Complete Guide for Columbus Blue Jackets' 2014 Offseason
The 2013-14 campaign was the best in Columbus Blue Jackets history. Forty three wins sets a new standard for the Blue Jackets, as does 93 points. Both were the highest numbers that the franchise has ever seen, and the bar will be set just a tad higher next year.
This is all part of the plan for president of hockey operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who came over to Columbus from the St. Louis Blues with the intention of building this team the same way—from the inside through strong drafting and smart acquisitions.
No one will confuse the Blue Jackets for the Boston Bruins as the beasts of the East yet, but a lot of progress has been made in Ohio since 2012. This season is a footnote, and Columbus is poised for bigger things in 2014-15.
Season Wrap-Up (Top Performers, Biggest Disappointments, Final Assessment)
It might be easy to judge the Blue Jackets' season by the ending. There are a lot of reasons to be proud: a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the first postseason win in franchise history, the emergence of a legitimate star in Ryan Johansen and a community that is ready to take the dive with this team.
The campaign wasn't without tribulation, however.
Nathan Horton was only able to appear in 36 games and managed all of five goals. He wasn't able to make his season debut until January 1 and was knocked out of action again on March 9 against the Dallas Stars. The former Bruin didn't appear in a playoff game and went 25 consecutive games without scoring a goal prior to his injury against Dallas.
If the Blue Jackets have disappointment to point to, it begins with No. 8. Columbus also played through a majority of the season without Marian Gaborik and eventually traded the sniper to the Los Angeles Kings for Matt Frattin, a second-round pick and a possible third.
No Horton and no Gaborik would have been disastrous had Johansen not cashed in on all of his potential overnight. At 21 years old, the lanky center scored 33 goals and added 30 assists, giving the Blue Jackets the best campaign from any player not named Rick Nash in team history.
Sergei Bobrovsky continued to supply Columbus with the kind of goaltending needed to remain competitive in the NHL. Some pundits believed that the Russian goaltender would regress following a Vezina Trophy win in 2013, but "Bob" was one of the top 10 goalies in the league in terms of wins, save percentage and shutouts.
Getting into the playoffs wasn't easy for the Blue Jackets, but they persevered and grew as a team and as a franchise. Davidson's goal of creating a winning culture in Columbus is well underway, and there's a lot to be proud of heading into the offseason.
Biggest Storylines to Follow
Re-Signing Ryan Johansen
Stop us if you've heard this one before: The biggest storyline for the Blue Jackets heading into summer is the fate of a developing young talent coming off an explosive breakout campaign. Last year, it was Bobrovsky. Now it's Johansen's turn for a payday.
He's a restricted free agent and is coming off a deal that paid him $870,000 according to CapGeek.com. Davidson and Kekalainen established a track record of handing budding talent shorter "prove it" contracts in St. Louis, and they handled the situation with Bobrovsky in the same fashion last summer, giving the goalie a two-year deal.
Johansen's circumstance might be a bit different, however. Goalies can have one good year and then collapse in on themselves. Forwards can do the same thing, but Johansen looked like a young Ryan Getzlaf at times throughout the 2013-14 campaign.
Do the Blue Jackets really want to tempt fate by utilizing a bridge deal? That strategy caught up with the Montreal Canadiens and P.K. Subban, the new cautionary tale for teams looking to shelter themselves from overpaying for an outlier season.
There won't be a more hot-button issue in Columbus this summer than the money and term of Johansen's contract.
How Does Matt Frattin Fit In
Matt Frattin had an interesting season. He was a must-have for the Kings in the Jonathan Bernier deal, but the 26-year-old never caught on in California. For the second time in eight months, the winger found himself on the move as the centerpiece of a trade when the Blue Jackets shipped Gaborik to the Kings.
He's a restricted free agent, and it will be interesting to see how Kekalainen handles the former fourth-round pick. It's tough for a veteran to settle in with a new team after missing training camp—just ask Horton—and Frattin has been blitzed through three different systems in less than a year.
