When we left off in Part 1, we had established a few things about what it will take for the Columbus Blue Jackets to contend for the Stanley Cup and what a realistic timeline would be for the team to be a valid contender. We established that, to be a contender, a team ideally has a true number one center, an elite defenseman, solid goaltending (both starter and backup) and forward depth. We established that a realistic timeline for the Jackets to be contenders is three years with the team likely missing the playoffs again in 2016-17, making the playoffs the following season and truly contending in 2018-19. We also established that the players who may still be under contract for that season are Saad, Dubinsky, Foligno, Clarkson, Hartnell, Wennberg*, Karlsson*, Jenner*, Jones*, Savard, Murray*, Werenski, Milano*, Korpisalo*, Bobrovsky, Bjorkstrand*, Rychel*, Carlsson, Anderson*, Forsberg*, with those with asterisks requiring contract extensions, but still being restricted free agents at the time of their next contract.
Now we look at an event (or possibly events) which may intervene between now and the 2018-19 NHL Season: the expansion draft(s). Rumors continue to pile up about possible NHL expansion and although nothing is final, it seems fairly certain at this point that the City of Las Vegas, Nevada will finally get a professional sports franchise and the 31st member of the National Hockey League. Quebec City’s bid has been made less certain by the downturn in the Canadian dollar—which I personally feel is short-sighted, but that is for another discussion at another time. This past week, Commissioner Bettman again stated there was nothing happening with Seattle because their arena situation is unresolved, but the language used by the Commissioner suggests that despite previously suggesting that Seattle wouldn’t be reconsidered at a later date, that the League might indeed consider Seattle whenever their politicians give the green light on the SoDo arena project.
What this all means is that it is likely that next summer we will see an expansion draft, but based on the current state of play in the process, the smart money would bet that the expansion will be by just one team for the 2017-18 season and Las Vegas will be that team. There is a possibility that there could be another expansion draft in 2018 if situations change with respect to either Quebec City or Seattle. Seattle is particularly worth watching because of the unbalanced conferences and the fact that Bettman likely wants to get to Seattle before the NBA does. It is a growing market in a growing region and the League would like to be there if there was an arena and ownership situation that made sense. Based on this, I’m going to assume the Jackets will only lose 1 player, maximum, to such an expansion draft in 2017. I’m also not going to go through the hypothetical of a second expansion draft in 2018, though that could get really interesting with players like Oliver Bjorkstrand potentially eligible. This thought process also played into the decision to have Werenski play in the AHL rather than with the big club at the end of the season to avoid any possibility that he would be exposed to an expansion draft in 2018.
The expansion draft has risks and potential rewards for the Jackets as they work to build a contender. The risk is obvious—the Jackets could lose a quality player that would be important to building a Stanley Cup contender. Obviously losing an elite defenseman or number one center would be problematic and should be prevented at all costs. Similarly, goaltending needs to be strongly considered in making decisions about the expansion draft. While it is unavoidable that forward depth could be affected, the goal is to protect the most valuable forwards from the expansion draft.
So, how will the expansion draft work? It is all a little foggy with nothing set in stone. The indications thus far are that the expansion draft would be held in June after the Stanley Cup is awarded and prior to the NHL Entry Draft. Players who have finished their second pro season and players with less experience will not be eligible for the expansion draft (though it is not clear exactly how a “professional year” will be calculated). While it is not 100% certain, the current thought is that players with no-movement clauses (“NMC’s”) will not be eligible for the expansion draft while players with no-trade clauses only without a no-movement clause (“NTC’s”) will be eligible for the expansion draft. It is also unclear how players on expiring contracts will be treated. Another interesting wrinkle, mentioned by Elliotte Friedman and Pierre LeBrun, would have teams expose players with salaries equal to 25% of the team’s salary in the season prior to the draft to the expansion draft. Under the potential rules discussed most recently by the League with the teams, teams could protect three defensemen, seven forwards and one goalie OR any group of eight skaters, regardless of position, and one goalie. But it is expected, for fairness, that players with NMC’s will be automatically included in the list of protected players.
What would this look like for the Blue Jackets, at present? Dubinsky, Foligno, Clarkson, Hartnell and Tyutin would presumably all automatically be on the protected list because they have NMC’s. I know there have been inconsistent reports on Clarkson, but I can confirm that he does in fact have an NMC and not simply an NTC. That would only leave 3 more forwards, 2 defensemen and a goalie to be protected. I would expect the Jackets want to protect Murray and Jones for certain on defense, but they probably also want to protect Savard. At forward, it would seem a given that Saad would be protected as would Jenner. But the Jackets probably don’t want to have to choose between protecting Atkinson or Wennberg. All of this points out the obvious—the Jackets would really like to move Scott Hartnell and Fedor Tyutin. Unfortunately, those NMC’s now could make them harder to move and it will almost certainly impact their trade value. In any event, I’ll be shocked if Tyutin and Hartnell start the season with the Jackets.
Who have we failed to mention at forward and defense? Calvert, Campbell, Boll, Johnson, Prout, Goloubef, and restricted free agent William Karlsson. Again, it is uncertain how expiring contracts are treated, and whether the 25% rule actually gets implemented, but this might be a reason to keep the likes of Jared Boll around—to meet the 25% rule without sacrificing players that are crucially important to the team. I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that the Jackets come it around $70 million for salary meaning they would have to expose players with $17.5 million in salaries to the expansion draft if the 25% rule were implemented. I also think that expiring players will have to be factored in when all is said and done if the 25% rule is going to work.
When you add up the salaries of the likes of Calvert, Campbell, Boll, Johnson, Prout and Goloubef, you don’t get to $17.5 million. Which brings us to goaltending. If the NHL sticks with the CBA definition of what constitutes a professional year, Joonas Korpisalo would not be subject to the expansion draft, but Anton Forsberg might be. And, in any event, the one salary that would clearly put the Jackets over the 25% rule, were it enacted, would be Sergei Bobrovsky. However, to do so the Jackets would have to be comfortable moving forward with Korpisalo as their number one goaltender…or they would have to acquire a goaltender in a year where there are likely to be several teams moving one precisely because of the possibility they might be lost in an expansion draft. What this all means is that the goaltending situation will be THE story of 2016-17 for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Because, if Bobrovsky doesn’t come back to form, his $7 million plus cap hit may be best redeployed to other needs.
I think an expansion GM would look long and hard at the likes of Jack Johnson, William Karlsson and certainly a former-Vezina winner in Bobrovsky. If Atkinson were left unprotected, I think he would almost certainly be taken. The Jackets might have to engage in the types of trades we’ve seen in prior drafts to protect someone like Karlsson, where they give the expansion team some asset(s) in exchange for an agreement not to draft a certain player. Moving the salary of a Johnson or Bobrovsky (if he doesn’t return to the level he played at in prior seasons) would be good news for the Jackets going forward. It would give them some room to grow as some of their other players come off their entry-level and second contracts—keep in mind both Murray and Jenner are on bridge contracts for the next couple years and will see a pay raise after that.
Next time we’ll look at potential trades for the Jackets and what sort of return they might be able to get for the likes of Hartnell and Tyutin.