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Jackets anticipate a wait-and-see approach to free agency

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

It was 368 days ago when the Blue Jackets landed one of the biggest fish in the NHL's free agent pond.

Nathan Horton left the Boston Bruins and signed a seven-year deal with Columbus shortly after the noon bell on July 5, 2013, and it turned heads around the league while raising the team's profile in the process. It was one of the biggest moves in franchise history, and though Horton has missed time due to injury since joining the Blue Jackets, he's made an on-ice impact even though he's yet to be a lineup regular.

When the 2014 free agent frenzy begins at noon ET today, the Blue Jackets are going to be taking a different approach.

They were looking for a legitimate scoring threat to play on their top two lines when they signed Horton, and last week, they added another top-six forward in Scott Hartnell (via trade with Philadelphia). With young players pushing and a dearth of roster spots to begin with, GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn't closing the door on an active Tuesday, but he's certainly not anticipating it.

"I will say what I always say - we'll look at all options to improve our team," Kekalainen told "But that being said, I don't think we're going to be one of those teams that's aggressively going after somebody this year. We feel that our team's in a pretty good place right now, and with the additions of Horton and Hartnell, we've addressed one of the needs we had up front."

The emergence of several young players in 2013-14, including Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner, David Savard and others, has made the Blue Jackets even more comfortable in sticking with their "brick by brick" approach. They've added some external bricks in the last two years, but their most significant area of growth has and will come from within.

With those burgeoning young players ready to take bigger steps and become confident in more prominent roles, the Blue Jackets don't want to block their path. Murray and Jenner were not considered locks by any means heading into last year's training camp, and both earned their way on to the team and enjoyed terrific rookie seasons.

Kekalainen isn't ready to predict that the same will happen again in September, but they want to be prepared if that's the case. Top prospects Alexander Wennberg and Kerby Rychel will also be starting their professional careers this fall, and there's no telling how soon they'll be ready to play in the NHL - but as the GM often says, the player will make that decision based on his performance.

"With some of the young guys coming up, we're going to make sure that they can develop and get a good opportunity if they're ready," Kekalainen said. "But if there's an opportunity that presents itself that's worth exploring, we'll take a look at it."

The Blue Jackets extended qualifying offers to several restricted free agents on Monday and plan to continue negotiating in order to reach new agreements. Atop the priority list (outside of Johansen, who would be No. 1), Kekalainen said that assistant GM Bill Zito is hard at work to get Tim Erixon, David Savard and Cody Goloubef signed in the near term.

"Yeah, that's fair to say (they're in contract talks)," Kekalainen said. "It's an ongoing process. Billy Zito takes care of it, and I'm confident that it will get done and hopefully soon. It just takes time, and we already got one done in Dalton Prout at the draft. Next we have Erixon, Savard, Goloubef, and after that, we're essentially done. The other is Ryan Johansen, and we're confident that'll get done, too."

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