The outcome of the 2014-15 season was tough for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Just a year removed from a much-celebrated postseason appearance–which included the franchise’s first ever playoff win–in the spring of 2014, the Blue Jackets failed to replicate and build upon that success last Spring.
At the time, it wasn’t a situation that called for panic. The Montreal Canadiens, for example, went from top dogs last season to nearly irrelevant this year. Hockey is unpredictable like that.
Columbus even got highly-touted defenseman Zach Werenski in the draft as a result, so they were well compensated for their struggles. But there has been a different feel to the situation this season, and it makes one question: with just over a week left before the trade deadline, why wouldn’t you tear it all down?
Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson made it clear that they will not be hitting the reset button and rebuilding from scratch again. Nor will they be tanking, a polarizing term in the hockey world closely associated with the mythical notion that players and coaches on bad teams will intentionally lose to be able to draft first overall.
“We’re in the midst of a build, 3 ½ years into it,” Davidson told The Columbus Dispatch. “Three years into the build, some things have gone well and some things haven’t. But, no, we’re not looking to tear this thing down.
“Are you kidding? We have some pieces in place. These guys are going to play every game to win. That’s just in their DNA and the coaches’ DNA to win every game they play.”
Understanding the mentality behind Davidson’s conviction that this is the core they want long-term is nearly impossible. It is also likely disheartening for fans of the Ohio club to hear that big changes will not be coming ahead of what will most likely be their most crucial draft in the past decade.
Especially considering they have a chance to select Auston Matthews first overall.
When Columbus traded Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Seth Jones, it was more than just getting value back for their former No. 1 center. It was made possible not by what they already have in the system (Alex Wennberg is their highest-touted prospective center, and his ceiling is a second-line centerman at best) but rather by their dire need for elite right-handed defense. They took a gamble in dealing Johansen away with no replacement, but the fact that they had been buried in dead-last place in the league for so long likely had management thinking they had a good shot at drafting Matthews this coming June.
Their recent success is making that dream less likely by the day (in fact, it was never a done deal due to the draft lottery, but it was highly likely). The Blue Jackets are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games; they have earned at least one point in nine of their last 10 games and they are now in 28th place–four points ahead of the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s nice for the players and the coaches to win, but not so much for the fans. They are clamoring to replace Johansen with Matthews, and they are becoming less optimistic about it happening with each win/overtime or shootout loss.
It is tough to pin-point a specific player they would be able to trade though, if they were to tear it down now. For a management team that has been excellent in drafting and developing prospects over the past three years, they have not been so keen in the contract negotiation department. Several players like Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, David Clarkson and Fedor Tyutin are all on high-priced, long-term contracts that they do not deserve based on their play.
Approaching the deadline, it’s doubtful that teams are looking to acquire one of those four, save for maybe Hartnell, who always seems to have potential suitors. Instead, if they want to get the optimum return, the Blue Jackets should be focusing on making players like Cam Atkinson and Jack Johnson available.
And although facilitating a trade for one of their overpaid ‘core’ players would require giving something up–either in the form of a prospect, a draft pick or retained salary–it may be well worth it. Here’s to hoping that Davidson was just jacking up the prices in anticipation of the deadline with his recent statement; his team can certainly use an Matthews.