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What’s Next For the Columbus Blue Jackets

The Columbus Blue Jackets were among the biggest winners at the 2015 NHL Draft.

For a team that was believed to be desperate for defensive help, the Jackets sure did address their need in the draft, selecting a glut of quality defenders such as Zachary Werenski (eighth overall), Gabriel Carlsson (29th overall), Sam Ruopp (129th overall) and Vladislav Gavrikov (159th overall), to name a few.

They also added potential top-six power forward Paul Bittner in the second round of the draft, further stockpiling their impressive garrison of top forward prospects. But the Jackets’ biggest acquisition of the summer was obviously the unexpected blockbuster trade for Brandon Saad.

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Parting ways with Marko Dano wasn’t easy, but Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen could not possibly pass on the chance to acquire a top-six forward and two-time Stanley Cup champion who has yet to reach his prime. What was even more interesting was that four forwards went the other way as part of the trade, and veteran depth center Mark Letestu was let go – indicative of Kekalainen’s confidence that perhaps some of the organization’s top prospects will crack the main roster this coming season.

Such a transition may not happen immediately, however; for example, Oliver Bjorkstrand had a magnificent final year of major junior hockey, putting up 118 points (including 63 goals) for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL, but he’ll most likely need a little seasoning in the AHL before he joins the Jackets’ main roster. He may be a mid-season call-up for Columbus, but there’s always the possibility that he makes such an impression on the coaching staff that he makes the team out of training camp.

Another name that may be added to the roster right out of camp is Sonny Milano. Head coach Todd Richards has been patient with his prospects as of late, but he wasn’t afraid to bring in 2013 draftees Alex Wennberg and Marko Dano for the opening night roster; though each had his respective sting in Springfield during the season, they both made it back to the NHL in time to make a difference for the Jackets in the final stretch of the season.

There’s a good chance that Milano – a first-round draft choice in 2014 – will get the opportunity to prove himself in a nine-game stint to start the regular-season before the decision must be made whether to send him back to the Flint Firebirds (he is OHL-eligible for one more season). Milano has all the makings of a top-six forward, and he just may prove that he’s ready to step into the NHL as a 19 year-old in the 2015-2016 season.

The Blue Jackets signed Gregory Campbell and re-signed Matt Calvert during free agency, adding defensive prospect John Ramage as well, but regardless of the recent trades, signings and the anticipation of prospects making the team this fall, there are some questions that still need answering: is Kerby Rychel off the trade block?

Is the defense set for the upcoming season?

And most importantly, can this group bring playoff action back to Columbus?

The situation with Kerby Rychel was interesting; in May it was believed that he was being dangled as a potential asset to acquire a defenseman.

Would not be surprised if Montreal is one of the teams in on Kerby Rychel, who may not be a Blue Jacket much longer. Columbus is looking for defencemen and is loaded with good, young forwards. A 20-year-old two years removed from being a first-round pick is hard to find, so there’s going to be a market. Rychel had concussion issues last season, but word is he’s cleared.

– Elliotte Friedman, 30 Thoughts

A lot has changed since then, as the power forward remains in the Blue Jackets organization and no such trade ever transpired. But two months later, the defense has hardly changed but needs an upgrade on the right side in the top-four. Without a top prospect waiting in the wings, ready for his big break just yet, how should the Jackets proceed?

Perhaps taking a flyer on either Cody Franson or Marek Zidlicky to fill the void on the right side is a possibility. Franson is 27 years old and is coming off a season in which he scored 32 points in 55 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs but only managed four points in 23 games after being sent to the Nashville Predators ahead of the trade deadline. Though inconsistency has been a problem in the past, the Jackets can land themselves a 30+ point scorer on the blue-line who is capable of playing the point on a power-play. The right-handed shot is young and talented enough to be a potential long-term option for Columbus.

Another right-handed defense option is Zidlicky, who would likely come at a far lesser cost due to age.

At 38 years old, Zidlicky is looking for neither term nor big money; rather, the veteran defender knows he will be lucky if he gets another chance to play in the NHL, and he’d be willing to accept a smaller role than Franson would. He’s still a very capable skater and point-producer, and he was still playing power-play minutes for the Detroit Red Wings last season.

Kekalainen may believe his team is capable of returning to the playoffs in the upcoming season, so he may stand pat and see what his prospects have to offer in training camp before making his next move. But he may just be the one to revive this seemingly dead offseason with another big trade or free agent signing; if the Brandon Saad trade taught us anything, the Jackets GM is not afraid to be aggressive – or abrupt – by any means.

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