The first day of the 2022 NHL free agency signings was July 13. Early in the day, it looked as if the fifth line might be in for a bumpy ride as the Blue Jackets signed an aging, middle-of-the-road defender to a four-year $16 million contract.
There are legitimate reasons to defend giving Erik Gudbranson such a generous contract: his physical, smash-mouth style of hockey and his 6-foot-5, 222 lb. frame that helps him to be very effective in the role of the defender who will punish you for bringing the puck too close to the net. Every team that fancies itself a potential playoff team needs one of those, but the Blue Jackets were in particular need of that, having let up a franchise-record number of goals last season. Some of the adjectives used to describe the Columbus blue line last season included weak, timid, soft, and even scared. Fair or not (it was fair), they became known as a unit that was full of skill in the offensive zone but became a liability when playing on the side of the ice they were actually paid to play on.
However, even with the playstyle fit and the fact that Gudbranson will likely also bring badly needed leadership to a young and inexperienced defensive unit. His market wasn't projected to be nearly that inflated. Coming off a one-year $1.95 million contract with the Calgary Flames, his open market valuation came in even lower than his previous season's salary. Even with the fact that unrestricted free agent signings are often overpaid, Columbus simply forked out too much for Gudbrandson. It appeared as though the franchise was perhaps, resigning itself to mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
But later that evening, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen and President of Hockey Operations John Davidson pulled off one of the most shocking and successful front office moves in Blue Jacket history. They somehow managed to lure the most coveted free agent of the 2022 offseason to Columbus. Gudbranson's teammate in Calgary followed him to central Ohio, possibly affording the fifth line a clearer picture as to why the club paid such a hefty price for Gudbranson.
Gaudreau wanted Gudbranson to come with him. Jarmo said no problem.— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) July 13, 2022
Gaudreau feeding Laine could be lethal in Columbus. Good for Columbus to land Gaudreau. That market will be amped up. SEVEN years at $9.8m AAV according to @FriedgeHNIC
Don't get me wrong, Kekalainen and Davidson have their fair share of supporters, but seemingly in the blink of an eye, they went from being heavily questioned to almost god-like status in the eyes of the majority of the fanbase. To be clear, they deserve all the credit in the world for pulling off such a franchise-altering move. However, let's take a look at some of the biggest moves of their tenure in the capital city and determine just how much praise they realistically deserve.
- Sign On The Dotted Laine
No, they didn't sign Laine as a free agent, but they did manage to trade Pierre Luc Dubois for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. And no matter what happens regarding Laine's future with the Blue Jackets, he will remain one of the most high-profile players the organization has ever traded for.
Was it worth it?
Swapping the number three pick (Dubois) in the 2016 NHL Draft for the number two pick in that same draft, lead to pitting a skilled power forward against a player with quite possibly one of the best shots in the league. And as a throw-in, the Blue Jackets received a player that has spent at least a few games as their 1C in Roslovic. Roslovic has been much maligned for his inconsistent and even poor play at times, though he really started to turn a corner in the second half of this past season.
A basic look at the numbers reveals that Laine beat Dubois in goals, assists, and points per game this past season. Add in Roslovic's numbers last season (especially his 12 goal, 6 assist performance in the last 22 games of the season) and it starts to paint the picture that the Blue Jackets may have come out on top of this deal. Add in the fact that Dubois is now asking out of another team for the second time in two years and you've pretty much removed all doubt. The front office did well in this one.
- Jonesing For A Fresh Start
Another big-time move for the franchise involved sending out a marquee defenseman for quite the collection of future assets. Rarely does a team outright win a trade when moving a star in the same vein as Seth Jones, especially a star blue liner. Even getting quite a few pieces in return, this usually falls short of providing the same kind of value that a player the caliber of Jones brings to an organization. But most analysts have agreed that Columbus won that trade with the Chicago Blackhawks — and the ones that haven't, have a Chicago bias.
Jones had informed the team at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season that he would not be resigning with them at the conclusion of his contract, which was up the following summer (2022). So, rather than losing him for nothing, they shipped him out for whatever they could get in return — and what a return they got. Even though the rest of the league knew that the Blue Jackets were virtually given no choice but to trade Jones, thus hurting his trade value, Kekalainen and company still brought back several key pieces in return.
The Blue Jackets sent Jones, the 32nd overall pick in the 2021 draft, and a sixth-round pick in the 2022 draft to Chicago in exchange for Adam Boqvist, the 12th and 44th picks in 2021, and a protected first-round pick in 2022 — that turned into the sixth pick in this month's entry draft.
I think Seth Jones has become an undeserving punching bag on here to some extent, but all parts of this is insane from the Blackhawks https://t.co/iddQnSR8f4— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) July 23, 2021
The Blackhawk's picks turned into Nolan Alan (32nd overall in 2021), who has yet to play an NHL game, and Dominic James (173rd overall in 2022), a center out of Minnesota-Duluth. The Jackets' picks turned into Cole Sillinger (12th in 2021), Jake Bean (traded from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for the 44th pick, and the freshly-drafted David Jiricek (6th in 2022).
Boqvist is one of the best offensive defensemen in the entire league, posting a higher goals per 60 minutes than any other defender in the NHL. He'll need to add much more consistency in the defensive zone if he wants to develop into a solid two-way defender next year, but he's still just 22 and that's a skill that takes experience to harness.
Sillinger was the youngest player in the NHL last year as he played almost his entire rookie season, appearing in 79 games and putting up 31 total points. Not bad for an 18-year-old. Bean, like Boqvist, is a defender with offensive talent. He had a very respectable 25 points in 67 games as a defenseman. Also like Boqvist, his play on the defensive side of the ice can be putrid at times, he will look to improve upon that a lot, this next season.
Finally, we come to this year's 6th overall pick, who, if he reaches his full potential, could turn into the biggest steal in this draft. Jiricek is a defender with great size and a budding two-way game, and unlike most other draftees, already has professional hockey experience.
Consider the fact that Chicago extended Jones to an eight-year, $76 million contract with an AAV of $9.5 million, and it's not a stretch to say this contract likely won't age well due to the fact that Jones was already 26 when signing it. So yes, Columbus won this trade, at least for now.