The Columbus Blue Jackets are among the early off-season surprises, making three bold moves in under a week.
From the reported rumblings breaking about Mike Babcock being hired as head coach, to the trade that was completed when Ivan Provorov was acquired in a three-team deal to help solidify the Jackets' defense just a couple of days later.
Another three days later, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen struck again, completing a sign-and-trade to acquire the then UFA-to-be in Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils that sent a third-round draft pick the other way, thus helping turn a sore spot on the Jackets depth chart into arguably its biggest strength.
Time will tell on that.
For now, the blue line can look any number of ways, starting off with Zach Werenski on the first pairing with Severson, presumably, right there with him.
You can slot in Provorov, likely on the second pairing, and you have Andrew Peeke, Adam Boqvist, Tim Berni, and Erik Gudbranson.
Surplus aside, the Jackets are sure to make more moves. Anything could happen in the days leading up to NHL Draft weekend.
Injuries have a way of testing depth, as the Blue Jackets have been forced to contend with far too often. But injuries should not be the crutch anymore. While it certainly helps to have a healthy roster, and the reason behind the numerous amount of injuries over the past few seasons should certainly be addressed, there are plenty of teams who have been tested just as often in that area and still found a way to contend.
Regardless of the early moves so far, it's far too early to assume the Jackets are going to be contending for much of anything yet. If healthy, and if the goaltending takes considerable strides under a new coaching staff, perhaps they are sniffing playoff conversation.
But make no mistake about it, Kekalainen's swing-for-the-fence mentality so far underscores the pressure and willingness the front office finds itself in after finishing second-to-last in the entire league. And with the moves so far, Kekalainen has doubled down on his message from Apr. 15, the day the Jackets fired Brad Larsen as head coach.
"Once we get everybody healthy, even the guys that are here, we're going to look like a completely different team," Kekalainen said. "But there's going to be some changes, too. We're going to look at every position and we're going to make the necessary changes.
"We want to get back into the playoffs. We've had enough of being on the outside looking in and watching the playoffs on TV."
The Babcock hire, once that is official, might be the ultimate off-season wild card for the team, no matter the additions and improvements made to the roster. And for good reason, considering Babcock hasn't coached in the league since 2019 and he has to prove he has learned from prior transgressions.
But so far, the Jackets look to have positioned the early portion of their off-season well, despite some curious comments from some in NHL circles.
For one thing, the Blue Jackets have given up a total of three draft picks: the 22nd and 80th pick in the 2023 draft and either a 2024 or 2025 second-round pick in the separate trades for Provorov and Severson.
i have no idea what columbus thinks they are and where they think they're going but i'll grab the popcorn— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) June 9, 2023
i admire the courage to spend big to create a window with Gaudreau/Laine/Werenski/Carlsson? instead of just sitting back and watching but i'm just not sure this is smart spending from CBJ and I don't think it's enough to elevate them to serious contender status— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) June 9, 2023
While any draft pick can be labeled as the one that got away years later, it feels presumptuous to say the Blue Jackets have spent "an enormous amount of money" and prospects to acquire two NHL defensemen when those players will help the team today, and well into the future.
To entertain the thought, sure. Provorov might be a gamble. The 28-year-old could also be a steal if he resembles his early years as a Philadelphia Flyer. He's been healthy throughout his career and adds offense.
Severson was a highly-regarded off-season target, not only for the Blue Jackets but for any team looking to upgrade.
Are the Jackets serious contenders, yet?
If serious means a true Stanley Cup contender, then probably not. But what is this team, anyway?
Are they closer to the team that was nearly .500 all year in 2021-22 or are they really as bad as they looked in 2022-23 when they set the franchise record with 563 man-games lost?
Could it really be a bad thing to sign one of the best free agents a year ago in Johnny Gaudreau if they weren't close to being a playoff team?
It's understandable that such moves can provide false hope and force a team to speed up its own rebuild in order to win during a star player's window. They're still necessary moves to ice a better club in the present.
Provorov is signed for two more seasons and the team can always let him walk, especially with David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, and Stanislav Svozil in the wings.
Severson is locked up for eight years, and his financial breakdown and no-trade possibilities open up in the second half of his deal, giving the team leverage down the road if they need to get out from under the contract.
Damon Severson's contract also has trade protection:— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) June 9, 2023
Yr 1: Full NTC
Yr 2: Full NTC
Yr 3: Full NTC
Yr 4: Full NTC
Yr 5: 20 team no-trade
Yr 6: 12 team no-trade
Yr 7: 12 team no-trade
Yr 8: 12 team no-tradehttps://t.co/bQcrOvjvb5 https://t.co/D3ixPVg5pe
Which might end up being the case.
The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn and Shayna Goldman shared thoughts on the Severson acquisition.
I’m not sure who the Blue Jackets think they are, but it’s not a team that’s ready for moves like this one. That was apparent last season when the team signed Johnny Gaudreau and it feels like the team has fallen into the same trap this week. — Luszczyszyn
Perhaps Severson was paid slightly more than necessary, but what's the price for upgrading a significant weakness? Luszczyszyn pointed out that for at least the next four seasons, Severson's value should still be exactly what the team is bargaining for.
Over the next four years that shouldn’t be a problem and he should come close to living up to his value. He has a projected value in the ballpark of $5.5 million in each of those years. It’s after that the problems will arise as Severson enters his 30s. This deal isn’t a disaster by any means, it’s just that with eight years of term, Severson probably should have landed closer to $5 million.
And as is the case with any long-term deal, we can assess that situation when it comes.
With the draft a few weeks away and Kekalainen, bold as ever, looking to improve his club in the most important off-season to date, we're probably on the cusp of more moves to come.
No matter how this upcoming season goes, it's going to be entertaining.