Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager stated that improving his blueline was tantamount, given his glut of forwards and, in particular, at the center position during the off-season – trades and via the Free Agency route.
Kekalainen did make an impact trade prior to the start of the Unrestricted Free Agency (UFA) signing period; however, it wasn’t for a defenseman. Rather, Kekalainen, once again, proved his aggressive yet calculated prowess in acquiring Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad along with defenseman prospect Michael Paliotta and center Alex Broadhurst from the Blackhawks in exchange for Blue Jackets center Artem Anisimov, right wings Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp and a 4th Round pick in the 2016 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft.
From the Blackhawks side of things, while they were forced to make some trades of some of their cogs from their 3rd Stanley Cup title in the past six seasons, Saad was not believed to be one of the players that would be considered to be traded to pare the Blackhawks impending salary cap quandary.
However, as Saad, given his solid performance on the Blackhawks top forward line during the regular season and particularly after his stellar Stanley Cup playoffs performance was due for a substantial raise in his salary, the gap between what he was seeking and what the Blackhawks were willing to offer was apparently too wide.
In making this trade, the Blue Jackets made a major statement that their previous ‘brick by brick’ philosophy as espoused by Team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson is coming much closer to a completed structure – in this case, a Stanley Cup contending squad.
Saad is considered a legitimate power forward on the ascent after scoring 23 goals and registering 52 points during the regular season and 8 goals and 3 assists during the Blackhawks most recent Stanley Cup title conquest. During his 208 game NHL career, Saad has scored 52 goals and has 74 assists and has garnered a +44 +/- rating during that span.
Saad possesses excellent offensive instincts and is a natural scorer with solid skating ability and good NHL size as well as being a consistent scorer. While there are some improvements along the way that are needed – to be more selfish with the puck, on the two-way game and utilizing his sturdy 6’1”, 202-pound frame, it is the consensus of scouts that Saad is regarded as a very talented winger with sufficient upside.
In acquiring the 1st (forward) line Saad, who was previously on the left side of Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and Marion Hossa, while not quite to the level of their previous elite 1st line, with emerging star Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno, both of which are coming off of their career best year, the Blue Jackets now boast a young 1st line – with an average age of 23 years – that can compete with any in the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference.
This trade also solidifies their top six forward lines, slotting Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner on the 2nd forward unit. Add to that their remaining two forward lines, and the Blue Jackets now possess forward lines that can score, defend and offer such in-your-face tenacity that few teams will care to face them on a regular basis, particularly in the less-physical, more puck-possessing Eastern Conference.
As for the players given up in the trade, Anisimov was long-rumored to be ‘trade bait – while very talented, his at-times inconsistent play frustrated coaches with both of the NHL teams he’s played for (Blue Jackets and previously the New York Rangers). Dano may be the player who the Blue Jackets will miss the most as he exhibited in his inaugural first season in the NHL (35 games) a penchant for both scoring a versatility in many situations. Tropp and Morin were considered 4th line players who were ‘in and out’ of the Blue Jackets starting roster for most of the season.
So, while Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets continue to pursue opportunities to bolster their defensive corps, they have sent a very strong signal that, if they can stay healthy this season as opposed to this disastrous past season, they will be a major force in competing for the Metropolitan Division title as well as for the quest for winning the Stanley Cup.