It's not a rebuild for the Blue Jackets, it's a reload.
That's the message from Jarmo Kekalainen, as the general manager said after the passing of the trade deadline on Monday that he thinks his team is in good position to bounce back quickly after what has been a frustrating and disappointing 2021 campaign.
"We wouldn't call it a step back," Kekalainen said of this season, which appears likely to snap the franchise's four-year round-of-16 playoff streak matched by only two other teams in the NHL. "Obviously we've had a disappointing season, but with these moves, I think we can do the reload. We can decide the pace of it with the moves we make in the offseason, and we'll be better for it."
So what exactly does that mean? It's really all about asset management. Columbus traded three players at the deadline who were unrestricted free agents-to-be, a common practice for teams facing long playoff odds who choose to trade players who are out of contract at the end of the season for future considerations.
Captain Nick Foligno, rugged defenseman David Savard and veteran forward Riley Nash all fell under that umbrella, and even with 22 years of experience between them that have made them fan favorites in their time in Columbus, it appeared at least Savard and Nash were nearing the end of their tenures in Columbus (all, of course, could re-sign in free agency this summer, something Foligno already has admitted could be a possibility).
In exchange for those players, Toronto (which acquired Foligno and Nash) and Tampa Bay (which added Savard) sent back five draft picks to the Blue Jackets, two of which are first-rounders in the 2021 draft. That gives Columbus three first-round picks in this summer's upcoming draft and nine selections overall.
The Blue Jackets could go either way with those picks -- use them after the two previous drafts have included just eight overall selections, or even perhaps trade some of them in an effort to bring in talent right away to help next year's team.
It is already slated to be an interesting summer in Columbus. Mikhail Grigorenko, Stefan Matteau, Zac Dalpe, Ryan MacInnis, Michael Del Zotto and Mikko Lehtonen are unrestricted free agents as well, while Patrik Laine, Alexandre Texier, Kevin Stenlund, Kole Sherwood and Andrew Peeke are all restricted free agents.
Then there's the puzzle of the 2022 offseason, when Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Max Domi, Jack Roslovic, Boone Jenner, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, among others, are set to hit free agency as well. The Blue Jackets can start negotiations with those players over the offseason, meaning a lot of key pieces have to be figured out over the coming months (only Gus Nyquist, Vladislav Gavrikov, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand, among players to see NHL action this year, are signed through 2022-23).
So, what are the takeaways? First off, after years of contract stability, Kekalainen is entering quite a busy offseason. Secondly, while he doesn't have stability, he does have flexibility, with the opportunity coming to shape his roster how he wants it both in the short and long terms.
While some offseason goals are immediately obvious - start negotiations with Jones, figure out a deal with Laine, plan for the expansion draft, upgrade the center position, and likely trade a goaltender - the good news is Kekalainen now has both cap room in a flat cap world as well as draft picks at his disposal when it comes to upgrading the roster.
"(The return from the trades) gives us plenty of different opportunities to do it, too, or different options if you want to call them that," the general manager said Monday. "There's going to be some interesting decisions next summer or offseason with the expansion draft and the flat salary camp. There could be some opportunities to reload quicker with some of the assets that we have now, or is the best opportunity to use them as picks?"
Whatever ends up happening, Kekalainen doesn't expect it to take too long to return Columbus to being a winner based on the talent at hand and what he could be able to do in the offseason. While the core pieces have changed a little bit after the departures of such players as Foligno, Savard, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kekalainen still sees a lot to like as he looks at his roster and sees the names above.
"Absolutely," he said. "Our goaltending is strong. We have one of the best defensive pairings in the league in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. We have some really good young forwards. We have some experience mixed in there. We have some leaders, and some very good prospects coming. The future is going to be very bright."
Added Atkinson: "Yeah, we have Jonesy and Booner and Z and all these young guys that are just hitting their peak right now. A lot of guys are going to be healthy next year, Gus as well. We have nothing but trust and faith in Jarmo to bring in some great players in the offseason and to draft some high-end level talent. So yeah, I think we definitely have the right pieces."
Atkinson also spoke of the frustration of this year, something the Blue Jackets haven't felt in a while thanks to the recent streak of playoff appearances. It's felt by just about everyone in the organization, but Kekalainen said he doesn't think it will take long to turn things around and get the Jackets back where he thinks they belong -- chasing the Stanley Cup.
"We view this year as a disappointment, an anomaly of some kind," the general manager said. "It's been a very challenging year altogether for all the individuals involved on our team, and we expect a big rebound next year."