The 2013 National Hockey League is over. Between the regular season and the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks came as close to running the table as you get in professional sports. So good for them.
And the rest of the hockey world can now get on with the task at hand – winning the Stanley Cup for themselves! Columbus is no different in that respect.
Constrained by the lockout, the NHL started the season late, ended it late and wound up running the Stanley Cup playoffs later as well. Yet the oddly-scheduled 2013 season is over, and the 2013-14 season officially gets underway with the NHL Entry Draft, which happens to be on Sunday. (More details about the Blue Jackets’ draft party at Nationwide Arena here.) That’s right, five whole days between the end of last season and the opening of the new season.
But I’ll suggest that the draft, while important, isn’t the most important thing happening this week. Not by a long shot.
You know how Google has that “Innovation Time Off” component to their employment arrangements? The one where employees are given one day a week to work on blue sky projects, things that are totally new and different from the employees’ day-to-day work but may have the potential to create tremendous new possibilities for Google? It’s pretty cool, and I understand that this program has accounted for a healthy amount of the Google content and services that we know and love.
I look at the NHL draft in the same way. The draft is important, no question. Yet a franchise who obsesses over the draft isn’t one that is serious about winning next season. The reason: With precious few exceptions over recent history, no drafted rookie has entered the league and made a meaningful difference in their new team’s fortunes right out of the gate. It takes a few years for these kids to get seasoned (see: Johansen, Ryan) lest they flame out and find themselves being dangled as trade bait (see: Mason, Steve).
Nope, the draft is about three to five years down the road. Is it important to draft well? Sure is, for you’re building your talent pipeline with every pick. If you want your team to be competitive after that three to five year window, you need to be drafting like champs. (Which may explain why CBJ president John Davidson hired his old draft guru in St. Louis, Jarmo Kekalainen, as the team’s general manager. Kekalainen is well-known for being a bit of a draft shark, and the Blue Jackets haven’t had much luck with the draft.)
There’s one more catch that further reinforces the point that the draft isn’t the penultimate issue right now. The Blue Jackets had a pretty good season, missing the playoffs by a single standings point. Their trading partners from past years – the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, who both sent Columbus their 2013 first round draft picks – finished even better. This means that Columbus’ three first-round picks are the 14th, 19th and 27th overall picks. Remember that “With precious few exceptions…” statement I made a couple of paragraphs up? The likelihood of a game changer dropping to 14th, let alone the later picks, is really, really small.
The near-certainty that the CBJ’s draftees will go back to college or the professional minor leagues means that the work of selecting the best prospects then is more about selecting the best candidates for continuing professional development. If that’s the case, the development system itself demands as much attention as the players themselves. I’m feeling more and more confident with the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts, as coach Brad Larsen appears to be running in lockstep with the big club in terms of style of play, strategy, etc. The easy insertion of Springfield Falcons alumni into the Blue Jackets roster over the course of the season – the highlight, of course, being super-rookie defenseman Dalton Prout – is an indication that something right is happening down on the farm. (The Blue Jackets also have an ECHL affiliate in Evansville, Indiana, but they share the affiliate with the St. Louis Blues. As such, I don’t expect the Icemen to teach out of the CBJ primer.)
Am I saying that Blue Jackets management should gloss over the draft? Not in the least. I am suggesting, however, that the draft isn’t the most important thing on their plates – not if they want to make a run in 2013-14.
So if the draft won’t get the Blue Jackets to the promised land next season, what will? Where should the CBJ management be focussing 80 percent of their efforts? My view: It’s all about the veterans.
By “veterans,” I mean NHL-ready players…guys who can step in and contribute immediately. Veterans come in three forms right now: 1) Free agency, 2) Trades and 3) Re-signing your own.
Remember, the Blue Jackets were 25th in the league in goals for. They were 10th in goals against, but much of that defensive success should be attributed to the team’s Vezina Trophy winning goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky currently is being wooed by the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, and his NHL contract has expired. If Bob leaves Columbus, can fans expect to see the same defensive performance?
Let’s look at the three options.
FREE AGENCY: The NHL free agent signing period opens on July 5, 2013. Mark your calendars!
CapGeek offers a nifty Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) finder, and a serious look through the available players offers visual proof to the claims we’ve been hearing that this is one of the leanest free agency crops in years. Of the top 20 players listed (sorted by points accumulated in 2013), a whopping 6 are under the age of 30. If you’re looking for a new spectator sport, maybe you should start a pool to predict how much Toronto’s Tyler Bozak (age 27, and the only player in the top ten UFA’s under 30) is going to make next season. Seriously, the UFA pool screams “short term fix” this time around, not “pillars of the franchise”.
