How to Make the Best of the Worst: Free Agent Alternatives for the Blue Jackets

So, let’s look into a sad future.  A future less than 24 hours from now that sees all of the Jackets big three free agents walk.  It isn’t an unlikely future, unfortunately.  With Florida trading James Reimer so they could acquire and buyout Scott Darling it sure seems like the Panthers are looking to make room for at least one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but preferably for Dale Tallon, both of the Russians.  The only talk about Matt Duchene for most of this week has involved Montreal and Nashville and his good friend, Ryan Dzingel, unsurprisingly will not be back in Columbus.

You can’t fault Jarmo Kekalainen for attempting to build a team that compete both in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond by shoring up his center position with the addition of Duchene.  Bringing in Dzingel to help sell Duchene on a more permanent move while also addressing the weakness on left wing initially seemed brilliant, but ultimately backfired when Head Coach John Tortorella was unable to find a way to co-exist with Dzingel, culminating with scratching Dzingel from the lineup during the Boston series in favor of playing the mercurial Alex Wennberg.  It was pretty clear when Dzingel was talking to the press and cleaning out his locker that he was a goner and Duchene had one less reason to stick around.

Should this all come to past, as noted in my other article, the Jackets shouldn’t just add players to add players.  They should continue to be methodical and creative to address their holes on the left wing and center.

It is important to remember that the center position is more likely to sort itself out internally.  The Jackets have two very good chances to develop a player that can take a role behind Pierre-Luc Dubois in the lineup.  There is every reason to believe Dubois will continue to develop as a first line center.  Which means the pressure on Liam Foudy and Alex Texier is not what it might have been in the past.  Boone Jenner is certainly capable of playing second line minutes in the short term.  Nick Foligno as first line left wing is a bit more concerning.  Foligno is a fine player, but at this point in his career is more suited to play second or even third line minutes.  So, the Jackets should be on the hunt for a center, but probably more importantly, for a left wing both because they lack a current left wing that has high level talent with Panarin’s departure and because their strength going forward is heavily weighted to the right side.

What assets do the Jackets have to offer in a trade?  TSN has conspicuously listed Ryan Murray highly on their Trade Bait list.  This isn’t too surprising.  Murray is due a raise and the Jackets have the opposite problem on defense–they are overstocked on the left side.  With the addition of Gavrikov and with solid play from Dean Kukan in the playoffs (already extended) and with Zach Werenski also due a substantial pay increase, Murray or Markus Nutivaara are probably the easiest players with value to move.  Some would argue David Savard, who played quite well in the playoffs and might be at a high point in his value, particularly as a right-handed shot, but the problem there is that the Jackets lack depth on the right side as it is.  Andrew Peeke is probably the next right handed prospect with a chance to play in the NHL and he is probably not ready to take on that role this year.

The challenge with Murray has always been his ability to stay healthy.  He finally showed his potential this season only to be slowed by another injury.  This makes him a difficult player to trade.  Additionally, the hotter commodity when it comes to defensemen, as noted above, is right handed defensemen.  There are names out there such as Tyson Barrie (whose contract is up after this season) and Rasmus Ristolainen.  Those players may have to find a destination before a team looks at Murray.  Another left defenseman out there who is likely to get serious consideration ahead of Murray if he’s truly available is Shayne Gostisbehere.  So, while Murray is a solid defenseman, he has some competition in the market.

Markus Nutivaara is a solid, cost-controlled defenseman with some upside.  He can play the right side even though he is left handed, so maybe that adds some attraction.  He may have more offensive upside than Murray, but isn’t necessarily as positionally sound as Murray is.  He hasn’t had the same injury history.  But these are the very reasons the Jackets may be less than thrilled to part with Nutivaara.

