The Columbus Blue Jackets transformed into Stanley Cup contenders after years of rebuilding, as demonstrated by their franchise-high 108 point 2016-17 season and third ever appearance in the playoffs. But those 108 points only put them third in the competitive Metropolitan Division, landing them against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eliminated Columbus in a five-game series on their way to repeating as Stanley Cup champions. After a record season but a disappointing playoff loss, the Blue Jackets are trying to rebuild their momentum this offseason with a win-now mentality.
While the team that headed into the offseason is one of the strongest iterations of the Blue Jackets yet, their win-now tactics have to be questioned. Is this team now strong enough to finally win a playoff series? Or are the Jackets risking their future on a team that simply is not strong enough against the talented Metropolitan Division and the rest of the league?
This offseason was unique because each team had to accommodate the incoming Vegas Golden Knights. Like a few other clubs, the Blue Jackets prioritized some of their roster players enough to ensure they were not drafted, despite their protection limitations. Plus, they looked to remove the salary of David Clarkson, whose long-term injured reserve status means he weighed on their salary cap in the offseason ($5.25 million cap hit for the next three seasons).
To protect Josh Anderson, Jack Johnson and Joonas Korpisalo, and to get Vegas to take on Clarkson’s cap hit, the Blue Jackets sent a 2017 first-round pick (24th overall) and a 2019 second-round pick to the Golden Knights. Ultimately, it was William Karlsson selected in the expansion draft.
Losing two draft picks, plus Karlsson, seems like a steep cost for Columbus. But Clarkson was an extra cost for an inactive player, and if he becomes active, he’s an expensive player who is not effective enough to merit that cap hit. The Jackets needed to shed Clarkson’s contract, and their moves also exemplified how committed they are to their core players. They feel Korpisalo could be their backup goaltender next season and goalie of the future (this was emphasized even more after Anton Forsberg was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks), and that Anderson and Johnson could play key roles in 2017-18.
Requesting to protect Johnson in exchange for future assets can be seen as short-sighted, and too focused on right now. He has been a core part of their blue line but his play has not necessarily justified that cost. Losing two early draft picks is risky, unless the Blue Jackets have that much faith in their prospects or intend to find ways to supplement the draft picks they lost.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s bold offseason moves did not end with the Vegas trade, as he made a game-changing trade with the Blackhawks. The last time the Blue Jackets and Blackhawks made such a significant trade was in June 2015 when 22-year-old two-time Stanley Cup champion Brandon Saad, along with Michael Paliotta and Alex Broadhurst, were sent to Columbus for Artem Anisimov, Jeremy Morin, Corey Tropp, Marko Dano and a 2016 fourth-round pick.
This year, Saad again was involved in the trade, getting sent back to Chicago. Along with him, goaltender Forsberg and a 2018 fifth-round pick were traded to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, Tyler Motte, and a 2017 sixth-round pick.
So Panarin's results are glittering but his QoT is the highest in the league. pic.twitter.com/zy2HE8ir6l
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 23, 2017
Re-acquiring Saad reinforces Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman’s pattern of bringing back players that were successful in Chicago. Losing Saad in the first place was questionable, but in Bowman’s eyes necessary because of their cap crunch. Getting Saad back cost the Blackhawks a steep price in Panarin.
After four seasons with Chicago, Saad played two with the Blue Jackets – where he earned 53 points each season (2015-16: 31 goals, 22 assists in 78 games; 2016-17: 24 goals, 29 assists in 82 games). He has 232 points (107 goals, 125 assists) in 368 career regular-season games.
Panarin, a year older than Saad at 25, has only played two seasons, both with Chicago, and has 151 points (61 goals, 90 assists) in 162 games. In his first NHL season, after playing in the KHL, Panarin was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy for his rookie accomplishments (77 points).
— Alison (@AlisonL) July 13, 2017
There is a concern that Panarin’s numbers are inflated because he most often played with Patrick Kane – and that concern is warranted – but Panarin elevated Kane’s play as well and likely will help improve the play of his teammates in Columbus. In trading any player, especially one as dynamic as Panarin, there will always be an inherent risk – but when building for a Stanley Cup the risk might be worth it because of the rewards a player of his caliber can bring.
Along with both major trades, the Blue Jackets bought out wing Scott Hartnell to clear cap space. Hartnell had two years remaining on his deal with a cap hit of $4.75 million per season and was on the fourth line. The 35-year-old had clearly declined over his career, but maybe not to the extent that would have validated his drop in ice time. If the intention was to use Hartnell in such a limited capacity moving forward, then the buyout makes sense because his cap hit was too substantial for that role. However, his contributions deserved a larger role — especially after Sam Gagner was lost to free agency.
As it stands, the Blue Jackets have over $12 million in projected cap space with 11 forwards, eight defensemen, and two goaltenders signed. Two restricted-free agents have yet to re-sign (Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg) – but even after those players are extended, Columbus should still have significant cap space to complete its team. There is no question that the Blue Jackets have a strong goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, a solid blue line with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray, and a number of talented forwards including Cam Atkinson, Wennberg, and Panarin.
But the question pops up again: Are they a Stanley Cup contender, especially in such a challenging division?
Is Jordan Schroeder expected to replace Hartnell and can he fill that role? The Blue Jackets were rumored to be interested in Matt Duchene, but when a trade did not occur, they failed to find another option – so does this team still need to search for a true top-line center while Wennberg develops? Can all of their young players succeed next season, or are the expectations too high? And if they find success, can they sustain it?
There are far too many questions for the Blue Jackets before the season, which is why the rest of their offseason is so important. As successful as last season was, they crumbled in the postseason. To find playoff success, they need a more complete roster.
Keeping their core intact might give them a solid foundation for a Stanley Cup-caliber team and supplementing it with a player as dynamic as Panarin makes them more of a threat. However, in the NHL, one player might not be enough to transform a team.
The Blue Jackets are committed to competing right now. Therefore, it is crucial for them to continue building this team into a contender, or they might have mortgaged their future on a core that will become stagnant. But while strengthening this team to fulfill the win-now mentality, it is imperative that they are conscious of how their decisions will affect them long-term, or they risk building a team bound for future collapse – putting them right back where they started.