Coming off the most successful season in Columbus Blue Jackets’ history, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has a number of crucial decisions to make which will determine the future of the organization. The franchise earned its first ever playoff wins and interest in the team throughout Columbus is at an all-time high. Improving on last season’s success means roster alterations are imminent.
The team’s core players are all signed through at least the 2014-2015 season. Pending unrestricted free agents Derek Mackenzie, Blake Comeau, and Jack Skille make up the unsigned forwards. Nikita Nikitin and trade-deadline rental Nick Schultz are the defensive question marks, while backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney is also without a contract.
Mackenzie has earned the right to be back. He provides grit and a veteran presence. Though considered a draft bust, Jack Skille finished the season in a top-six forward role. He could return to the Jackets next season, though unlikely in an offensive role. Blake Comeau, a career depth forward and NHL journeyman, may have burned his bridges with a poor playoff performance. In 6 games, he failed to record a point and took five minor penalties, some of them costly.
Nikitin has developed into a solid NHL defenseman who the Jackets would like to retain. Returning will likely be his decision as he could test the free-agent market come July 1st. Nick Schultz on the other hand appeared in just nine games after being acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline and only dressed twice in the playoffs, deeming his return to Columbus this fall unlikely. Backup goaltender McElhinny seems to find himself in a new organization every year so his return is a toss-up.
Kekalainen’s top offseason priority must be one of the team’s restricted free agents, however. 21-year-old center Ryan Johansen will likely look to more than quadruple his $870K salary as a result of his breakout 33-goal, 63-point season, both of which were team bests. Re-signing Johansen to a contract that keeps the young star in Columbus far into the future would be a big step for the organization.
The health of the Jackets’ highest-paid forward, Nathan Horton, is also key. The power-forward has a track record of consistent production, but played only 35 games during the regular season and missed the playoffs altogether. A healthy Horton could solidify two capable scoring lines that would keep opposing teams from focusing in and shutting down Ryan Johansen.
The Blue Jackets must avoid Brandon Dubinsky testing free agency next summer. Dubinsky became a fan favorite in the playoffs with his passionate play, game-tying goal in Game 4 and shutting down superstar Sidney Crosby. It would be in the organization’s best interests to have Dubinsky extended on a multi-year contract early next season.
Former Vezina trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is also entering next season on an expiring contract, but will be a restricted free agent, giving management some time to lock him up.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the base of a winning team looks to be in place. With names like Jack Johnson, Bobrovsky, and Johansen on the roster, the Blue Jackets should continue to be playoff contenders. Keeping them together while surrounding them with improved talent will be an ongoing challenge for management. Success however, will help capture and build upon the recent bloom of their fanbase.