What else do the Jackets have in the way of assets?  Sonny Milano is still an asset, but, based on the rough season he had that included a serious injury, he is probably more of a throw in at this point.  Bemstrom, Texier and Foudy are untouchable at the moment.  There are certainly deeper prospects like Fix-Wolansky and Kole Sherwood who could be of interest in a trade, but, again, these are not going to be more than add-ins to even out a deal.  The Jackets’ draft pick situation isn’t all that great, but if Duchene is not re-signed, they will have a first round pick in 2020 if they want to dangle it.  However, given the uncertainty of the upcoming season, it seems like hanging onto that pick is the wiser option barring a truly ridiculous trade opportunity becoming available–this is the only time I’ll allow any thought of Mitch Marner because we are not giving up 4 first round picks for him via offer sheet, but if you had to put in 1-2 picks and a player and prospect, yes, you’d probably have to look at that.

I’m not going to entertain trading Werenski this offseason.  No, not even in a trade for Marner.  Maybe if Vladislav Gavrikov has an overwhelming season this would be a consideration next off-season, but I am just not there at this point.  Defensive depth is going to be a key if this team is going to be a contender and I don’t see trading Werenski as a particularly good option

There is one additional asset the Jackets could use in a trade and that is their depth at right wing.  As I noted in my other article, when you look at the Jackets’ right side, they have an overabundance both now and in he future.  Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Emil Bemstrom, Sherwood and Fix-Wollansky are all right wings.  Anderson and Sherwood are the only two with any real size.  The rest are of the speedy and skilled wings.  Anderson’s contract will be up again next year. He will have arbitration rights and his agent has not been easy to deal with in recent negotiations–witness the Mitch Marner situation.  Should he get Marner $11 million, as he hopes, he’ll be shooting for the moon, but not that high, with Anderson next summer.  With the way the Restricted Free Agent Market has changed since his last contract, he could be due for a huge raise.  If arbitration doesn’t go well, it could lead to a short term contract that might lead to Anderson’s departure before the 2021 offseason.

On the other hand, as noted, Anderson is very different from the Jackets other right wings.  He brings a combination of speed and size that is hard to find.  Compare this to Oliver Bjorstrand who has struggled to find ice time competing against Atkinson and Anderson.  Now add Bemstrom to that competition and where does Bjorkstrand fit going forward?  That’s without another prospect like Fix-Wolansky potentially coming up and surprising people (as he has repeatedly).  With the Jackets seemingly unwilling to play Bjorkstrand on his off-wing, where does that leave him?

I’m a huge fan of both Anderson and Bjorkstrand so I am not suggesting them as tradable assets without serious reservations.  They are good players and they may well become even better players.  Frankly, I think Bjorkstrand has been held back by his usage to this point.  But you have to give something to get something and the sign of a good deal (including a trade) is often that neither side is totally happy with it.  Make no mistake though, Anderson and Bjorkstrand are only available for a home run–a first line left wing or a second line (or better) center.

With all of that in mind, who might be some targets and what might be some other things the Jackets could do to put themselves in a position to improve the chances to make a deal?

Let’s start off with the low-hanging fruit–the guys on the trading block or plausibly on it.  Not necessarily in order of possibility or priority.