He plays a north-south game and would fit in nicely on Columbus' second or third line, but with Alexander Wennberg and Kerby Rychel ready to push for full-time jobs, there might not be enough space for him there.
It seems unlikely that the Blue Jackets would have moved Gaborik with no intention of keeping the one roster player they received in return, but where does Frattin fit in on a young and hungry team?
Notable Players Hitting Free Agency
MacKenzie is the kind of player whom the Blue Jackets like to have in the lineup. He plays the game straight up and without any frills. The former Atlanta Thrasher has been in Columbus since 2007 and is one of the longest-tenured Blue Jackets.
He's coming off a deal that paid him $1 million a season, and the team should be able to bring him back at a similar price point. There's a glut of centers coming through the system, though, so he might be allowed to walk as a free agent this summer.
An restricted free agent, we delved into Johansen's contract status in the previous slide and won't belabor the point here.
After appearing in all five of Columbus' first five playoffs games, Nikitin was scratched and replaced by Nick Schultz. He averaged more than 17 minutes a night for the Blue Jackets during the regular season, though, so head coach Todd Richards might have been looking to add a different, more experienced element to Game 6.
The blueliner made $2.15 million last season and could very well remain in Columbus if he doesn't ask for an unreasonable raise. Steady defenders who can play second- or third-pairing minutes are a valuable commodity, and Nikitin was solid for the Blue Jackets during the 2013-14 campaign.
Another defenseman who averaged more than 17 minutes a night for the Blue Jackets this year, Savard suddenly saw his ice time explode during the postseason. He skated more than 23 minutes a night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, perhaps indicating that Richards' confidence in the former fourth-round pick grew as the year wore on.
He's a restricted free agent and will be back in Ohio next year, barring an unforeseen hang-up in negotiations or a predatory offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Top Free-Agent Targets
The Blue Jackets have picked their spots over the last few free-agency periods. They have brought in veterans to complement the young core that is in place. James Wisniewski appears to have been a home run, while it's tough to judge Nathan Horton's effectiveness due to injury.
If Columbus makes any splashes during free agency, it'll be for another veteran who is tough to play against, a guy who plays north-south hockey—like, say, Ryan Callahan. The pending unrestricted free agent is open to remaining with the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to Brian Stubits of CBSSports.com, but the Columbus connection is tough to miss.
Callahan played with Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov in New York, and both players seem to love playing for the Blue Jackets. It wouldn't be surprising to see Dubinsky named the captain of the team ahead of the season opener next year.
Perhaps he picks up the phone and gives Mr. Callahan a ring? We're speculating here, but if Callahan backs off his $6 million-plus contract demand a bit, he could very well end up a Blue Jacket. He's exactly the kind of forward the team would look to add.
Look for Kekalainen to take a measured approach to free agency, approaching a hand full of players whom he likes. Don't look for Columbus to overspend, though—especially if a deal for Johansen isn't ironed out by July.
Best Options in the NHL Draft
Brian Costello of The Hockey News was surprised by Wennberg's rapid climb up the NHL's top prospects list. This is the new direction of the Blue Jackets—a team built through strong drafting and savvy additions of smart, mature players.
Keeping the 2013 draft in mind, there are a number of youngsters whom Kekalainen will likely be eyeballing as the end of June draws near.
The Blue Jackets are looking for smart players who thrive with the puck on their stick. DeAngelo is arguably the most offensively gifted defensemen in the draft, evidenced by 71 points in 51 games in the OHL.
He might not still be available when the Blue Jackets make their selection, but if he's on the board, then the potential future top two of Ryan Murray and DeAngelo might be too sweet to pass on.
A forward who loves to control the play from the wings and shoot the puck, Barbashev possesses one of the best releases in the draft. He's not a born-again Blue Jacket and doesn't have the attention to detail required to be an NHLer right out of the gate, but that's a rare quality among talented forwards.
He plays the game hard in the offensive zone and could be an excellent fit in Columbus' top six within the next few seasons.
