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Roster Reset: Taking a look at the Blue Jackets heading into free agency

Up to seven players may sign elsewhere, as Jackets prepare to replace them.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The Stanley Cup's been awarded, the NHL Awards are handed out, the 2018 NHL Draft is history and the Blue Jackets' development camp wrapped up Thursday at the OhioHealth Ice Haus.

What's left this offseason?

Oh, just the first day of free agency, when many teams get the bulk of their rosters figured out. Beginning at Noon ET Sunday, a stream of free-agent signings will be made official and rosters across the NHL will get overhauled. There's also the possibility of trades happening - big, small or somewhere in between.

Heading into it, the Blue Jackets have cap space and options galore, but don't expect to see them in the running for the biggest fish on the open market, as general manager Jarmo Kekalainen explained to BlueJackets.com on Saturday:

"We signed one free agent in Nathan Horton, basically, as one of those big names in July [2013]," Kekalainen said. "That's the only big signing we've done in my five years here and it didn't turn out too well. Not that it means we're never going to do it again, but we're a draft-and-develop team and when we see the right fit and the right term at the right time, then we might take that approach. Other than that, we're usually fairly careful and cautious of overpaying or giving too much term - unless we feel that it's the right fit, long-term, for our club."

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With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Blue Jackets sit going into free agency:

First off, the roster …

According to CapFriendly.com, the Blue Jackets have 20 roster players under contract for next season: 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.

This includes rookie defenseman Dean Kukan, forwards Eric Robinson and Alex Broadhurst, and forward Markus Hannikainen - all who will compete for an NHL spots in training camp.

Those 20 players account for $62.3 million in salary for next season, which leaves $17.2 million in cap space when applied to the new NHL Salary Cap ceiling of $79.5 million for 2018-19.

Kekalainen and Co. can't just burn through that cushion while chasing unrestricted free agents (UFAs), though.

The Blue Jackets still need to reach agreements on contract extensions with three restricted free agents (RFAs) this offseason - defenseman Ryan Murray and forwards Boone Jenner and Oliver Bjorkstrand - and could have up to eight more RFAs who need new contracts prior to 2019-20, including star defenseman Zach Werenski, forward Sonny Milano and goalie Joonas Korpisalo.

Then there are left wing Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who could each become UFAs on July 1, 2019 if they don't agree to contract extensions before that date.

Bobrovsky's cap hit, according to Capfriendly, is $7.425 million and Panarin's is $6 million. Each will likely ask for significant pay increases, and news came out before the draft that Panarin isn't ready to negotiate. These are the moving parts that Kekalainen and the rest of the Blue Jacket's hockey-operations department are facing.

"You have to project what Zach Werenski's going to make, and if Panarin or Bobrovsky want to stay, and what they're going to make," Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com. "We have one year, two year, five year, seven-year plans for where our salaries are going, what the structure's going to be like and how we have to plan. That's why we don't want to overpay and that's why the longer term is dangerous sometimes, unless it's the right guy, right fit, for the long term."

… now, about those UFAs?

The Blue Jackets have seven pending UFAs, who officially become free agents at Noon: forwards Matt Calvert, Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu; defensemen Jack Johnson, Ian Cole and Taylor Chorney and goalie Jeff Zatkoff.

Kekalainen replaced Zatkoff as the No. 3 goalie on the organizational depth chart earlier this week by trading forward Jordan Schroeder to the Chicago Blackhawks, straight up, for goalie Jean Francois Berube. The other vacancies, should all six skaters find new NHL homes Sunday, could create multiple spots up for grabs among a stable of prospects all pushing to play their first NHL seasons.

"You have to have that luxury to let guys go into the UFA [market]," Kekalainen said. "A few years back, we probably didn't have that luxury. We had to think that if we were going to lose that guy to [free-agency], then it would leave a huge, huge, hole and we don't have anybody from within that can fill that hole."

Kekalainen feels like he has that luxury now.