  1.  Jason Zucker.  When you, very publicly, try to trade a guy two times only for it to fail, its probably a sign that its time for both parties to move on.  Zucker is 27 years old and under contract for 4 more years at a cap hit of $5.5 million.  That is probably less than Mats Zuccarello is going to get and he will be the same age is Zuccarello is now when his contract is over.  Minnesota attempted to trade him for Phil Kessel, so they are primarily looking for help at forward.  While his production went from 64 points in 2017-18 to 42 points last year, in his defense, Minnesota was kind of a train wreck.  Nonetheless, would you trade Bjorkstrand or Anderson for Zucker?  I’m not sure I would.  Worth noting–Bjorkstrand’s father is from Minnesota, and you can’t underestimate the whole obsession Wild fans (and management) seem to have for guys with a Minnesota connection.
  2. Nazem Kadri.  You may have heard the Leafs need cap room in order to make room for Mitch Marner’s new contract.  You may also have heard the Leafs were not happy with Kadri’s boneheaded play during their series against Boston.  On a good team like the Leafs, Kadri is a third line center.  But, in a pinch, he can play second line center.  What do the Leafs need? Cap relief.  Cheap help on defense.  The challenge here is that the Leafs also don’t have a lot of depth at center. Shot in the dark–Riley Nash and Dean Kukan?  The Leafs are really in a bad situation, but I don’t buy the idea they move Marner or Nylander.  They will find a way and it probably will involve Kadri departing.  Just not sure there is a true fit here for the Jackets.
  3. Yanni Gourde/Tyler Johnson/Alex Kilorn.  This possibility may be fading.  Had the Lightning added Joe Pavelski, this seemed inevitable to make room for him.  At the moment, subject to change, Dallas seems to be in the lead for Pavelski’s services.  All 3 players have a no-trade clause to complicate matters.  What would the Lightning want?  Cap relief and a cheap defenseman wouldn’t hurt.
  4. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  Look, let’s just get through this quick.  He’s Spezza 2.0–the guy potentially in the rumor mill that fits a need the Jackets have.  He’s still only 26 years old.  He has 2 years left on his deal for a reasonable $6,000,000 and he plays center AND left wing.  What do the Oilers need?  Defense and, ironically, better wings for Connor McDavid.  And depth.  Maybe Ken Holland is finally the guy to trade RNH, but, I doubt it.  So, he’ll play out the next two years with Edmonton and then probably take his turn on the Dallas carousel of aging centers.
  5. Brandon Saad/Artem Anisimov.  No, I’m just kidding.
  6. David Krecji.  This would be a cap space move if it happened, but the Bruins aren’t giving this guy up for nothing even with his injury history.   His contract is down to the last two years, so the $7,250,000 cap hit suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.  I just think the price will be too steep.  Otherwise, the two year term is nearly perfect for the timeframe it is likely to take Foudy and Texier to develop and it would give them a mentor, etc.
  7. Kyle Turris.  There are a million warning signs with this guy.  The term of his contract is staggering.  His production has decreased.  I mean, there’s a reason the Predators are chasing Duchene.  Heck, even if you traded Alex Wennberg straight up for him in a “change of scenery” deal, I think you might regret it when you were stuck buying him out at a much higher cost than a buyout on Wennberg.  Hard pass.
  8. Mike Hoffman.  After only acquiring him a year ago, his name was in the rumor mill by the deadline.  And he kind of has a reputation as a locker room cancer from the whole mess in Ottawa. But, he only has a year left on his deal, so if it doesn’t work, not a huge deal.  And this is a guy that maybe a straight up trade for Murray works?  Certainly not a Plan A, but it’s a thought.  Likely a short term solution though.
  9. Chris Kreider. If they don’t sign Panarin (unlikely), I’m not sure there is much point in rushing to trade Kreider now rather than trading him at the deadline.  I’m also not convinced he’s a true #1 left wing.  They’d mainly be looking for a younger player/prospect and you do have to keep in mind that maybe John Davidson has his eye on a player in the Jackets organization.  But this seems like a subpar use of assets.
  10. Adam Henrique.  I only listed his name to ask how on earth Bob Murray keeps signing guys like him and Ryan Kesler to these absurd deals.  5 more years and almost $6 million/year cap hit at age 29. Hardest of hard passes.
  11. Nikita Gusev.  So, Vegas decided to rush their window and now they have to pay the piper.  He’s a left wing, but a right shot, so the Jackets may not feel this is ideal.  On the other hand, he’s 26 years old and could come cheap both as far as contract (he’s an arbitration-eligible RFA) and as far as what it takes to get him (Vegas is vulnerable to an offer sheet that gives them very little.). Worth consideration.

Okay, those are some names that are out there, but now let’s get really out there.  Jarmo threw away his Easy Button a long time ago, so, what could he do if he really wanted to get creative and go after a guy that is in the prime of his career?  Let’s talk offer sheets and RFA trades.

No, we are NOT going to talk about Mitch Marner or Brayden Point.  No one in their right mind is giving up 4 first round picks and paying $10 million for these guys.  Just not happening.  If you thought the screams were loud when Jarmo traded picks at the deadline, multiply that by 1000 times.  Just not going to happen.  But there are other guys out there on teams with varying degree of cap issues.  Specifically, Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), Timo Meier (San Jose) and Kevin Labanc (also San Jose).

