Jarmo Kekalainen Says The Blue Jackets Are Reloading, Not Rebuilding; What Free Agents Might Be In The Fold?

By Ed Francis on April 13, 2021 at 10:15 am
Will The Blue Jackets Target Ryan Nugent-Hopkins As A Center For Patrik Laine?
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets need offensive talent in the worst way.

After a fire sale at the trade deadline, the team should have plenty of ammo and plenty of targets when free agency begins this summer.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen considers the trades of Nick Foligno, David Savard, and Riley Nash a success, and says that the club now has "some great assets for the reload."

Those assets that could be packaged and traded, particularly to any number of teams who are struggling with cap space. Equally as likely, though, is that the Blue Jackets use their three first-round draft picks to try and further add to the young talent that Columbus already has around the world. 

If that happens, the Blue Jackets are going to need to make at least one big splash (or, at the very least, two moderate splashes) in free agency. Here's a look at unrestricted free agent forwards who could be targeted when the season comes to a close:

  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: A name that has long been linked to the Blue Jackets, the now-28-year-old (his birthday was Monday) center is having another solid season. In 40 games, RNH has 12 goals and 16 assists - good enough for third on the Edmonton Oilers for points by forwards this season, behind guys named McDavid and Draisaitl. Nugent-Hopkins scored 22 goals in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season to go along with 39 assists; both figures that were down slightly from the previous season, when he had 28 goals and 41 assists. He's making six million this season, in the final year of his contract, and is likely to see around the same annual salary wherever he may sign next. The Burnaby, British Columbia native may not be the elite #1 center the Blue Jackets crave, but it may as close as they can get. 
  • Jaden Schwartz: Schwartz has spent his entire career with the St. Louis Blues, dating back to 2010 when he was drafted 14th overall by the club. It was the last of eight drafts for the Blues scouting director, a guy named... Jarmo Kekalainen. He missed over a month of action with an injury, but has four goals and ten assists in 26 games. Prior to this season, the 28-year-old had 55+ points in three of his last four campaigns. The winger is in the last year of a deal that was five years and $27 million, for an average annual value of just over five million. If the Blue Jackets can get him for a little less than that - say, for a little less than the four million he's making this season - it would be a good get to help the second line.
  • Mikael Granlund: There was mutual interest last offseason, before Granlund opted to resign with the Nashville Predators on a one-year, $3.7 million dollar deal. The 29-year-old center has 10 goals and seven assists this season, his second consecutive season with more goals then assists; he scored 17 times in the 2019-20 season, with 13 helpers. Obtaining Granlund won't make the Blue Jackets immediate contenders, but he could be a valuable commodity in helping obtain an offense that struggles to score.
  • Taylor Hall: Granlund may not make the Blue Jackets immediate contenders, but the once-MVP of the league may. After a disastrous half-season with Buffalo, the league-worst Sabres dealt Hall to the Boston Bruins, where he hopes to reclaim his game and get back to the player he was in Edmonton and New Jersey. Hall was offered a multi-year contract by the Blue Jackets during the offseason, but opted for the "prove-it" deal for one season with the Sabres. The fact that he has half the goals (2) in 37 games than Michael Del Zotto does (4) in 41 games is not ideal, but could bring his salary down enough for Columbus to again pursue the 29-year-old winger. 
  • Any Minnesota center: It didn't work with Mikko Koivu, but would Kekalainen go Wild (I'll show myself out) for another Minnesota free agent? He would certainly have some options: Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, and Marcus Johansson are all centers, all making around four million this year, and all UFA's when the season comes to a close. At 28, the towering 6-foot-6 Bjugstad would be the youngest option. He would be a 15-goal, 20-assist player who would slot in as a third-line center. Bonino is older (33 on April 20), but is stronger in the faceoff dot, winning better than 51% of draws in each of the last four seasons. Johansson, on his fifth team since the 2016-17 season, has slid into more of a winger role as his career has progressed, and would likely be used in a role similar to Boone Jenner if he were to sign with Columbus.
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