, and he'll be in a comparable age bracket as Bob will be when the Jackets' goalie sees his deal expire.

The future, of course, is not written in cement. But if Bobrovsky is as good as the organization hopes and expects the next two seasons, he's gonna be a very rich man as a result. Will that be in Columbus or will someone like Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins or Matiss Kivlenieks be in line to take over between the pipes?

It's a discussion for down the road, but it's a discussion that will exist in the upcoming years.

Speaking of Bob: Am I the only one who hopes this means he's ready for a goalie fight this year?

Fighting is way down in the NHL, and as much as many will miss it, it's probably a good thing. But who doesn't love a good goalie fight?

Hear me talk: A big thanks to Tim Hall and my old shuffleboard partner Brandon Beam over at 97.1 The Fan in Columbus for having me on to talk hockey this weekend. You can hear the audio right here.

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