Make no mistake about it. This offseason for the Columbus Blue Jackets has been historic for them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lingering questions.
This offseason started with anticipation wondering what moves were to come. Then, out of nowhere, the Blue Jackets dropped a bombshell on the entire NHL offseason by picking up the biggest jackpot available in Johnny Gaudreau. As you’d expect, the news was well received by fans.
There was, however, a catch. Knowing that Patrik Laine was negotiating a new deal, there were going to be some salary cap issues to sort out. Once Laine’s extension was announced on Friday, the Blue Jackets wasted no time in dealing with their cap issue.
The cap relief came in the form of the trade of Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was one of their best players and was a fan favorite. This news, as you can imagine, was not well received.
In the space of about two hours, Blue Jackets fans felt a wide range of emotions, from the high of signing Laine for four more years to the low of seeing one of their favorites leave for Seattle. It also didn’t help that the swap happened while Bjorkstrand was on his honeymoon. He and his wife Jill tied the knot in Cleveland last weekend.
The question on many fans’ minds now is “how am I supposed to feel about all of this?” That’s a fair question to ask given all the circumstances this offseason so far. Although we have answers now, we won’t know all the answers right away. The good news for fans is that this offseason will make more sense over time. Let’s see why.
The obvious question was why Bjorkstrand? He had a friendly deal with the team and was under control for four more seasons. He is also coming off one of his best seasons yet and was set to play a role in the top six.
Managing Director Jarmo Kekalainen spoke to the media from Finland on Saturday. Regarding Bjorkstrand’s trade, he called it the “ugly” part of the business. He also said it was the toughest decision he’s ever made as Blue Jackets general manager.
“There were no good options available to us, really,” Kekalainen said. “It was the best of the non-good options available to us to comply with the cap.”
Other players could have been included in such a discussion. Gus Nyquist’s name has been heard a lot. So was the name of Jakub Voracek. Each had higher dollar contracts that, if moved, could push the Blue Jackets under the cap. But Kekalainen chose Bjorkstrand. Nor did he wait to act. So why now when they have the whole offseason to find out?
“The funny thing about ceiling space is once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Kekalainen said.
Bjorkstrand’s move brings them back to ceiling compliance without having to make another trade. They are now able to draw up a compliant list with the players they have signed. While they might have waited, prices may have risen even further.
Apart from Bjorkstrand, there are other lingering questions. And the defense? Are the Blue Jackets there when they said it would be a top priority for them? Kekalainen admitted he was happy with the current situation with Erik Gudbranson in the fold.
What will the lines look like? Kekalainen said Brad Larsen will eventually figure out if Laine will get the chance to play with Gaudreau on a line together. Laine said Saturday he’s never been more motivated to play hockey than now, given the possible chance to play with Gaudreau.
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What does all this mean for the future? As we said above, despite all the great movements that have occurred, questions remain. Although the Blue Jackets have changed course with the signing of Gaudreau, they still have a plan and their goal has not changed. Their goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But that doesn’t mean fans are unaware of how the Bjorkstrand deal unfolded.
It will make more sense eventually
Let’s look at it from the perspective of what the Blue Jackets are getting in the Bjorkstrand deal. First, they get two more draft picks in a busy 2023 draft. Their scouts now get two more shots to land good talent.
More importantly, now and in the future, that $5.4 million cap is completely removed. This now makes the Blue Jackets cap compliant. This also allows flexibility in the future. Then when you consider Nyquist’s deal is in effect after this season and Voracek’s deal is in effect two seasons from now, there’s more wiggle room to make future moves.
Now consider the role of Bjorkstrand in a few seasons. We would expect Gaudreau and Laine to dominate the top line. By then, the kids will have more experience and may eventually be ready for a more full-time role. In other words, this conversation about Bjorkstrand may have resurfaced when he had 1-2 seasons left instead of four. His departure opens up a precious place for someone to claim. Maybe Kirill Marchenko?
Although the return seems disappointing, just a third and fourth round in the 2023 draft is better than giving a pick if someone else was involved. Offloading Nyquist might have been easier to digest initially, but is that the same if the Blue Jackets were to tie a first round in 2023? Given where the franchise is at, they can’t trade first-round picks at this time.
So when Kekalainen said Bjorkstrand was the best of useless options, that’s probably what he meant. All the other alternatives would probably have involved giving up choices.
Blue Jackets fans, I understand if you’re upset. I understand if things don’t quite make sense right now. Given the suddenness of Bjorkstrand’s trade, that’s to be expected.
The Blue Jackets are still in a much better position now than they were before the start of the offseason. Landing a revolutionary player in Gaudreau is worth it.
The Blue Jackets are also far from done making other moves now and in the future. Kekalainen reiterated on Saturday that their work is never done and will continue to explore all avenues to improve their team.
But here’s why it’s okay to be happy with what the Blue Jackets have done. Look at their core now. Gaudreau is locked up for seven years. Zach Werenski is locked up for the next six years. Laine is locked up for the next four years. Elvis Merzlikins is locked up for the next five years. This may be the best core of players this franchise has ever had. Over the next four seasons, fans will be able to watch This Night and The Night.
The Blue Jackets still have a lot to sort out. They still have questions to answer. But give this one some time to develop.
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Think back to now when you see the Blue Jackets take a huge leap to center ice in just a few seasons. Why would they be able to take such a step? This is because they elected to trade Bjorkstrand now opening the ceiling space.
Although fans are still feeling hurt by the way Bjorkstrand’s situation has unfolded, it’s part of the business that happens on a regular basis. But when we see what the team will look like in 3-4 years, the trade will make more sense.
You’re about to see the best hockey you’ve ever seen at Nationwide Arena starting this season. Truly a new era of Blue Jackets hockey is upon us.
So rejoice. Things will eventually make sense for these Blue Jackets even if you think they don’t now.
I am a fully accredited writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and the NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the Credentials Manager of the site.