Another Stanley Cup Playoffs about to begin and you will have the chance to see your favorite Jackets players defend the team’s honor…at Muirfield Village Golf Club. A season that started with bold predictions from analysts that the Jackets might be dark horse contenders quickly went off the rails and the team never really recovered. Like so many seasons before, the season also ended with the Jackets a long shot to get the first overall pick after rattling off three wins at the end, including a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished dead last.
So, where should the Jackets go from here? To select your road, you first have to know your destination and where you are. In the NHL, the destination is fairly obvious. All thirty teams want to win the Stanley Cup. But what does a version of the Columbus Blue Jackets that wins the Stanley Cup look like? That’s the destination the Jackets should focus on.
Let’s start there and work backward. Let’s look at two of the most successful franchises in the NHL–Los Angeles and Chicago. What do those two teams have? Both have a top five NHL defenseman in Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, respectively. Both have a true, number one center in Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. Both have solid goaltending, including a star number one (Quick and Crawford, respectively), but also a solid backup. And both teams have forward depth, which is crucial in the playoffs, but equally crucial to address year over year turnover to manage the salary cap.
So, a Jackets team that is capable of winning the Cup has those basic ingredients–an elite defenseman, an elite center, solid goaltending and forward depth. The Jackets do not possess all of these things, clearly and you could argue that the 2015-16 Jackets had none of those things. So, what is a reasonable timeline to get to the destination?
I am going to argue that the Jackets are closer than you think, but that the timeframe to get there is longer than you want it to be. I believe this team can compete for a Cup in three years. But I also believe this team will not make the playoffs next year, although it might come close. I know what you are thinking–“But, the Jackets had a playoff team just two years ago, why is it going to take two more years to get back?” The answer is that the solution to the Jackets woes is organizational depth. They didn’t have that two years ago (which is why the team couldn’t properly address players lost through free agency), and they have never had it in franchise history. It takes years to build that so that you can endure losing players and continue to compete for the playoffs. Doug MacLean and Scott Howson never did that. It also takes time to add and develop elite centers and defensemen. The development time for NHL centers and defenseman is longer than it is for wings and there will be guys that never quite develop into that role even though it looked like they might.
If the horizon is three years out, let’s look and see who may still be contract for the Jackets: Saad, Dubinsky, Foligno, Clarkson, Hartnell, Wennberg*, Karlsson*, Jenner*, Jones*, Savard, Murray*, Werenski, Milano*, Korpisalo*, Bobrovsky, Bjorkstrand*, Rychel*, Carlsson, Anderson*, Forsberg*. Note, the players with asterisks will need new contracts during that time period as Restricted Free Agents, but I have presumed for the hypothetical that all RFA’s are re-sign. I’m also, for now, leaving in some players who are likely to be traded—which I’ll address in a future article in this series.
One thing you should immediately notice is that the forward depth should be there in three years. And this is without including more speculative players like Zaar, Hannikainen, Bittner, Kolesar or any draft picks selected in the next two drafts. When have the Jackets had that kind of depth before in the organization? Never. We’ve continually had to rush more speculative players into the lineup or spend money in free agency to fill out the lineup.
You should also note that the Jackets have at least two shots at having that elite defenseman they need. Jones and Werenski should both prove to be very good defenseman and at least one of them could become truly elite. Let’s not forget that during Jones’ draft year, he was considered a possible first overall pick. He still has that kind of upside. His development has progressed very well and with more minutes he’s only going to get better.
With the way Korpisalo has played this year, goaltending depth could also be very good. The three year horizon puts Bobrovsky in a contract year, but other things could come to pass between now and then. Forsberg has been solid in the AHL and will get a chance to further develop next year to become a solid option to be an NHL backup.
The question then is what to do about the center position. And even there internal possibilities exist. Is Jenner ready to become a thirty-plus goal scoring, first line center? Can Wennberg learn to shoot the puck more to become a legitimate first line center?
So, while there are certainly a lot of questions about the Jackets going forward, there is also a realistic road to become a contender so long as the timeframe to become a contender is also realistic. In my next article, I’ll start going working backwards by looking at a milestone which is at least a year away—the Expansion Draft—and how the Jackets might use the Expansion Draft to create cap flexibility.