A Busy Week Made Busier: The Columbus Blue Jackets Are Likely To Provide Cap Relief To Teams In Need (For A Price)

By Ed Francis on July 19, 2021 at 7:58 am
Tampa Bay forward Yanni Gourde is unlikely to return to the Lightning; could Columbus be in the fold?
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

It's the calm before the storm.

For the Columbus Blue Jackets, the storm will shape the franchise for years to come.

Sunday, the Blue Jackets released their list of players that will be available to the incoming Seattle Kraken in the NHL's Expansion Draft, which will air Wednesday night on ESPN2. Just two days later, Columbus is slated to make three picks in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, including a top five pick for the first time in over a half decade. General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has given no indication which player or which position they have their eye on, and there is no clear-cut favorite of who the team will take when they draft 5th overall.

To add to the intrigue, there's also the impending decisions of trades involving once-cornerstone defenseman Seth Jones and one of the team's two starting goalies (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins). 

Now, yet another wrinkle can be added to what may prove to be the most interesting offseason in club history: cap relief.

Aaron Portzline of The Athletic is reporting that the Blue Jackets are likely to be active after Wednesday's expansion draft in taking on salary that other teams need to shed in order to be cap-compliant heading in the 2021-22 season. 

"The Blue Jackets are one of the few clubs with salary cap space, and they have clearance from majority owner John P. McConnell to use it."– Aaron Portzline, The Athletic

In return for taking on salary, Portzline writes that the Blue Jackets will be looking to obtain other assets, most notably future prospects.

"We have lots of (salary cap) space," Kekalainen told Portzline. "We can do a lot of things."

Columbus is one of the few franchises that have a projected cap hit under $60 million as of today. That number is important, because while the NHL has a flat cap of $81.5 for the upcoming season, it also has a floor: teams must be over $60.2 million by the start of the season. 

The Blue Jackets currently sit at $57.6 million, though there's an asterisk to that: Patrik Laine. Laine is a restricted free agent, and assuming that the Blue Jackets have him back next season, he will bring the Blue Jackets above the floor. Alexandre Texier is in the same boat, though will command substantially less money than Laine. 

Laine's base salary last season was $7.5 million and he's likely to receive more than that this coming season. An amount anywhere between $8M and $10M seems likely. For Texier, who was just under one million last season, expect his 2021-22 salary to be somewhere in the vicinity of $2 million, give or take a half million.

Even with those two additions, the Blue Jackets will rid themselves of roughly that same amount with the likely trades of Seth Jones (due $5.4 million this coming season) and either Korpisalo ($2.8 million) or Merzlikins ($4.0 million). If the Kraken select Max Domi in Wednesday's draft, that gives the Blue Jackets an additional $5.3 million to work with.

In other words, the Blue Jackets will need to spend some money - especially if Domi departs in the expansion draft.

There are several teams that need cap relief, though Kekalainen may not be willing to play nice with all of them. For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins have the second highest projected cap hit in the league, but are the Blue Jackets willing to help out a division rival with aging stars? The Washington Capitals are in a similar situation, though acquiring 29-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8M with four seasons left on his contract) would give Laine the top-line center he desperately needs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning seem to be a perfect match, and while they were able to game the system last season, that won't be possible this time around. Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson were all made available to the Kraken in the expansion draft. Whoever is left on the board after they make their selection (Seattle could go off the board and take a younger player like Ross Colton or Cal Foote) is a prime candidate for a trade. 

Johnson has three years left at $5 million per season. The 30-year-old center isn't a top line guy, but could play as one if traded to the Blue Jackets. Gourde is a versatile forward who has four years left at $5.2 million, and the 29-year-old could be on Kekalainen's list.

While Johnson and Gourde have several years left on their current contracts at over $5 million, Palat has just one year remaining and will make $5.3M, and Killorn has two years left at $4.5M. A trade between the Blue Jackets and Lightning could involve more than one of those four, if it means the Blue Jackets give (very) little back in return. 

Three other teams to keep an eye on are the Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars, and Chicago Blackhawks.

The Golden Knights didn't have to expose anyone to the Kraken (as if they didn't have it easy enough), so it's hard to get a look at what their thought process is. But they've been Cup contenders in each of their first four seasons, and have proven themselves eager and willing to make big moves. If they look to do so this offseason, it could mean needing to move a big contract; the Knights are projected to be near the cap ceiling, and have a projected cap hit that only the Lightning and Penguins exceed. 

Alternate captain Reilly Smith has just one year left on his contract and is due $5 million this season. Jonathan Marchessault is on the wrong side of 30, and is due $5 million eachc of the next three seasons. The (brief) former Blue Jacket is a valuable part of the team, but again, the Knights have proven themselves as eternal buyers and if moving Marchessault is part of a bigger move, they've have to consider it. 

The Dallas Stars have nearly one third of the cap tied up in three players. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Joe Pavelski are due over $26 million combined this season, and over the weekend announced defenseman Miro Heiskanen was signed to an eight-year contract worth $67.6 million. It wouldn't be as exciting as earlier names, but Andrej Sekera and Blake Comeau are at a combined $2.5 million in the final year of their contracts, and Dallas may need to move them both to stay under the ceiling.

And then there's the Chicago Blackhawks. The likely front-runners for a Jones trade, the Blackhawks may only be willing to make a deal if they can sign Jones to a long-term deal. If they do that, they'll be left with very little cap room - a solution the Blue Jackets can help solve, particularly if Columbus can acquire a top prospect in the process. 

The Blackhawks left defenseman Calvin De Haan unprotected to the Kraken, and the 30-year-old defenseman is in the last year of his contract. He's due just over $4.5 million, and could be replaced by Jones in a potential trade. Restricted free agent defenseman Nikita Zadorov was also left unprotected, and is a possibility. Could the Blue Jackets be willing to bail out the Blackhawks by acquiring both of these players instead of future top draft picks? Maybe, especially if Chicago would be willing to part with Kirby Dach to make it happen, as TSN's Elliotte Friedman expects the Blue Jackets to check into.

Rest up, 5th Line. It's going to be a busy week.

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