Written by Anthony Murphy and can be followed on twitter at @AMurphyTRT
The Columbus Blue Jackets came out of nowhere last season and gave the Western Conference a run for their money before just missing the playoffs. General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen aligned his team perfectly, adding sniper Marian Gaborik, all the while keeping the three first round picks they had in a talent rich 2013 Draft.
In the offseason, Kekalainen added a new face for their franchise, former Boston Bruins’ winger and Stanley Cup champion – Nathan Horton. The Blue Jackets signed the 28-year old forward to a 7-year, $37.1 million contract, the max amount of years a team can offer an unrestricted free agent that wasn’t on your team the year before.
Horton was supposed to lead Columbus into the Eastern Conference, a setting he was familiar with playing for the Bruins, and the Florida Panthers before but offseason shoulder surgery kept him out until just recently.
Even though Horton may be the face of the franchise, no player will more of a factor in what Columbus decides to do at the deadline than Gaborik, who is one of seven pending unrestricted free agents of note.
Gaborik, known as one of the league’s most dynamic players, but also owns one of the league’s longest medical sheets. He was acquired for Derrick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, and John Moore and could fetch just as good a return if he shows that he is 100% when play resumes.
Early reports show that Gaborik is hoping, and should be available when Columbus re-opens up play on Thursday. If Gaborik is healthy, the Blue Jackets have the most talented pending free agent at their trading disposal.
Either way it looks like a win-win for the Blue Jackets, trade him and get good return – or keep him and have one of the top players in the league on your team.
Currently Columbus sits in a tie for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division with the Washington Capitals, and are three points out of the final wild card spot – sitting in a three way tie with Washington and the Ottawa Senators on the outside looking in.
While reaching the playoffs is certainly in reach and a goal in their first year of Eastern Conference play, if Kekalainen and President John Davidson decide that they want to reload for the future, and build assets to combine with their current strong core – they won’t have any shortage of options.
Blake Comeau was another trade deadline acquisition last year, and as a free agent again this season – if he returns from injury soon enough – he could be moved this year. Olympian Nikita Nikitin could be a nice addition to a contending team’s blueline.
These are moves that aren’t likely to happen, but if the Blue Jackets decide that they want to stay with the ‘look ahead’ approach, these are players that are must moves.
It’s hard to believe that a team returning so much of the same team even contemplates being sellers at the deadline but with Horton and the emergence of former fourth overall pick Ryan Johansen – these are losses that are endurable.
If there is one thing that the Blue Jackets are –more so without Gaborik – is a true top-line goal scorer. Columbus isn’t looking for rentals, which is wise considering that even with one, a playoff spot isn’t guaranteed.
The Blue Jackets have built a solid farm system through trades and drafting, so with the ammunition should they make a big splash for a rental?
‘Were not doing rentals because the price is too high it’s not worth doing. We like our team, and we have to figure out what we’re doing with Gaby.’
One name that has come up is Ryan Callahan, not as a rental, but as a long-term signing. It appears that Callahan and the Rangers will not come up with a contract extension meaning that they will look to trade their captain.
The Blue Jackets and Rangers are no strangers to making trades, as they made the Gaborik deal, as well as the Rick Nash deal the year before.
If Columbus acquires Callahan, it would leave their only other need is an upgrade at the goalie position. Reigning Vezina Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t going anywhere, but the Blue Jackets need to at least look at upgrading their backup position currently manned by Curtis McEhlinney.
With a 2.80 GAA, and a .908 save percentage McEhlinney hasn’t been terrible, but the Blue Jackets play five back-to-backs down the stretch and among the team’s that they will play in those situations are the: Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Canadiens, Rangers, Penguins, Flyers and Lightning.
All teams are in the playoff picture and the Blue Jackets will need to earn every point possible. There will be a total of 20-points up for grabs during their back-to-backs alone – making those situations absolutely crucial.
Tim Thomas (all though Florida is hesitant to move him) or Justin Peters present potential upgrades coming from teams that will likely be looking to dump some players. If they find themselves not wanting to make a move inside the conference, they could try and entice the Winnipeg Jets to deal Al Montoya, the backup to Ondrej Pavelec.
The Blue Jackets are in a great position. With how the East is, they don’t have to make a move and could still threaten come playoff time.
But without still without a playoff win in their franchise’s history, the pressure is certainly there – they have the ammo to make a move, both for a rental (even if that’s not an option for them) or adding a long term piece like Callahan or even a Thomas Vanek or Matt Moulson.