The Columbus Blue Jackets are a million miles away from the playoffs, but that doesn’t make them trade deadline sellers.
On the contrary, the Blue Jackets should be in the midst of a second consecutive playoff run in their sophomore season in the Eastern Conference. This is the team that reach the playoffs last year, winning their franchise-first playoff games in the process of putting a scare into the division-winning Pittsburgh Penguins.
However, injuries have done them in this year. And while the teams nearest to them in the standings are all nailed-on sellers in the final week before the March 2 NHL trade deadline, that’s about all those clubs have in common with Columbus.
We’ve profiled the Blue Jackets’ trade conundrum in this space before, and while they’ve come no closer to either a playoff spot or a franchise rebuild, the team is apparently interested in moving one of its veteran pieces in defenseman James Wisniewski at the trade deadline.
Every playoff team needs another defenseman. If that defenseman can move the puck and put up points, he could be a game-changer.
Hence, the Columbus Blue Jackets have decided to place James Wisniewski on the trading block.
The Wiz signed a 6-year, $33-million contract in July 2011 with then-GM Scott Howson. Now-GM Jarmo Kekalainen asked Wisniewski to provide him with a list of 10 teams to which he would not accept a trade, as per the terms of his modified no-trade clause. That happened last week.
Wisniewski has two full years plus the rest of this one remaining on that six-year deal, with a $5.5 million cap hit in each of his remaining two seasons. That’s top-four money. This year, Wisniewski has given the Blue Jackets top-four numbers. He leads all Jackets defensemen with 27 points (7-20), has potted 13 power play points for the Jackets’ 6th-ranked man-advantage unit and is fourth on the team in scoring.
Since this is Columbus we’re talking about, nothing may be more valuable than durability. Wisniewski has played in all but a handful of games this season. His 21:22 ATOI trail only Jack Johnson and David Savard team-wide, and he is often one of the team’s better possession players whenever he’s on the ice, ranking 6th among Columbus regulars and first among their defensemen in five-on-five Corsi percentage (NHL.com has rolled out it’s new SAT stat to measure shot attempt differentials, but no data is available yet for even-strength situations).
While Wisniewski is still a relatively negative possession driver, not many Blue Jackets aren’t. Only forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Jeremy Morin, Scott Hartnell and Nick Foligno rank as positive possession drivers at even-strength. In other words, the Blue Jackets’ problems run up and down the line, most of them stemming from the team’s league-leading injury numbers.
While Wisniewski is no exception, his play has still been exceptional. Relatively, at least.
With those kinds of numbers, veteran-but-not-too-veteran-status and a cap-agreeable contract, Wisniewski would immediately slot in next to Edmonton’s Jeff Petry and Carolina’s Andrej Sekera as the best defense deals on the trade market. However, it’s worth wondering whether Wisniewski and the Blue Jackets would be best served by keeping things in place, even as this season passes by without a shot at the playoffs.
As TSS’s Franklin Steele points out in an earlier piece, this is not the first time Wisniewski has been asked to submit a no-trade list to the team’s front office. A similar instance took place in the 2013 offseason, as the team asked Wisniewski to submit the same 10-team no-trade list.
Since that first submission, Wisniewski has played 127 games for Columbus. So the fact that it was requested by no means notarizes his trade chip status.
Beyond that, can Columbus really get the kind of return on a deal for their veteran defenseman that would match what he could bring to the club in his final two years?
Such a deal, executed properly, wouldn’t be terribly risky. Trade demands for good defensemen are sky-high. Good defensemen with Wisniewski’s experience, friendly cap hit and remaining term are just about one of a kind this season — but only if he hits the market.
The potential for return is high, but are the Jackets really that far from competing? A package of prospects and picks, typical at this time of year, could delay their plans beyond next season. For comparison’s sake, injuries and other factors derailed the New York Islanders’ progress last season, a year after their long-awaited return to the playoffs.
New York maintained course through the sunk year, and a little better luck has coupled with steady asset management to put them at the top of the division.
Columbus could be on track to make that jump next season. Having a stacked blue line could go a long way to moving that process along. Wisniewski is a top-four caliber defenseman, or a very good fifth defender at worst. The team already has a solid top-four in Johnson, Savard, Ryan Murray and Fedor Tyutin. If Wisniewski is used to key a third pairing, or as a true top-four, the Blue Jackets are money on the blue line.
Cap concerns are not yet a thing in Columbus. Nor is age. At 31, Wisniewski is not yet in the twilight years of his career as a defenseman, but is still one of the team’s oldest players, on the blue line or anywhere else.
While the deadline is a good time to capitalize on assets as a seller, the Blue Jackets are decidedly not a typical seller. And while any number of factors held from the public could push a trade forward, all observable data shows Wisniewski to be a good, affordable piece of the Columbus defense.
Moving him might not be a good idea. But putting his name out there, even disingenuously, at the very least gives Columbus the temperature of the market.
A deal might not be anywhere in the Blue Jackets’ plans, but there’s no harm in exploring.
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