It’s not at all rare for a contending NHL team to say “Fuck it” and go all-in at the trade deadline. God knows the window of opportunity to win a Cup is small and it makes sense, rather than overvaluing the potential of prospects and draft picks, to acquire the One Final PieceTM that will put you over the top in the long, grueling playoffs.
In 2012, the Kings traded Jack Johnson (a former No. 3 pick) and a first-rounder for Jeff Carter, a hot-and-cold, one-dimensional player. Carter scored eight goals in the playoffs that season, including the Cup-clincher. Does anyone in L.A. even remember, let alone care, what Carter cost?
Even when it doesn’t work, it can work. The 2007–08 Penguins traded three players and a first-round pick for Marián Hossa, who went on to score 26 points in 20 playoff games. The Pens lost the Finals in six games to the Red Wings, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Pittsburgh who regrets the trade.
What isn’t common is to see a team shoot its proverbial wad like the Columbus Blue Jackets did at this trade deadline without even being certain of making the playoffs. With less than a quarter of the regular season remaining, Columbus is currently in a three-way battle with Montreal and Pittsburgh for the Eastern Conference’s two wild card spots.
How hard did CBJ hit the trade deadline? They acquired talented centers Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, plus, in smaller moves, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kincaid. After their spending spree, they have but a single one of their own draft picks remaining for the 2019 draft (a third-rounder, plus Calgary’s seventh) and potentially no picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft. They took on $11.8 million in 2018–19 cap hits. All of this from a team that could reasonably been expected to have been sellers at the deadline. What’s going on?
Two of the franchise’s cornerstones—two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and Russian Patrick Kane clone Artemi “Bread Man” Panarin—are unrestricted free agents this summer and both have been, let’s say, hesistant about expressing their desires to remain in Columbus long-term. No, it’s is not exactly a high-visibility sporting, cultural, or media metropolis (although in Columbus’s favor there’s Pierogi Mountain, which could help the Jackets’ cause by adding Russian pelmeni to the menu). Panarin’s camp hasn’t hidden his desire to play in a bigger market, or at least a warmer one.
Columbus could comfort itself with bromides about money talking during free agency, but Panarin is a top scoring threat in his prime (27) and Bobrovsky is easily the best goalie to hit free agency in years. Both players will be offered buckets of money from a range of teams. Columbus can’t reasonably outbid the competition without blowing up its salary cap, with young stars Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois in need of bridge deals this summer and next, respectively.
GM Jarmo Kekäläinen appears to be taking a not-totally-insane risk that by betting the mortgage money at the trade deadline he can convince one or both Russians to stick around by showing a real commitment to winning—Look, the front office is doing all it can!—and possibly by making a deep run this postseason. If the Blue Jackets make, say, a conference final, wouldn’t it be that much harder for a player who wants a Cup to decide to leave?
But there’s one obvious problem, if this is indeed Kekäläinen’s strategy: what did Columbus really get?
The trade deadline is much like free agency—it’s not necessarily about choosing from among the best players but the best available players. Columbus brought in four guys, none of whom are going to be mistaken for Jeff Carter or Marian Hossa in their primes.
Dzingel is a quality second- or third- line forward in the midst of a career scoring season. Adam McQuaid is a depth defenseman, a fourth or fifth guy, who has twice gone the distance in the playoffs with Boston. Kincaid is replacement-level goaltending depth in case of an injury in net. What they are not are game-changing acquisitions that make CBJ a sudden favorite.
The guy about whom Columbus will try to make that argument is Duchene, and that’s frankly absurd. He is a veteran, offense-first guy who has made a career out of putting up points on bad teams. He’s played in 707 regular season NHL games, and a whole eight in the playoffs (zero goals, six assists). And it isn’t like he put up truly gaudy offensive numbers even with top-line and power-play minutes on bad teams. His career high is 70 points. He also put up 67 points in 2010–11 as a 20 year-old. Other than that, he has scored fewer than 60 points in every NHL season. This season, with free agency looming and stuck on a last-place team, he put up 58 points in 50 games for Ottawa. Good numbers, but it’s not clear that offense from a guy whose game brings little else is really what Columbus needs.
In favor of the move, it’s hard to argue that any other trade targets could have improved the team more. The pickings were slim at this deadline. Marcus Johansson (tantalizing, underwhelming), Wayne Simmonds (great guy, but beaten up and starting to decline), Kevin Hayes, and Derick Brassard aren’t exactly the 1976 Canadiens.
There was Mark Stone, of course, but his status as “best available player” has severely overinflated his value around the league. Do you really want to give up young roster players and high draft picks in quantity for the privilege of paying Mark Stone—career highs 28 goals, 64 points—$9.5 million annually on a long-term extension? That’s what Alex Ovechkin makes. If he helps Vegas win a Cup they won’t care, but if not…well, they gave up (and paid) an awful lot for a poor man’s Patrick Sharp.
The Blue Jackets are what they are—a decent, deep team that got better, adding useful depth and scoring punch at the deadline after assessing (quite reasonably) that they are in a win-now situation. If Panarin and Bob walk in July, Columbus gets nothing. It either had to sell them—imagine the ransom for Panarin, with teams fighting over Mark Stone—or try to get them to buy in completely. The team certainly paid a high price, and there will be some long-term damage from two denuded drafts.
Kekäläinen benefits from the confidence of Columbus’ owners. That enables him to take this risk without fearing the pink slip. Really, what is the worst-case scenario here? Either this roster contends, or the Russian free agents leave and Kekäläinen can rebuild with extremely attractive trade bait. Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno, Seth Jones, and other talent with team-friendly contracts could quickly restock the team with draft picks and prospects if dangled this summer. This isn’t a crazy “GM tries to save his job” situation, mortgaging a good future to salvage a lost season. Either CBJ continues building around its Russian stars or it starts over with the next generation of guys like Dubois and Werenski.
So, let’s be honest. It’s Columbus. The team struggles to attract attention despite being Pretty Good and blessed with players who are legitimately fun to watch. What the hell do they have to lose? This is not merely about winning right now, but about being bold and establishing some kind of presence despite playing in a relatively quiet market. As a hockey fan, it’s refreshing for for me to see a team trying to win rather than strategizing some nebulous future success. Ask any fan whose team is still playing in May and they’ll tell you that it’s worth whatever it cost.