The Columbus Blue Jackets are in a precarious position: they are mathematically still in contention for the Stanley Cup playoffs although the odds to do so, with each loss, dwindle as was the case, last night in a loss to the Montreal Canadiens, 3-1 dropping their odds from a 1.6% chance to a 0.9% chance to qualify for the playoffs. However, they also have the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) 23rd overall point total so, assuming the Blue Jackets wouldn’t defy incredible odds and win the NHL’s draft lottery draw – their lottery luck history suggests, otherwise – they would receive the NHL Entry Draft’s 7th overall pick.
The NHL’s Trade Deadline is slated for March 2nd at 3 P.M. Between now and the deadline, the Blue Jackets have five games, two on the road including tonight’s contest with the New York Rangers and three games in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena where surprisingly, the Blue Jackets sport a losing record. In addition to playing the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have tough opponents in the Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins, so how they perform in this stretch has a great bearing on their trade possibilities.
Should the Blue Jackets win all of their next five contests or four out of five, it would stand to reason that Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen wouldn’t tinker with the team’s chemistry, particularly so as their struggles have been a result of an injury-plagued season than any underachieving which would usually necessitate a shakeup on their roster.
However, to assume that Kekalainen is the ‘stand pat’, risk-adverse type would also be foolhardy: this is the same executive that pulled the trigger on the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline: dealing for Slavic sniper Marian Gaborik to bolster their scoring and make a run for the playoffs. Much as in 2013, when asked by the local media as to any trade possibilities, Kekalainen didn’t show his cards, nor should he, ever. So, if the right trade deadline offer surfaces, expect Kekalainen to pounce upon it: patient, yes, but aggressive, yes (also).
Conversely, anything short of a 5-0-0, 4-1-0 or 4-0-1 record in their next five contests, expect the Blue Jackets to make some trades at the deadline.
So, what needs would the Blue Jackets like to fulfill and what players might the Blue Jackets consider trading in order to meet their needs?
Assuming that their playoff prospects dwindle in the next week, expect the Blue Jackets needs to be in the form of draft picks or possibly draft positioning, particularly in the early rounds of the draft. They are content with their prospects and their prospect system and have several young players currently with the parent squad or on the verge of playing at the NHL level, very soon: forwards Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, defensemen Mike Reilly, Ryan Collins and Dillon Heatherington and goaltenders Oscar Dansk and Anton Forsberg although the majority of their NHL or near-NHL-level talent is at the forward position.
So, assuming that draft picks will be the intended goal as to a return, what players might be in the mix to be offered in a trade at the trade deadline?
Cam Atkinson – Atkinson may be the most attractive trading chip for the Blue Jackets as it’s been rumored that he is the player most frequently brought up during any trade discussion. Atkinson is a young (25), dynamic forward who has registered over 20 goals in his only full NHL season. While you’d think that holding onto a 20-goal scorer is a relative certainty, where it gets complicated is that Atkinson can be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of this season and his price tag will certainly climb, considerably. For a Stanley Cup-contending team in need of a top six forward with plenty of upside, Atkinson could be a solid piece to contend with.
Matt Calvert – Calvert, while not as attractive a commodity as Atkinson, could also reap some rewards with a Cup-contending team in need of Calvert’s high-energy and streaky goal-scoring proclivity, albeit on a 3rd scoring line situation. Injuries have always stifled Calvert’s career progress and his diminutive size and strength will make reaping a big return, unless he’s part of a larger package of players, a bit limiting. Like Atkinson, Calvert can also become an UFA at the end of the season.
Jordan Leopold – the Blue Jackets acquired Leopold at the beginning of the regular season as a result of a plethora of injuries ravaging their blueline. Leopold is a savvy, mobile defenseman who can log big minutes to a contending squad’s playoff push. The 34-year old Leopold is also an UFA-eligible player who once Ryan Murray can shake the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his early NHL career, doesn’t appear to be a player that is a part of the Blue Jackets future plans.
Artem Anisimov – Anisimov may appear, on the surface, to be a player that the Blue Jackets wouldn’t normally offer in a trade given his obvious physical gifts and upside; however, it’s his inconsistency and inability to capitalize upon his obvious physical gifts that could make him a possible trade candidate. The 26-year old forward isn’t an impending UFA but with a $3.3 million per season price tag, he provides a tempting trading chip to a team who is intrigued with his size and potential in playing in a top six forward line role.
Other players with lesser trade value who may be offered for later-round draft picks, unless if part of a multi-player package, include Mark Letestu, Jack Skille and Brian Gibbons, all of who are impending UFAs at season’s end.
Although this injury-plagued season has been frustrating, the Blue Jackets, the NHL’s 2nd youngest team, can use the upcoming NHL Trade Deadline as a vehicle to continue to build upon their rising future prospects for success.