It would take a bit of a slip for Nylander to fall to the Blue Jackets just outside of the top 10, but we've seen one or two ultraskilled forwards sink down the rankings over the last few years. Nylander could be this season's Valeri Nichushkin—a ridiculously skilled forward with some "questions" about his commitment to the game.
Those concerns were fabricated for the current Dallas Star, and the Blue Jackets would be foolish not to jump at the chance to draft Nylander should he fall to them at the draft.
Players Who Should Be Put on the Trading Block
The Blue Jackets are a team that's looking to add to the foundation, not subtract. If there's one player who could be moved out of town, though, it's R.J. Umberger. Columbus' cap situation makes a lot of sense, and the team isn't really overpaying anyone at this juncture.
One could easily make the argument that Umberger is no longer a player who is worth $4.6 million a season, as per CapGeek.com. Some fans have been calling for the forward to be bought out, but 20(ish)-goal scorers aren't simply released without compensation.
At 31, Umberger's best days are behind him. He's still a five-time 20-goal scorer, though, and if the Blue Jackets agree to retain some salary, they might be able to move him out of town for a player who fits the mold in Columbus a bit better.
After six seasons with the Blue Jackets, he may be embedded as part of the team's locker room, though. Outside of him, Columbus doesn't have the burning need to move any individual player. It shipped Gaborik out of town at the deadline, so the necessary move has already been made.
Top Trade Targets
Columbus has pulled off a number of blockbuster trades over the last few seasons. From acquiring Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers to shipping Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, this is a franchise that isn't afraid to take the plunge.
For the first time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets have an obvious and sturdy core in place. Nash wanted out just as this was forming, and Carter never wanted to be a part of the team in the first place. Extenuating circumstances forced those trades to some degree.
Now that Columbus has started to stockpile picks and talent, the need to shake things up has dissipated greatly. If it does pursue anyone in a trade, look for it to be for depth guys. Jordin Tootoo of the Detroit Red Wings comes to mind, but he was available for nothing on the waiver wire a few times this season, and no one bit.
Tootoo is just an example of the kind of player the Blue Jackets might aim to add via trade. Someone with some sandpaper who can play on the fourth line.
Prospects Most Likely to Debut in 2014-15
Columbus' 14th overall selection last year, Wennberg has rapidly improved into one of the top prospects in hockey. He's made quite a name for himself in his native Sweden and will almost certainly make the Blue Jackets' opening night roster.
He adds even more skill to Columbus' top nine and is noted for his patience with the puck and vision out on the ice. Wennberg will be a key part of the Blue Jackets over the next few seasons, and he'll be named an early season favorite for the Calder Trophy in various publications. Just you wait.
Wennberg is a shoo-in to make the NHL team next season. Rychel isn't at that same level, but he could step into a role similar to the one that Boone Jenner filled this season. The former 19th overall selection is a power forward who plays with a bit of an edge.
Due to his grit, Rychel could be eased into a role at the professional level on a fourth line. He might need some time to develop in the AHL, but he could make his NHL debut in 2013-14.
He wouldn't be making his NHL debut, but Erixon could work his way into a top-six role on Columbus' blue line depending on how extensions for Savard and Nikitin progress. He's a seemingly forgotten part of the deal that sent Nash to the Big Apple, but Erixon could still be an impact player for the Blue Jackets.
He has a decent shot from the point and doesn't panic with the puck on his stick. Erixon had 38 points in 40 AHL games this season and could be ready for a full-time look in Columbus.
Projected 2014-15 Depth Chart
- Boone Jenner—Ryan Johansen—Nathan Horton
- Matt Calvert—Brandon Dubinsky—Cam Atkinson
- R.J. Umberger—Artem Anisimov—Alexander Wennberg
- Nick Foligno—Mark Letestu—Matt Frattin
- Jack Johnson—Fedor Tyutin
- Ryan Murray—James Wisniewski
- David Savard—Tim Erixon
- Sergei Bobrovsky
- Curtis McElhinney
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate through the end of Columbus' campaign.
Contract information appears courtesy of CapGeek.com.