Go Big or Stay Home: Why the Jackets Should Avoid the Middle Road

After a year of highs (the sweep of Tampa) and lows (the Panarin and Bobrovsky saga), it all comes down to less than 24 hours for the Columbus Blue Jackets future to be determined.  While some may hope for a last minute change of heart from Panarin, that ship seems to have sailed.  With each passing minute, the chance for a sign and trade that nets some value from the departing Russians also fades.  It would seem the competitors for their services are more willing to overpay on annual salary than they are to give an asset to the Jackets to get an eighth year for the player.  So it. goes.

Matt Duchene’s future with the Jackets is also seriously in doubt.  However, of the three, the consensus seems to be that Duchene is the one that might still be persuaded to stay.  As I predicted previously, there seem to be 3 suitors based on Duchene’s personal preferences and cap space to sign him:  the Jackets, the Canadiens and the Predators.  The Predators seemed like a foregone conclusion when Ray Shero decided to help the Predators and his own team while potentially hurting the Jackets by taking on all of P.K. Subban’s salary.  However, proximity to home and the fact that Duchene grew up rooting for the Habs could tip the scales toward Montreal.  On the other hand, the Jackets might be a safe middle ground both literally and figuratively–geographically between home and Nashville’s country music scene that Duchene loves and also competitively somewhere between the Predators and Montreal as far as capability of competing for a Cup.

The Jackets shouldn’t shy away from backing up the Brinks truck to Duchene.  They came this far, might as well go all in.  Overpaying a productive player like Duchene, as I’ll explain, makes substantially more sense than paying for the likes of Mats Zuccarello.

There will be a cost to signing Duchene, make no mistake.  It is the same cost that the Jackets would have had to extending Panarin, which they were clearly ready to do even though the Jackets have more depth at wing than they do at center, presently.  The problem isn’t this year.  The Jackets had plenty of cap space to sign Bobrovsky and Panarin, which was likely the initial plan.  That’s even after paying Ryan Murray and Zach Werenski for their new contracts.  It is next offseason where things get tricky.

Let’s just assume for a moment that Werenski’s AAV on his next deal is around $6.5 million give the current free agent market.  You could argue up or down from there, but I think that is a safe midpoint.  Let’s also assume Murray ends up with an AAV of $4.5 million. Again, you could argue up or down from there, but that is probably a safe midpoint.  So, their combined AAV comes in around $11 million.  Also, worth pointing out that for this reason the Jackets are in no danger of being under the cap floor.

Now, let’s say that Duchene signs an 8 year extension and let’s just be conservative and say that the AAV is around $10 million.  That still leaves the Jackets about $7 million in cap space for this season.  But, again, next season is where it becomes tricky.  Anderson, Dubois and Merzlikins will all be RFA’s.  That Jackets would have only about $15 million in cap space to sign all 3.  They could make room with a buyout of Brandon Dubinsky, that would give them an extra, roughly $3 million.  They could also make room with a buyout of Alex Wennberg.  This actually creates more cap room–about $4.5 million.  The only problem would be that Wennberg would impact the Jackets’ cap through 2025-26.

There is another alternative if Duchene is signed that will certainly frighten some.  However, as I’ll detail in a separate article, it may end up being an alternative if the Jackets don’t sign Duchene–trade Josh Anderson.

I know what you are going to say: “Trade Anderson?  Are you nuts?  His size and speed.  He is exactly what you want in a player, particularly in the playoffs.”  I don’t disagree with any of this, but I also look to the future and I wonder how much it will cost to retain Anderson and whether the Jackets strength on the right side justifies trading Anderson to add someone on the left side, where the Jackets depth is weaker.  With respect to re-signing him, let’s keep in mind his last contract negotiation wasn’t pleasant and Darren Ferris will be even more emboldened should he actually get Mitch Marner $11 million or more per year.  What sort of contract will Ferris seek for Anderson if he puts up 30 goals or more next season?

If you are going to trade Anderson, you have to get a left wing that is cost-controlled for, ideally, at least the next 4 years.  Again, I’ll discuss this separately in another article.

