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2012 NHL Free Agency: More Vinning, Please

By Tom

NHL free agency is right around the corner (July 1, to be precise), and the futures-centric NHL draft is finally past us.  I’ve long been of a mind that for all the hype, the draft really isn’t as much about this season coming up as it is about building out a farm system that will yield NHL-caliber players over, say, the next few seasons.

Free agency is a totally different animal.  With free agency, not only are you considering the immediate needs of a team entering the 2012-13 season, you’re probably looking at players who have a better-than-average shot at being a meaningful contributor.  Case in point, take a look at this NHL.com list of the top dozen free agents on the market.  Zach Parise?  Ryan Suter?  Shane Doan?  These are the types of players who, each in their own way, can actually impact a team by their presence.

The Blue Jackets have 20 players under contract with just over $18 million in cap room remaining (at least against the soon-expiring NHL-NHL Players Association Collective Bargaining Agreement).  When you consider that the NHL roster size is 23 players, the Blue Jackets have some room to try to swing a hefty deal – and that doesn’t even count the $7.8 million in cap space recouped when (if?) Rick Nash is traded out of town.

Problem is, there are 29 other teams who have eyes on these prize catches as well.  As of three weeks ago, 19 teams had more salary cap space than Columbus, meaning that – in theory – those clubs have more flexibility with money than Columbus.  16 of those 29 teams also made the playoffs last year, making them perhaps more alluring (and competitive) choices to play out the primes of their careers than the host of this season’s All-Star Game.  Point being, free agency is going to be the ultimate dogfight for top talent.

That’s not to say that, if it makes sense against the CBJ master plan, that I wouldn’t throw all sorts of money at the likes of a Parise. (Disclaimer: I have had a hockey man-crush on Parise since the Vanouver Olympics, one only slightly diminished by his poor performance in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals.)  I also won’t be crestfallen if Parise goes to the Detroits, New Yorks, Pittsburghs or Minnesotas of the league…or even back to New Jersey.  The odds just are not in the Blue Jackets’ favor right now.

So where to go if you don’t nab the big prizes?  My suggestion: Sign skilled, experienced players nearing the end of their playing careers.

This approach is nothing new for me; actually, it’s something I’ve been pushing since January.  Distilled down, here’s my preferred philosophy for the 2012-13 Columbus Blue Jackets roster design:

Extricate the core, protect the kids and backfill with tough veterans who know how to win and can teach the youngsters how to play winning hockey on a day-in, day-out basis.

The Columbus Blue Jackets should look to Vinny Prospal for their free agency roadmap

By “extricate the core,” I’m suggesting that the team move as many of the players who have hung around through four head coaches in two years. By my count, we’re down to eight of those players – Boll, Brassard, Dorsett, Mason, Methot, Nash, Tyutin and Umberger. It’s a pie-in-the-sky proposal, I know, but it emphasizes my point that there is a core group of players who has been party to altogether way too much losing. And if you’re going to change a culture, it’s a lot easier if you do not have the guardians of the old culture running the locker room.  If the Blue Jackets management is savvy enough to identify the specific players who drove the team to their current state, then maybe this suggestion doesn’t need to be so drastic.

When I say “protect the kids,” I mean draft wisely, get good prospects in the system and bring them along at a rational pace. Don’t rush them and risk destroying their long-term potential.

And then the subject of today’s piece, “backfill with tough veterans”. The wise selection of free agent veterans will:

* Allow coach Todd Richards and his staff a group of professionals upon which to lean as they try to bring the Blue Jackets out of the NHL cellar.
* Provide the team with mentors and educators for the Ryan Johansens and Ryan Murrays of the Blue Jackets’ system.
* Offer the locker room a buffer against any attitudinal backslide toward a losing culture.

I’m not suggesting going out and drastically overpaying veterans to come to Columbus.  I’m suggesting getting…more Vinny Prospals.

By most accounts, the emergence of Vinny Prospal as a positive force on the team – both in the locker room and on the ice – was one of the brightest stories of the 2011-12 season.  He spoke truth to power about the team’s curious practice habits.  He took younger players under his wing.  He played hard for all 82 games (yes, he played in all 82 games) and wound up as the team’s second-leading scorer.

The talented CBJ kids need mentors like Vinny Prospal.

All this at age 37.  And the Blue Jackets only had to pay $1.75 million for Prospal’s services last season.

Vinny now has a $2.5 million contract and some handshake commitment to keep getting that as long as he wants to play hockey (followed up by a commitment to find a place for him in the CBJ management structure), but think about it:  Maturity, experience, skill and genuine on-ice results resulting in a 55-point season for only $2.5 million?

So please excuse me when I see the likes of former Blue Jacket Ray Whitney, with all 40 years and 77 points in 2011-12 under his belt, on that NHL.com list and think to myself, “Now that would be an excellent signing.”  Same for 40-year-old Jaromir Jagr and his 54-point season or 36-year-old Ryan Smyth and his 46 points.  These guys don’t need 10-year contracts.  They need a place to hang their helmets for two or three more seasons.  Columbus already has a reputation as being a great town for NHLers with families who want to settle down, so why not play to that?

So please…go ahead and lust for the megastars and their huge salaries.  You can have them.  I’ll gladly take more Vinny Prospals.

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