This column was initially intended to discuss the Columbus Blue Jackets’ inaction during the draft. However, that has obviously gone out the window due to the biggest trade of the offseason thus far, which sent Chicago Blackhawks star winger Brandon Saad and two prospects to Central Ohio in exchange for Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin, Corey Tropp, and a 4th round pick.
Yes, Saad’s game has been boosted by playing on a line with the likes of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, but no one can dispute that Saad’s numbers have improved every season and has been part of a vital core for two Stanley Cup-winning teams. Saad being only 22 years old, has speed, size, and skill which make him a welcome addition to any team. And, did I mention that he’s only 22?
Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalinen comes out the winner in this trade for two reasons: 1. He gets the unquestioned best player in the deal, and 2. He did not have to compromise the core of team or trade away highly-touted prospects Sonny Milano, Kerby Rychel, or Oliver Bjorkstrand. The price, as with any big-ticket player, was substantial. The Blackhawks were a convenient trading partner, because they needed a no. 2 centerman after the departure of Brad Richards, and Anisimov became expendable after rookie Alexander Wennberg’s play improved considerably towards the end of the season. It does hurt to lose Dano, who was one of the few bright spots in what was otherwise a dismal campaign for Columbus. Dano is undersized, but demonstrated scoring potential on the flank, and he shows a feisty edge.
While this trade makes them contenders in the Eastern Conference on paper, this group still has an awful lot to prove. After finishing last year with the fifth-worst defense in the league, in terms of goals allowed, a retooling of the blue line seems to be in order. It is also true that injuries were a significant factor, as management has let everyone know repeatedly, but the fact remains that they were a lottery team.
Let’s get one truth out of the way right now: the blue line, as it’s currently constructed, will prevent Columbus from making a deep playoff run. Sergei Bobrovsky is about as good as it gets in net, but the play in front of him has been inconsistent at best over the past three seasons. Jack Johnson, while a quality defenseman on his day, has finished every season of his NHL career with a negative plus/minus rating. Yes, he did play well during the team’s last postseason appearance against Pittsburgh, but they ultimately lost that series. In spite of his solid play, no one will confuse him with Duncan Keith, Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, or Drew Doughty.
For those who follow this team on a regular basis, few would debate that, when healthy, Ryan Murray is Columbus’ best all-around defenseman. Getting Murray back at 100% would definitely feel like a new acquisition and he has the tools to be a no .1 d-man in the NHL, but the kid has missed 86 games over the past two seasons due to injury. If Murray continues to be injury-prone, the top brass might have to plan for success without Murray in the lineup, where the production he gives you is a bonus.
Regardless of the team’s needs on defense, few can fault Kekalinen for the moves he made (or didn’t make) over the draft weekend. With very few NHL-caliber prospects on the blue line, it made perfect sense to draft six defensemen, which was also undoubtedly influenced by Mike Reilly’s departure to the Minnesota Wild. Nevertheless, there will come a time in the near future, if the Jackets are to take their place among the elite contenders, where they will have to make a move for an elite puck-moving defenseman. The current blue line is above average, but as this year’s playoffs have illustrated, that is not enough. For now, Jackets fans should simply smile and enjoy this potentially franchise-altering move. Management has the pieces in place to be competitive both long and short-term.