So, there’s some good news and bad news here.  The good news–the draft compensation for these guys is likely to be substantially lower than it would for Marner and Point.  I would expect, at the high end, you’d be looking at a First, Second and Third Round Pick.  But, here is where the problem for the Jackets starts.  They don’t presently have their second and third round picks.

Enter the Ottawa Senators.  Even after the trade for Nikita Zaitsev which (wink, wink) isn’t yet complete, the Senators are below the cap floor.  Unlike the Jackets, their remaining RFA’s are not likely to push them over the floor.  Perhaps a player like Alex Wennberg might have some value for Ottawa–he’s still young, maybe he really does need a change of scenery.  Perhaps Sonny Milano is of some interest.  Whatever the deal, the Jackets somehow get back their second and third round picks in addition to their first round pick they retained as a result of Duchene now signing.

This would be a very visible tell to teams with restricted free agents that Jarmo was at least considering an offer sheet, which would change the tenor of subsequent conversations centered around a trade for the player in question.  The team would know that if a trade wasn’t worked out, there is a possibility Jarmo simply goes the offer sheet route.  And, frankly, for Meier or Connor in particular, the offer sheet route seems pretty good to me.  A first, second and third round pick for a top line left wing in the prime of their career?  Yes, I’ll do that.

San Jose is more vulnerable because of how close they are to the cap, but Winnipeg still has a lot of holes to fill.  Additionally, after trading Trouba and likely losing Tyler Myers on defense, they really lack defensive depth.  So, there’s a match there, but it could be a steep price–let’s say Murray and one of Bjorkstrand or Anderson.  Of course, the Jets are already potentially marketing Nikolaj Ehlers and if they can manage a trade of Ehlers for a defenseman–let’s say Tyson Barrie–their situation is probably less precarious and they are probably less interested in a trade.  Acquiring Ehlers is also a possibility, but the Jets priorities, to this point have been a right shot defenseman and with Barrie and Ristolainen on the market, it seems like that’s a price they should be able to get.

Kyler Connor would be a catch if he could be acquired.  Speed and size.  34 goals last year and 66 points.  5 points in 6 playoff games.  Connor is one guy that a trade of Anderson would hurt less because you are trading for a version of Anderson with higher upside who plays on the other wing.  Of course, having both of them in your lineup would also be very attractive.  It’s a long shot, but so was landing Panarin in trade.

San Jose, on the other hand, has painted themselves into a corner.  After re-signing Erik Karlsson, they’ve already effectively let Joe Pavelski walk.  Now they have to re-sign Labanc and Meier plus roster spots for 4 more forwards and a 7th defenseman with less than $15,000,000 in cap space and Patrick Marleau wanting to return to the team (presumably on a cheap deal).  Meier and Labanc are just 22 and 23, respectively.  Meier put up 30 goals and 66 points and Labanc had 17 goals and 56 points.  Of the two, Meier projects as more of a first line talent or at least a high end second line talent.  Also, Labanc is a right shot even though a capable left wing.

Teams have used offer sheets strategically in the past to get a team to further hamper their ability to match an offer for the actual target–ironically, it was what San Jose did to acquire Antti Niemi after they gave an offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson.  But I’m not sure if that would work out if you put an offer sheet on Labanc.  The Sharks might let you have him in order to protect Meier.  The direct route is probably the safest–go after Meier first and take Labanc if the Sharks match and put themselves in position that they can’t sign Labanc.  Of course, any offer sheet would be proceeded by a trade discussion and it may well be that San Jose might have interest in a cost-controlled forward and/or defenseman given their current cap situation.

Of course, it is also possible that Jarmo can facilitate a trade if one of these teams is threatened by another team with an offer sheet.  That’s apparently what happened that led to the Brandon Saad trade.  So, Jarmo is no stranger to these territories.

There are a lot of options, but a trade/offer sheet that nets one of Meier or Connor would be the most intriguing and seems like the sort of move Jarmo has made in prior years.