The Time Is Now For Jarmo Kekalainen To Be Aggressive With His Assets

By Dan Dukart on August 24, 2020 at 7:00 am
Jarmo Kekalainen speaks with media

The 2019 offseason will always be remembered painfully as the summer in which Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene left Columbus as free agents. 

And while the 2020 offseason won't have a UFA exodus, Blue Jackets fans can still expect a significant amount of turnover from the team that lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  

The Blue Jackets are an interesting case study. The roster has clearly bought into the defense-first, selfless, disciplined-forecheck system that John Tortorella has employed with startling success over the past five seasons. And while Tortorella has his flaws (I'll save that for a different article), it's safe to say that he's extracted about as much as possible from an equally flawed roster.

So where does that leave Columbus? They can:

  • Make a coaching change and drastically alter their systems/culture 
  • Sit with the current roster and be patient with internal gains
  • Make changes - potentially dramatic changes - to the roster 

They won't (and shouldn't) do the first. They could do the second, but as John F. Kennedy said, "There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction." The Blue Jackets aren't particularly close to a Stanley Cup, but they're closer to that than they are a last-place finish. That is to say, they're not in a position where they could even theoretically tank for a high draft pick. I believe that Alexandre Texier, Liam Foudy, and Emil Bemstrom, young players that GM Jarmo Kekalainen listed by name in his year-end press conference, will take a positive step next year. But even the rosiest projections won't convince me that this team will be demonstrably closer to competing for a Stanley Cup next year.

Therefore, the only proper course of action is to choose option number three. And that's where it gets tricky. 

The Blue Jackets have very zero UFA decisions to make this fall. They will retain Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kevin Stenlund, and Vladislav Gavrikov, all of whom are RFA, and may possibly qualify Gabriel Carlsson and Ryan MacInnis. Devin Shore is also RFA but may or may not be qualified because of his current $2.3M salary. Josh Anderson, also an RFA, has been speculated as a potential trade target, given his tenuous contract history and his arbitration status. He's one year away from UFA. 

Brandon Dubinsky has one more year on his contract and, per Kekalainen, is unlikely to play again. That dead money would be costly to many teams, and it's not ideal for Columbus, but they're more equipped than most to handle that cap hit, even with the flat salary cap of $81.5M.

With Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins signed on team-friendly contracts, the Blue Jackets have an advantage over most NHL organizations. Both are 26 and are two years from UFA, meaning they should have plenty of appeal around the NHL. On the other hand, with a stacked UFA class in goal (Robin Lehner, Jacob Markstrom, Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, etc.) and a flat salary cap, it's possible that Columbus gets squeezed. Still, the Blue Jackets goaltenders both proved themselves on a national stage, and this is an area that Columbus could look to make internal improvements. 

Defensively, the Blue Jackets have a surplus of blueliners. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski make up one of the best pairs in the NHL. David Savard and Gavrikov are a solid second pair. Ryan Murray and Dean Kukan are more than serviceable as a third pair. Markus Nutivaara is an NHL-caliber defenseman, Scott Harrington is more dependable than defensemen we saw in the Toronto series, and Andrew Peeke has shown he's ready to play minutes. Peeke's contract status on an ELC makes him especially valuable.

Murray and Savard will be heading into their final season before UFA, and have trade value. Murray has the higher ceiling, but teams may be wary of his injury history. Savard is far from flashy but is the type of player that playoff teams covet. Watching offensively-oriented teams like Toronto and Edmonton flounder in the qualifying round of the playoffs further the notion that a player like Savard would immediately pay dividends. 

The Blue Jackets also have a surplus of forwards. More importantly, they have a redundancy of forwards. It's fair to expect their promising young forwards (Alexandre Texier, Liam Foudy, Emil Bemstrom) to take a step, but will it be enough? Maybe eventually, but not in 2021. Pierre-Luc Dubois took a major step forward in the playoffs and wingers like Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand are solid winger options. But as a whole, the team lacks the impact forwards that are needed to make a deep run in the playoffs. 

What makes this conversation difficult is that many of the veterans that helped build the culture in Columbus are also the players most responsible for the first-round exit stagnation. The third line of Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, and Gus Nyquist, who have nearly 2,000 NHL regular-season games between them, simply couldn't keep up with the Lightning's third line. Alexander Wennberg had perhaps his best string of games in three seasons in these playoffs, but as Tortorella said, "it pisses me off that it isn’t there all the time". The Blue Jackets would love to rely on Wennberg in 2020-21 and beyond, but that's a dangerous proposition - how long have we been saying that?

Blue Jackets forwards finished the 70-game regular season with a meager 141 goals. Only one team had fewer – Detroit – a team that does not scream Stanley Cup contender.

There are plenty of serviceable NHL players on this roster. Riley Nash had a fine playoff campaign. Eric Robinson has enough tools that he's all but guaranteed a fourth-line role next season. Stenlund, Bemstrom, Foudy, etc... These are all NHL players. But who's able to take this team to the next level? Mikhail Grigorenko is coming in after a really solid season in the KHL, but he's a reclamation project at this point, and he's never lived up to the potential that made him a first-round selection in 2012. 

Blue Jackets forwards finished the 70-game regular season with a meager 141 goals. Only one team had fewer – Detroit – a team that does not scream Stanley Cup contender.

It's easy to sit here and play armchair GM. Kekalainen has done an admirable job putting together a sustainable roster that can play with anyone in the NHL. But for this team to take the next step, they'll have to look externally to bring in more offensive talent. They have the assets to make that happen. 

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