Over the next few weeks, there are several key dates on the NHL's calendar, and more specifically, on the Blue Jackets' calendar. The NHL Draft is on June 28-29, free agency starts on July 1, and Mike Babcock will likely be introduced as the head coach at some point this summer, and probably sooner rather than later. Here's everything the Blue Jackets must accomplish this summer.
Find a No. 1 Center
If the Jackets don't take a center with the No. 3 overall pick in Wednesday's draft, it will be the century's biggest smoke screen. The top of the draft is filled with centers with high-end potential and the Jackets need a No. 1 center. It makes too much sense. Whether that's Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, or Will Smith, the Jackets are going to come away from the draft with a future No. 1 center, a role that is currently filled by Boone Jenner, who should probably be a middle-six winger. That's not a knock on Jenner, but when the other No. 1 centers in the Metropolitan Division include Jack Hughes, Sidney Crosby, Mika Zibanejad, Sebastian Aho, Sean Couturier, and Mathew Barzal, the Jackets certainly need to upgrade that spot.
While the player they draft projects to be the long-term answer at the No. 1 center slot, he may not be the short-term answer. Smith is committed to Boston College for next season and Carlsson may go back to Sweden. Fantilli hasn't committed to playing in the NHL next year but he certainly looks ready, although the responsibilities of a No. 1 center are a lot to ask an 18-year-old rookie.
For the short term, they could either make a trade or look to the free agent market, which is much weaker than in previous years. Do they go after J.T. Compher or Ryan O'Reilly? Are those players that much more of an upgrade to Jenner that it's worth using cap space and also blocking younger players from certain roles?
A No. 1 center is arguably the most essential piece to building a perennial contender. Right now, the Jackets don't have one for the present or the future.
New Head Coach
Mike Babcock is expected to be the next head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Why hasn't the hiring been official? Babcock's contract with the Maple Leafs expires on June 30. The Blue Jackets are expected to finalize the hire soon after.
Further to @DarrenDreger, the Leafs still owe Mike Babcock through June 30. Plan is for the Blue Jackets to finalize his hiring after that. Sounds like Babcock has been Jarmo Kekalainens choice for a bit.— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) June 3, 2023
It's hard to say if there will be an immediate impact of Babcock's hiring, but the move is certainly a statement from general manager Jarmo Kekalainen that the Blue Jackets are ready to win.
The NHL's free agency period begins on July 1. There are six pending unrestricted free agents in the organization: Lane Pederson, Gavin Bayreuther, Joona Luoto, Justin Richards, Jon Gillies, and Michael Hutchinson. There are also three restricted free agents in the organization who haven't been signed yet: Tim Berni, Marcus Bjork, and Trey Fix-Wolansky.
This year's free agency class is looked at as weak, and the Jackets made their moves to acquire Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson via trade so they wouldn't solely rely on the free agency market to improve their team.
#CBJ GM Jarmo Kekalainen: We always want to build from goaltender to defense to center ice. Said he felt like they have to strengthen the top-four of their defense and made the trades now so they wouldnt be empty-handed starting on July 1 when the UFA window opens.— Coby Maeir (@CobyMaeir) June 9, 2023
Slimming down the roster
Free agency is also a time when trades are made. Right now, assuming Bayreuther departs, the Blue Jackets have 10 defensemen who will be vying for an NHL roster spot next season: Zach Werenski, Ivan Provorov, Damon Severson, Erik Gudbranson, David Jiricek, Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, Andrew Peeke, Nick Blankenburg, and Tim Berni. Werenski, Provorov, Severson, and Gudbranson are locks to make the opening night roster, but what about the other six players to fill the remaining two spots plus a third spot for an extra blueliner? Blankenburg is the only player in that group that is exempt from waivers, and Peeke ($2.75M), Boqvist ($2.6M), and Bean ($2.33M) do not carry insignificant cap hits, especially for players who could potentially be scratched.
The Jackets may also have an excess of forwards with the potential addition of Dmitri Voronkov and the return of Justin Danforth from injury. Does that make Jack Roslovic expendable?
The Blue Jackets will need to make moves to trim the roster. But what moves will they make?
This has already been a busy off-season for the Jackets, but it's only the beginning.