The Columbus Blue Jackets are currently experiencing the best season in franchise history, without a doubt. Much of this success can be attributed to the discipline, organization, and fitness the coaching staff has brought with them. But another major reason why the Blue Jackets are doing so well is the depth in the current squad. With some contracts being a bit longer than most would like, and very little cap space to work with, the Jackets are going to have themselves a conundrum come this off-season. If they want to continue to be a deep squad, they are going to have to make some tough decisions along the way.
Columbus Blue Jackets Contract Conundrum
There’s lots of major talking points when it comes to the contracts currently in the squad, and those that are set to run out after this season. It’s safe to say that players like Alexander Wennberg and Sam Gagner are going to expect more then $925,000 and $650,000 per year respectively. But with their current cap space of $11.454 million, they’re going to have to be smart to continue to improve.
Looking at $11.454 million in cap space, you may think, “what’s the problem?” But take into account that the contracts of Gagner, Wennberg, Josh Anderson, Joonas Korpisalo, Markus Hannikainen, Scott Harrington, and Lukas Sedlak are all up after the season. However, the latter six names are all restricted free agents.
Hannikainen and Harrington are obviously the least of the worries in this group. Hannikainen shouldn’t get much of a bump in salary and Harrington will either stick right around where he is now, or possibly won’t even be re-signed. However, both of the two have looked promising in their short times in the NHL with Columbus, so you never know how highly the coaching staff thinks of them and whether or not they feel they’re worth the risk.
As for Wennberg, Anderson, and Sedlak, they’ll all be looking for a solid increase in their annual salaries. Wennberg has been touted by the coaching staff, and now much of the league, as a top-level playmaker and should therefore be priority number one in the off-season. As for Anderson and Sedlak, their respective contributions will surely see them improving on their salaries of roughly $680,000/year and $600,000/year respectively.
Wennberg should see a healthy increase in the off-season as well, especially since he is currently on pace in assists with the likes of Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin. It is, however, highly unlikely that Columbus will have the cap space to give him a comparable contract to the latter (Malkin makes a base salary of $9.5 million/year, Backstrom makes $6.7 million/year). Instead, Wennberg should see a contract similar to the former, or maybe even someone like Johnny Gaudreau, who makes $6.75 million/year, and a similar term to Gaudreau as well, who is on a six-year contract. A six-year, $35-40 million contract would be less than surprising for the Swedish centreman. This contract would put Wennberg anywhere between second to fourth in annual salary Columbus’ roster.
With Wennberg likely getting a major boost in yearly salary, this is going to leave the Blue Jackets with somewhere between $5.5-6 million left to work with to fill the roster. This means they have that small number there to re-sign Gagner, Anderson, Sedlak, Hannikainen, and Harrington, as well as obviously having to fill a spot left open by the impending expansion draft. This is quite the conundrum.
Columbus could attempt to find another steal, much like they did with Gagner, but this has hardly ever proven to work. They are far more likely to sign a player who won’t contribute than to continue to sign players producing at the level of Gagner with $650,000. Anderson and Sedlak are two players that should be in the “for sure” category to re-sign. If both bump up to around $1 million/year, this means that roughly another million will be taken off the number above as well, making the situation all the more worrisome.
What Can Be Done?
There are a few options the Jackets can take to make up for this issue, especially including the added issue of losing a player to the expansion draft. The most likely four candidates to be left unprotected that could be taken would have to be Boone Jenner, William Karlsson, Korpisalo, or possibly even Anderson, although unlikely. All four of these players play a pivotal role in the system currently in place in Columbus, but the best/most likely to go would be the former two, Jenner or Karlsson.
If the Blue Jackets lose Jenner or Karlsson, they could continue to draw on the youth from the Cleveland Monsters, much like they have with Sedlak, Anderson, and Markus Nutivaara throughout the 2016-17 season. This would be the most cost-effective way of avoiding this issue.
The likely candidates to replace them would be Sonny Milano or Oliver Bjorkstrand for Jenner, but neither of them have been able to prove they can consistently play at the NHL level. Milano produced one assist over five career games and Bjorkstrand produced a respectable, yet inconsistent, nine points in 17 games. This is a worrying statement. If Karlsson is the one taken, then you would likely see last year’s first round pick Pierre-Luc Dubois filling in that roster spot. There is no guarantee he would either be ready, or whether he would be able to produce at the NHL level either.
Those options above are far less worrying, than if Las Vegas decides they want to take a young goalie who projects to be a starter in the near future. Korpisalo fits that definition to a tee. If Vegas takes Korpisalo, this would leave Columbus with the choice of promoting Anton Forsberg to full-time backup, or to venture into free agency. And with Forsberg continually being unable to make the jump from the NHL to the AHL, this should be a major cause for concern moving towards the off-season. This is where that smaller cap space is starting to come into play.
Trade Someone – The Tough Decision
The only other viable option for the Jackets would be to find a way to deal either Scott Hartnell or someone like Brandon Dubinsky. Despite this being a rather unlikely circumstance, it is still an option that needs to be entertained to ensure the depth of the squad doesn’t take a major hit going into 2017-18.
Dubinsky and Hartnell currently carry the third- and sixth-biggest cap hits on the Columbus roster, with cap hits of $5.85 million and $4.75 million respectively. The problem here is that both of them have a no movement clause on their contracts, meaning they would have to agree to waive this to be traded.
This option, though it may be the most unpopular and unlikely, would be the most business-savvy option for the Jackets moving into the off-season. Not only would it ensure a massive opening in cap space, but it would also guarantee the ability to sign a younger player at either position that might be able to produce at a similar level.
With the first option of drawing on their AHL affiliate being the most likely, Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets organization have a busy year ahead of them. One thing is for sure, there is nothing short of a contract conundrum in the near future of the Blue Jackets.