With $22 million in cap space and just 15 players under contract, the Columbus Blue Jackets are in place to upgrade their roster through free agency. The team needs to drastically improve on the wings, bolster their defense and add a backup goaltender. 2014’s free agent class lacks superstar talent, but a number of valuable options will be available on July 1st.
The Blue Jackets right wingers were a glaring weakness last season. Their four right wingers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals were Jack Skille, Cam Atkinson, Blake Comeau and Jared Boll. That right side will not win an NHL playoff series. Skille and Comeau are entering free agency. Both players are career-long journeymen with no business in the top-6 of a playoff team. The healthy return of Nathan Horton will give them a bonafide #1 right wing to play alongside Ryan Johansen, but the rest of the right side is unproven. Blue Jackets’ management could look at:
1. Ryan Callahan, RW
Callahan, set to be one of the most sought after free agents, is a tremendous leader and two-way forward. Known for his tireless work ethic and team-first focus, Ryan Callahan would be a valuable piece to any contender and a fantastic role model for the young Blue Jackets. Rumor has it the former Ranger’s captain is looking for a 6-year, $40+ million deal. If I were Columbus, I’d match nearly any offer Callahan receives.
2. Devin Setoguchi, RW
Completely forgotten as a healthy scratch in Winnipeg, Setoguchi could have sneaky value for his future team. The former 30-goal scorer has struggled tremendously since leaving Joe Thornton’s wing in San Jose as part of the Brent Burns trade. However, he is still just 27 and would be a cheap, low-risk, and potentially high-reward signing for any team seeking offense on the wing.
Columbus’ left wing depth is as follows: Boone Jenner, RJ Umberger, Matt Calvert, Nick Foligno and Derek Mackenzie. Again, that personnel is not a winning combination. Jenner showed flashes of offensive upside down the stretch and into the playoffs, but nothing definitive that would ensure him a top-6 role. The Blue Jackets should sign a stopgap that makes them better in the short-term and allows Boone Jenner time to develop in a secondary role or step up and earn top-line minutes. For an immediate upgrade, the Blue Jackets should target:
3. Mike Cammalleri, LW/C
Cammalleri comes with a reputation of elite offensive ability and playoff success. Like Callahan, Cammalleri will be in high demand. The versatile sniper can play the wing and center, while also giving the Blue Jackets likely their best scorer. It would, however, be somewhat risky to sign a 31-year-old to a long-term deal in the $6 million range.
The Blue Jackets defense doesn’t look too shabby on paper. Unfortunately, the game is played on ice. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky spent too much of the playoffs under siege and would love for the Jackets to add a true shutdown defenseman.
4. Brooks Orpik, D
The US-Olympian has made a career of hard hits. He comes with veteran presence, Stanley Cup-winning experience and a nasty playing style. This shutdown defenseman would be an instant upgrade to the Columbus Blue line and an excellent mentor for young Ryan Murray.
Lastly, Sergei Bobrovsky needs a capable back-up goaltender. Curtis McElhinney could not be relied upon to keep the Jackets in games and effectively forced Bobrovsky into playing every meaningful game. It’s unclear whether the Jackets are looking to spend cap space on a more capable back-up. It would be wise to bring in someone trustable who could keep Bobrovsky fresh come playoff time.
5. Evgeni Nabokov, G
Can you imagine a better mentor for Bobrovsky? A fellow Russian with 350 NHL wins and 42 more in playoffs, Nabokov is a former superstar. At age 38, he is destined for a back-up role if he wants to remain in the NHL. The Russian tandem would be a fun story to watch unfold.