The Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the ‘feel good’ stories of this lockout-shortened National Hockey League (NHL) will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch at this Sunday’s NHL Entry Draft. As a result of trading former ‘face of the franchise’ player, Rick Nash to the New York Rangers as well as trading the disgruntled Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings, along with a solid return given the circumstances, the Blue Jackets are armed with three (3) 1st Round draft picks, the 14th, 19th and 27th overall picks, respectively. And given that it’s widely held by most personnel and scouting types as the best NHL Entry Draft since the landmark 2003 NHL Entry Draft, you would think that the Blue Jackets will reap a sizeable bounty by selecting all three draft picks.
And that’s where I think you would be wrong.
These Blue Jackets are no longer the reckless, ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ days of their inception nor are they the risk-averse management group who seemed content with the ‘slow and grow’ philosophy which ended up alienating the fans to the extent of a long-overdue change at the top, led by President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson as well as his new General Manager (GM), the highly-regarded Jarmo Kekalainen a man whose legacy for identifying, drafting and developing prospects is the stuff of legend.
However, Kekalainen has made no secret that nothing is ‘off-limits’ or ‘off the table’ – in fact, it has been reported by ESPN’s Craig Custance that, if the right deal is out there, that possibly all three draft picks are ‘in play’ for immediate and long-term talent. Remember, this is the same executive who rocked the NHL’s trade deadline by trading three young starting players – Derrick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore – for elite sniper Marian Gaborik, so bold moves are in his DNA.
No matter the approach Kekalainen takes, one thing is for certain: he has to improve the talent level of the organization, particularly as it relates to his forward lines ability to generate scoring.
The Blue Jackets finished 25th in overall scoring during this strike-shortened season, which nearly mirrors their previous season rankings of 26th during the 2011-2012 season and 24th during the 2010-2011 season – and those two seasons were with Rick Nash.
While the Blue Jackets have added an element of grit and an overall improved work ethic, the fact remains that its scoring proclivity doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of its opponents. In short, we’re not exactly talking about the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers.
With indications that the Blue Jackets aren’t intending to renew a contract with Vaclav Prospal, who led the Blue Jackets in scoring but will be 39 years old in February, what remains is, besides Gaborik, a glaring lack of primary and secondary scoring.
What can be expected to occur on Sunday, June 30th at the NHL Entry Draft for the Blue Jackets? I believe the following scenarios can occur, ranked from the greatest to least probability:
- The Blue Jackets trade both the 14th and 19th pick for one of the top 10 projected prospects in the draft. However, this scenario has one possible snag: the Calgary Flames, who also have three available picks in the 1st round of the draft – 6th, 22nd and 28th, respectively. This could also, however, serve as a possible trading partner in allowing the Flames to have as many as four draft picks in the first round should the Blue Jackets opt to trade those two picks to move up to the 6th overall pick.
- The Blue Jackets ‘roll the dice’ and trade one of their established defensemen, along with one of their first round draft picks, to the Carolina Hurricanes in order to nab the 5th overall pick in the draft. Hurricanes’ GM Jim Rutherford has made no secrets as to the availability of the 5th overall pick for immediate blueline help. Some candidates could be Fedor Tyutin or Jack Johnson, although the former would be in greater demand to a team like the Hurricanes, who desperately need a defenseman who is more defensively-responsible. A similar possibility could be to partner a trade with the Edmonton Oilers, another team in dire need of defensemen and the Oilers possess the 7th overall pick in the draft. Possible draft targets could be forwards Valeri Nichushkin or Sasha Barkov, the latter of which Kekalainen watched in the Finnish Elite League where Kekalainen served as GM for Jokerit, a rival team in the league.
- The Blue Jackets trade one or two, possibly all three of their 1st round draft picks for that immediate and long-term forward lines help. Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, who have a plethora of young forwards, or the Ottawa Senators, who possess a slew of young forwards in their stable, and Senators GM Bryan Murray has made it no secret that he’s interested in obtaining more prospect depth for their organization. Or, do the Blue Jackets ‘go back to the well’ one more time with the New York Rangers, to have an opportunity to claim a forward like Chris Kreider or J.T. Miller.
- The Blue Jackets, with a lack of reasonable offers from other organizations, opt to keep all three draft picks. While this seems like a remote possibility and you obviously draft based on the best players available and not for the most pressing need, it would stand to reason that the Blue Jackets would lean towards making all three of those possible picks forwards which, if that scenario holds out, project to be the likes of Hunter Shinkaruk, Anthony Mantha and Valentin Zykov. One major problem with this scenario is that these prospects won’t be immediate contributors to the Blue Jackets as both Kekalainen and Davidson sent elite defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, back to Juniors, twice in order to obtain more seasoning.
No matter the approach, Kekalainen, no stranger to making moves that makes a statement, will definitely be one executive to keep an eye on during the NHL Entry Draft. As Kekalainen told The Columbus Dispatch, “Every draft is different, not just the players available but the conversations between the clubs. We’re going to be active and aggressive.”
So, it’s safe to say that, for the Blue Jackets long-suffering fans, their draft day party won’t be boring.