"The optimal situation to get into is you always have guys coming, so if it's not the right type of contract, right type of term and how it fits into your salary cap and plans into the future - the short-term, long-term plan - then you'll have to let the guy go [in free agency] and he's part of the market, and you fill his spot from within," Kekalainen said. "If you don't have those guys, then it leaves a huge hole. So, that's why sometimes you have to overpay with your own free agents, because if you let them go in the open market, then you have a huge hole in your lineup."

Looking ahead to training camp, the hole-pluggers this season may come from a talent pool that includes Robinson, Broadhurst, Kukan, Scott Harrington, Swedish forward Jonathan Davidsson and Russian forward Vitaly Abramov.

Among the UFAs, it sounds like the Blue Jackets are most interested in retaining defenseman Ian Cole - one of three veterans acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline. John Davidson, the Blue Jackets' president of hockey operations, said in June that Cole would be welcome to stay - but only with a contract that makes sense for Columbus.

"We'd love to retain Ian," Davidson said. "He's a good man, but it's got to fit. Now, it's up to Ian. Does Ian want to come back here and sign on the dotted line and be happy or does he want to take a look at the July 1 marketplace and see what's out there, and maybe get a longer term, maybe more money … but maybe not as good a place to play? He's got to weigh all that stuff."

Kekalainen had similar thoughts Saturday, the day before free agency.

"He was a good player, good guy for us and everything was good about him," Kekalainen said of Cole, who meshed quickly with defense partner David Savard and helped the Blue Jackets qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "We wanted to keep him, but it takes two side to keep a guy to a contract, and if we can't, then he's going to move on and go somewhere else. No hard feelings. That's the business we're in. Sometimes guys want to go somewhere else and there's nothing we can do about it. It's not always just about money."

That goes for all UFAs, not just Cole or the others, who could wind up wearing new uniforms.

"We've made it known that we'd like to keep [Cole] and same thing with all the pending UFAs, and the Panarins and Bobrovskys, and even Matt Calvert," Kekalainen said. "I would've loved to have kept Matt Calvert, but if he moves on, then he moves on. There's nothing we can do about it."

As of Sunday morning, there were reports Johnson had a five-year, $16.25 million deal in place to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was also reported by The Athletic that Vanek was considering a return to the Detroit Red Wings. Cole's name has been connected to the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, among others, while Calvert is said to be drawing interest from the Colorado Avalanche.

And now for the moving parts known as 'Bread' and 'Bob' …

Prior to the draft in Dallas, Kekalainen said there's been dialogue on a new contract between the Blue Jackets and Bobrovsky's representative. That's better than the situation with Panarin, whose current unwillingness to negotiate presents the Jackets with a tricky situation.

If they decide to trade the star left wing now, it might be difficult to get the kind of return - a high-caliber NHL player - that would make sense for the Blue Jackets to complete the trade, unless Panarin is willing to negotiate a new contract with whichever team is the trading partner.

The Blue Jackets could also hang onto Panarin for the last season of his current deal, with the option of moving him around the NHL Trade Deadline, but as Kekalainen noted in Dallas, those return packages are usually centered upon "futures" - which are draft picks or prospects rather than proven NHL talent.

Also, the mind-set in Columbus now is to reach the playoffs every season. Should the Blue Jackets be in position at the trade deadline to make another postseason push, it wouldn't make sense to trade their leading scorer for "futures" - no matter how enticing those might be.

If they hang onto Panarin through next season, the Jackets could still deal him prior to July 1, 2019, when he'd become UFA, but that could drive the return price in picks or prospects down. The Blue Jackets will not be compensated if Panarin or Bobrovsky leave free agents next summer.

"There's always uncertainty when you get into a situation where players become UFAs, and the better the player, the more uncertainty there is," Kekalainen said. "And then you're going to have to make decisions with the guys you want to sign long-term and keep long-term. If they say they don't want to stay, then you have to figure things out. It's pretty simple. There's nothing you can do. Sometimes, there's nothing you can do, no matter what you do. If they want to leave they're going to leave. We're going to try our best and that's all we can do."

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