Five Unsigned Defensemen Who Could Be PTO Candidates For The Columbus Blue Jackets

By Dan Dukart on August 11, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Jack Johnson celebrates winning the Stanley Cup
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, former Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson was unsure if his NHL playing days were over.

The veteran unrestricted free agent (UFA) signed a professional tryout (PTO) with the Colorado Avalanche on September 1, 2021. Fast forward nearly 12 months, and it's safe to say that all worked well for the now-Stanley Cup champion. And yet, as it stands today, he is once again a UFA without a team.

A quick filter on CapFriendly shows there are 17 UFA defensemen who played at least five NHL games last season that remain unsigned. Would it make sense for the Blue Jackets to extend a PTO to any of them?  

Before digging in, it's worth noting that the Blue Jackets are probably comfortable heading into the season with their existing defense corps. They return incumbents Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Andrew Peeke. Young players, like Jake Bean, Adam Boqvist, and Nick Blankenburg, need to get game reps. And in an attempt to address the lack of a physical presence in the defensive zone, the club signed 30-year-old UFA Erik Gudbranson to a four-year, $16M contract. The point is, the organization is betting that internal growth, plus the additional staunchness of Gudbranson, will quell last year's issues.

But NHL front offices are in the business of improving around the margins. And if the Blue Jackets can bring in a remaining UFA defenseman to camp with basically no strings attached, it may make sense. Here are five players the Blue Jackets should consider inviting to training camp on a PTO:

Anton Stralman

Stralman would be a great insurance policy and a possible upgrade on the right side of the defense corps. Today, the right-shot defensemen on the club are Boqvist, Gudbranson, Peeke, and Blankenburg. Stralman is a low-maintenance, defense-first contributor who could help keep the puck out of the net and help a penalty kill unit. Long-time Blue Jackets fans may remember Stralman's two seasons with Columbus back in 2009 and 2010. And while the 36-year-old has lost a step, he'd be a low-risk invite.

Jack Johnson

Is there a player in the NHL whose ability has been more hotly debated than Johnson? The 35-year-old, who played a key role in Columbus for seven seasons, has had his fair share of ups and downs over his 16-year NHL career. And while the critics will point to his poor underlying numbers, the fact remains that he played 13 playoff games for the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, one of the more analytically-inclined franchises in the NHL. If he's good enough for them, it's difficult to say with sincerity that he's not good enough for a team that was 28th in the NHL in goals allowed in 2021-22.

P.K. Subban

While Stralman and Johnson would probably command near-league minimum salaries, Subban is probably not. That, alone, makes him an unlikely signing candidate. But the beauty of a PTO is that the team isn't on the hook for salary - yet. Like Johnson, Subban has been the target of plenty of criticism as his game has sharply declined over the past number of seasons. At 33, it's definitely possible that there's not much left in the tank. On the other hand, offering Subban a PTO seems like the type of savvy, low-risk, high-reward maneuver that a team like the Blue Jackets could/should attempt. 

Keith Yandle

If there's a consistent theme in these players, it's the possibility that these players are unsigned for the simplest reason: they're cooked. Yandle, once one of the most dominant offensive defensemen in the NHL, certainly fits that mold. What he lacks in foot speed he (tries to) make(s) up for with his passing prowess and power play deception. Having someone like Yandle in camp to help some of the defenders that are expected to run the power play for the present and future - like Werenski and Boqvist - seems like a no-downside proposition. 

Zdeno Chara

In 2021-22, at age 45, Chara played in 72 games and averaged nearly 19 minutes TOI/game. That is outrageous. I think organizations should be more inclined to invite players like Chara (that's kind of a misnomer, how many players are there like Chara?), who have literal decades of experience that could be valuable in a training camp setting, for basically no expense. What's the downside? Think a team with players like Boqvist and Bean, who need to become more resolute in their one-on-ones, could learn a thing from Chara? I do.

In the end, these players remain unsigned for a reason - or a combination of reasons. All of them are on the wrong side of 30 and have significant tread on their proverbial tires. Plus, there's just the reality that there are fewer dollars to go around than ever before, with a flat salary cap environment impacting the entire league. Do any of these players crack the opening night lineup for the Blue Jackets? Unlikely. The club wants to see its young players grow from within, and that means they'll need playing time. But inviting any of them to training camp, with basically no downside risk, seems like a sound proposition. 

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