Either way, getting Duchene keeps the Jackets as an immediate contender in the 2019-20 season by shoring up their center situation. With Dubois, Duchene and Jenner, there is probably a fight for the final center spot between the incumbent, Wennberg, Riley Nash, Alex Texier and Liam Foudy.  Something is likely to sort itself out there and it isn’t necessary for Texier or Foudy to have to face the immediate pressure of being a #2 center.  Heck, they might end up playing left wing to ease into the league.

Even if you trade Anderson as a result of signing Duchene, you have Atkinson locked in as the top right wing and Bjorkstrand moving up to the second line, where he played well to finish the season.  From there you have Bemstrom potentially getting a shot on the third line where, again, pressure will be lower on him.  If he isn’t quite ready, perhaps Sherwood is.  If not, depending on who takes the vacant center spot, Riley Nash might take on this role.  The right side really is not a problem even if Anderson were to be moved.

If the Jackets swing and miss on Duchene, they should not fall to the temptation of the middle ground.  Taking a shot and Anders Lee would be worthwhile because of the weakness on the left side and because of Lee’s talent level and skillset.  Unlike the departing Panarin, Lee is a guy who likes to play low in the offensive zone and who will grind and cycle the puck.  The idea of him with Dubois and Atkinson is intriguing and not too steep of a fall off from Panarin.  Joe Pavelski would have been interesting, but he apparently rebuffed a request by the Jackets to speak with him.  Gustav Nyquist is, perhaps, the must below-the-radar option.  He actually had more points than Lee last season, though is less of a goal scorer.  He’s capable of playing all three forward positions, which is always nice for a guy like him who, ideally, is a middle six forward.

After those two, it is a steep drop off.  One name connected to the Jackets has been Mats Zuccarello.  This has all the makings of a bad deal considering that Zuccarello is looking for 4-5 years on his deal and will be 32 years old entering the season.  His production has declined already and he’s only hit the 20 goal plateau once in his career.  As it stands, the Jackets cap situation gets even better in two years when Dubinsky and Foligno are off the books, giving the Jackets room when they need it to sign Bjorkstrand’s next contract, and Jones’ next contract, etc.  Adding Zuccarello takes away some of that future cap flexibility and feels like the sort of deal that may later result in a buyout.

Signing Zuccarello also takes away flexibility next offseason to go after free agents after getting Anderson and Dubois signed.  Taylor Hall will potentially be available, but so will guys like Alex Galchenyuk and Mikael Granlund.  If the Habs sign Duchene, an offer sheet for Max Domi would be an option.  Nothing about Zuccarello suggests that he is worth taking away options next offseason.  With Lee and Nyquist, at least they address immediate needs at left wing or center, but, perhaps the better approach is to simply stick with what the Jackets have and search for trade options.  Again, stay tuned for some thoughts on that.

That would serve another purpose–a test of John Tortorella’s ability to get the most out of players that fit the current NHL, but don’t necessarily fit the coach’s personal biases.  With no additions to the current roster, Torts will be forced to co-exist with the likes of Sonny Milano, Alex Texier, Eric Robinson and Emil Bemstrom and to get the most out of them if the team is going to succeed.  He’s going to have to get more out of Oliver Bjorkstrand and, for better or worse, Alex Wennberg.  If he can’t do that, when you look at the Jackets pipeline, some of the most talented of which are undersized wings, you have to ask if he is the right man for the job going forward.  Staying the course will give a clear answer on whether Torts is right for the job and will also give a clear answer on whether guys like Milano and Wennberg, in particular, have a future in the organization.  Overpaying a guy like Zuccarello and/or bringing in a guy like Brian Boyle will just allow Torts to, once again, bury young players.  If you aren’t adding a difference maker like Lee or keeping a guy like Duchene, that seems ill-advised.

So, we’ll know which way the Jackets go in less than 24 hours, but here is hoping that they either keep Duchene, damn the cost or perhaps add high end talent like Lee or even Nyquist.  Barring that, here’s hoping they have faith in the talent that made them comfortable to make the Duchene trade in the first place instead of feeling the need to placate fans (and their coach) with a guy like Mats Zuccarello.