That said, Jaromir Jagr is a UFA, and I have a hockey mancrush on Jagr. In my opinion, Jarmo Kekalainen could do much worse than throw the checkbook at Jagr for a season or two as the CBJ’s young players develop further – especially if they do not bring Vinny Prospal back.
While the UFA’s as a group don’t impress, CapGeek also shares the Restricted Free Agents (RFA’s). CapGeek’s RFA list, however, lacks the ability to sort and analyze…but it’s hard to avoid being impressed with what one sees. Another problem is that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement continues the practice of awarding compensation to the team that loses the player in question from the team that signs the player (presuming that the original team doesn’t match the offer sheet). The compensation rules are tied to the size of the annualized value of the offer sheets:
* $1,110,249 or below/None
* Over $1,110,249 to $1,682,194/Third Round
* Over $1,682,194 to $3,364,391/Second Round
* Over $3,364,391 to $5,046,585/First Round and Third Round
* Over $5,046,585 to $6,728,781/First Round, Second Round, and Third Round
* Over $6,728,781 to $8,410,976/Two First Rounds, Second Round, and Third Round
* Over $8,410,976/Four First Rounds
It’s a double-edged sword for Columbus. On the bright side, a $5-plus million annual contract offer sheet for Columbus’ own RFA, Sergei Bobrovsky, will not only be awful expensive in a $64.3 million salary cap league…but it will also cost the predatory team at least a first, second and third round pick. Is that enough to deter a goalie-desperate team? Probably not. Will it deter the marginal candidates? I would think so. Of course, the compensation structure also makes it hard for Columbus to dip into this tasty talent pool – the team’s prospect base needs the injection of as many draft picks as possible. (Yet there are some tempting targets…)
I tell you all that to say this: I don’t expect much from free agency. Maybe a hole plugger here or there. A best case scenario probably would be a respected, somewhat productive veteran coming in on a short-term deal to play a role that emphasizes personal leadership over on-ice productivity as they wind down their playing days.
TRADES: Welcome to the world of endless speculation, one that has spawned an entire online subculture. I’m not savvy enough to predict the Blue Jackets’ trading targets – I never would have thought that the CBJ would target Marian Gaborik, for example, never mind wresting him free from the New York Rangers – so I’m not going to speculate on who the team would trade for (nor whom they would trade away).
At the same time, the unpredictable nature of trades makes this avenue the most likely to bring dramatic change to the CBJ’s 2013 roster. Looking for a scorer to help the CBJ improve on their 25th ranked scoring performance? Think trade.
Trades of note are already happening in other corners of the league. Perhaps the highest visibility trade was the one where Toronto acquired goalie Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings. (And there goes a potential Bobrovsky replacement. More on that later.)
One last thought: Do not be surprised to see the CBJ move draft picks for NHL-caliber players. Three first rounders is a luxury, and they afford Kekalainen all sorts of flexibility in refurbishing his roster.
RE-SIGNING YOUR OWN: This is where I want the CBJ to be spending most of their time pre-free agency period. The Blue Jackets have been reasonably active on this front, re-signing forwards Mark Letestu, Cam Atkinson and Artem Anisimov before they could reach free agency. They’re taking a wait-and-see posture with other free agents like Vinny Prospal, Colton Gillies and Adrian Aucoin. And then there’s Bobrovsky.
In my opinion, the majority of Kekalainen’s attention needs to be spent on Sergei Bobrovsky. I appreciate that he get the other contracts out of the way early, allowing him to focus on bringing the man who arguably carried the team almost to the playoffs back for the long haul. They’re done, and it’s time to bear down and get the Bobrovsky deal done.
I’m a pragmatic Bobrovsky fan. I know that he only played one truncated season in Columbus. I also know that he wasn’t all that good for the first third of that truncated season. Yet I know that he was lights-out for the balance of the season, which was good enough to be anointed as the NHL’s best goaltender of 2013.
Does 35 good-to-great games warrant opening up the checkbook wide for Bob? I’d say “No” in most cases, but this is the NHL. It’s a league with 30 teams but lacking 30 good goaltenders. Combine that with the fact that the goalie UFA list won’t drop any jaws (never mind that trades like the Bernier-to-Toronto deal drained the talent pool that much more), and you see that the CBJ are in a corner on this one. They need to resign Sergei Bobrovsky if they want to maintain the progress that they made last season.
So there you have it, the 80/20 world of the Columbus Blue Jackets. 80 percent of the team management’s time on building the team that will hopefully propel Columbus to the playoffs, and 20 percent on drafting the players that will keep us there.
It starts with Sergei Bobrovsky. Take as much time as it requires, Jarmo, as you can’t spend that time more productively elsewhere.