Columbus Blue Jackets’ Off-Season Plans

Now that the National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft is over, the attention now turns to the Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing period and for the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, there is no respite, no resting upon their recent laurels.

The Blue Jackets took a major step towards re-molding the direction of the team and their overall fortunes by acquiring Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for RJ Umberger and a 4th round draft pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

There is also the major issue of negotiating a contract, be it a bridge contract – a short-term contract wherein a team pays a player less in his restricted years of free agency, with the notion that the subject players big ‘pay day’ will come in their next contract – or a major contract extension – which can be quite risky if the player doesn’t perform as planned, with ascending center Ryan Johansen who netted 66 points during a breakout season in 2013-14.

However, Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen assured the local fans that, should any other NHL team attempt to provide an offer sheet to Johansen – and that is becoming a less-often used practice by NHL teams due to the potential compensation given to the team who is giving up the player being sought after – that they will certainly match the offer extended.

But the notion that the current Blue Jackets managerial regime will simply rest on the belief that the Hartnell trade as well as the continued development track of its young core like Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Murray, Boone Jenner and David Savard and the much-anticipated arrival of its highly-regarded prospects – Alexander Wennberg, Kirby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Marko Dano – is one that highly underestimates the relentless pursuit of organizational greatness that Kekalainen is aiming to obtain.

While the Blue Jackets improved its goal-scoring proclivity during the 2013-14 regular season, finishing 12th in the NHL in goals scored, there is much-needed improvement in finding the back of the net if the Blue Jackets want to continue of their upward track.

Adding Hartnell to Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Jenner and the hopeful full recovery of Nathan Horton to his usual stellar play – Horton struggled towards the end of his first season with the Blue Jackets after major shoulder surgery and was shut down towards the end of the regular season – provides a team that both competes and is extremely difficult to play against.  However, adding a Top Six (first two forward scoring lines) forward to the mix can allow the Blue Jackets to ascend to an instant Stanley Cup title contender.

This year’s UFA crop, particularly after Ryan Callahan decided to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Marian Gaborik re-signed with the LA Kings is somewhat thin as to impact, scoring forwards.  Given that variable, UFAs like Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson will be highly sought after by many NHL clubs although after stunning most pundits in signing Nathan Horton, you can rest assured that not acquiring one of these prolific forwards won’t be for a lack of effort by Kekalainen and Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson.

Also, if signing Johansen to a contract extension should an offer sheet be extended by another NHL team dwindles the remaining salary cap availability, the Blue Jackets won’t be shy in pursuing the trade route with other NHL organizations.

If they opt for this route, they will probably do so by offering to partner up with NHL teams who are in a salary cap crunch situation – i.e. teams like the Boston Bruins, the San Jose Sharks or the Philadelphia Flyers – and who need to trade away a solid player for a player or players who is/are more ‘salary cap-friendly’ and can fit into their salary cap constraints.

While it’s anyone’s guess which players that might be, players on salary cap-crunched teams who are rumored to possibly be available via trades include Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks.

As for the players the Blue Jackets might consider trading away to obtain these players, which is also anyone’s guess, players to keep in mind are forwards Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and, depending on the level of player – a marquee player or a solid, proven NHL scorer – possibly someone like Artem Anisimov and on the defensive end, possibly David Savard or Tim Erixon.

Assuming the Blue Jackets can obtain a player of that caliber, they can also acquire via the UFA route a solid scoring winger like David Legwand, Mason Raymond or possibly the Ottawa Senators UFA Milan Michalek.

Even if the Blue Jackets do opt to stay put with their upstart, young core, the future and their ascending aspirations look extremely bright for the 2014-15 season.

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