It was a tough year for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Buffalo Sabres are proof that it could be much, much worse.
Columbus had one of their worst seasons in their 20 year history, but with just one less victory this season, the Sabres would have had their lowest-ever point percentage in the 50 year history of Buffalo hockey.
Despite winning the NHL Draft Lottery, it may be even worse for the Sabres next year. The team's franchise center, Jack Eichel, is not only working to recovery from a serious neck injury, but he's openly expressed his desire to play elsewhere when he's healthy.
Eichel's name has come up in rumors with several teams, including the Blue Jackets. His asking price is understandably high, and if Columbus is in rebuild mode, they're not likely going to be part with the necessary assets to acquire the Sabres captain.
But what if they're in "reload" mode, as general manager Jarmo Kekalainen claims they are? They could be willing to make a deal work with Buffalo's 24-year-old center.
Or, what about Buffalo's 25-year-old center?
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported last week that the Blue Jackets have interest in Sam Reinhart, another Sabre forward who is looking to get out. The Sabres have needs all over the ice, but perhaps none more pressing than the one area Columbus has a surplis: goaltending. Friedman noted that if a trade is made between the two struggling clubs, the Blue Jackets would offer Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins as a starting point.
"No one wants to go through a rebuild," said Reinhart during the team's exit interviews last month. "It’s tough not being able to play meaningful games down the stretch."
"I don’t think anyone wants to go through that."
Sam Reinhart's disappointment in his end of season interview was palpable. He wouldn't say if he wanted to stay in Buffalo or be traded this offseason.— Julianne Pelusi (@JuliannePelusi) May 10, 2021
He did wear a Bills hat. pic.twitter.com/bBs2NIpcOk
In Columbus, the right offseason will not only avoid a rebuild, it may even be able to avoid the aforementioned "reload."
The Blue Jackets missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons in the 56-game sprint that was the 2020-21 season. There was early-season drama surrounding Pierre-Luc Dubois, head coach John Tortorella lost the team shortly thereafter, the Blue Jackets moved several key veterans at the trade deadline, and moved several others to the injured reserve list as the season came to a close.
But a new coach is on the way, key players will be healthy, and despite Seth Jones expressing his desire to test free agency when his contract is up at the end of next season, the Blue Jackets can avoid the drama that came with Dubois' request last year by moving Jones this summer - and getting good talent in return.
They might not be Stanley Cup contenders next season, but the Blue Jackets franchise should be lightyears ahead of where the Sabres are when the puck drops on the 2021-22 season, and in good shape moving forward.
The acquisition of Reinhart would only expediate that process.
Reinhart is coming off his fourth consecutive season of 20 or more goals, and (minus nine games in his rookie season) has never tallied less than 40 points in a season.
If the Blue Jackets can acquire Reinhart - which may mean a player like Liam Foudy heading the other way, along with a goaltender - he likely becomes the top center in Columbus. Playing with Patrik Laine, and likely with Oliver Bjorkstrand on the other side, would give Reinhart all the necessary tools to blossom into the top-line center.
These trades are always easier said than done, but this is the type of move that has the kind of foundation that would benefit both teams and all players involved.
Now, let's see if it happens.