Columbus Blue Jackets Free Agent Watch

Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen has quite a few contracts to negotiate this summer. The club has a number of key players on the verge of unrestricted free agency (UFA) and several more who can become restricted free agents (RFAs). But the most important negotiation of all may be an extension for a player who still has a full year left on his current contract.

Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will have a busy offseason. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gary Wiepert)

Some of the players on expiring contracts are certain to attract much media attention, perhaps none more than Patrik Laine. He’ll be an RFA with “arbitration rights,” which provides him (and his agent) some leverage. For the technical details on arbitration rights for RFAs, see page 55 of the Memorandum of Understanding between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.

Blue Jackets’ Key Unrestricted Free Agents

Once a player meets certain age and experience requirements, he can become a UFA upon the expiration of his contract. As a UFA, he (and his agent) can negotiate with any of the 32 teams (yes, Seattle Kraken, I’m including you). The team with whom the player most recently was under contract can offer a deal as long as eight years, while other teams can offer a maximum of seven-year contracts. (That’s why you might see the “rights” to a UFA traded from one team to another, or a team sign a player to an eight-year contract and immediately trade that player.)

Mikhail Grigorenko

Forward Mikhail Grigorenko hasn’t been a regular in the Blue Jackets’ lineup this season, his first in the NHL since 2016-17. (He spent three years in the KHL before Columbus lured him back with a one-year, $1.2 million offer.) His offensive stats have not been overwhelming, but at the age of 27, he may have earned another “look-see” contract, probably another year – maybe two – to see if he can live up to his pre-draft potential.

Related: 5 Ways to Ruin an NHL Prospect

Grigorenko was picked No. 12 overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2012 Entry Draft. His best NHL season to date was 2015-16 when he recorded 27 points for the Colorado Avalanche. Over his three seasons with CSKA Moscow (2017-18 to 2019-20), he played 147 games with 46 goals and 117 points.

Michael Del Zotto

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto’s play this season likely earned him a contract for 2021-22, whether with the Blue Jackets or another team. Last offseason, he was unsigned and apparently unwanted. The Blue Jackets offered him a “tryout” contract to attend preseason training. His work effort netted him a one-year deal at the league minimum salary of $700,000. With an average time on ice (ATOI) of just over 16-and-a-half minutes, he’s been a reliable presence for the team and a “feel-good” story for fringe NHLers.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Del Zotto Expresses Desire to Stay in Columbus

There are, however, a couple of questions regarding his future in Columbus. Will there be room on the blueline for him, and at what cost? If the price is right, he could be a third-pair defenseman for the Blue Jackets next season, with the potential to be an injury fill-in higher up the pairings. Keep in mind, though, that other teams may come calling and with better contract offers.

Mikko Lehtonen

Obtained from the Toronto Maple Leafs for goaltending prospect Veini Vehvilainen in March, the 27-year-old defenseman hasn’t put up the flashy numbers he did playing in Finland, Sweden and, prior to Toronto signing him, in the KHL. His 66 points in 77 games for Jokerit Helsinki (60 games in 2019-20 and 17 in 2020-21) show his potential. He’s another player who may earn a “show-me” contract, perhaps one or two years in length, with a reasonably low salary and some decent performance bonuses.

Nick Foligno

While technically Nick Foligno is a Toronto Maple Leafs UFA, he left the door open to returning to Columbus this summer. The longest-serving captain in the history of the club, and a heart-and-soul member of the community, it would mean a lot to the locker room and the fans if he re-signed with Columbus. Depending on his performance in the playoffs, he could start a bidding war among a number of clubs.

Nick Foligno Columbus Blue Jackets
Will Nick Foligno return to the Columbus Blue Jackets as a UFA? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It will be up to the Blue Jackets’ management to decide how much money and term they’re willing to offer to bring him “home.” The feel-good part of the equation may take second place behind the actual salary and cap hit.

Other UFAs to Consider

In addition to the players mentioned, several other Blue Jackets are pending UFAs. Stefan Matteau, Zac Dalpe, Ryan MacInnis, Gavin Bayreuther, and Adam Clendening have a range of age and experience. None is younger than 25, and only one has more than 100 NHL games under his belt. As the season winds down, you’re likely to see each of them (well, maybe not much of Clendening) on the ice. How they play might determine whether or not an offer is proffered.

As my THW Blue Jackets team colleague Cody Chalfan pointed out in a telephone interview recently, an offer to defenseman Clendening may hinge on whether or not Del Zotto is re-signed by the club.

Blue Jackets’ Key Restricted Free Agents

Younger players with expiring contracts are “restricted” as free agents because of their lack of experience and/or age. The team with which they most recently were under contract retains the right to sign the player. Other teams may make “offer sheets,” which the original club has the option (but not obligation) to match. Such attempts to poach another team’s RFA are rare. But in these crazy days, who knows what will happen?

Patrik Laine

The centerpiece of the deal that sent Pierre-Luc  Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets, Laine is a big, young scoring machine. Or at least he should be. 2020-21 has been a disappointing season for him. He hasn’t unleashed his massive one-timer from the left circle nearly enough – and his statistics reflect that. Three of his 10 goals with the Blue Jackets came in the most recent two-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks. On three consecutive shots over the two games.

Patrik Laine Columbus Blue Jackets
Patrik Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Laine isn’t solely responsible for his decline in production. Near-constant line juggling and the lack of a true playmaking center haven’t helped. But Laine has shown that he can, in fact, be a one-man-band:

(A year from now, we may be tired of seeing that replay – it’s destined to be one of the flashy goals shown during TV timeouts on NHL.TV.)

The big question surrounding Laine’s next contract is likely length. Does the club want to lock him up long-term (assuming he finds that attractive), or do they negotiate a shorter-term contract based on this down season? His current salary of $6.75 million average annual value (AAV) is certain to go up, but by how much?

Laine’s agent is Andrew Scott of Octagon Athlete Representation. Scott also represents Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, one of the league’s leading scorers and brightest young lights. The No. 3 overall pick of the 2014 Draft (by Edmonton) is in the fourth year of an eight-year contract that has an AAV of $8.5 million. That’s pretty reasonable for a player who is currently second in the league in points and tied for fourth in goals. It’s not unreasonable to think that Laine might command comparable dollars on a long-term contract.

Alexandre Texier

He’s young, he’s fast, he has loads of talent, but can Texier become a top-six center in today’s NHL? Coach Tortorella was doubtful at the beginning of the season, considering “Tex” to be a longer-term project in the middle and more suited to playing on the wing. However, to the center he went, and the results were promising. An offseason bulking up (without losing a step) might be helpful for the 21-year-old.

Alexandre Texier Columbus Blue Jackets
Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Texier is certainly part of the young core around which the team is being built. He’ll be getting a big raise over his current contract, which carries a salary cap hit of under $900,000. But the question is, again, does the club lock him into a long contract at a young ago or give him a shorter contract with a chance to put himself in position to negotiate for really big bucks a couple of seasons from now?

Andrew Peeke

The designator successor to the now-departed David Savard, defenseman Andrew Peeke has had mixed results so far this season. Early in the 2020-21 season, he at times seemed overwhelmed in his own end of the ice, making bad decisions, bad passes, and bad turnovers. He spent time in the AHL (and on injured reserve), so his play with the Blue Jackets as the season winds down will be critical to negotiating his next contract. One thing I’m sure he’d love to see is a “one-way” contract, a contract that pays him the same in the NHL and the AHL. That would give the team a little impetus to keep him with the big club.

On the club’s side of negotiations is the fact that Peeke has not yet met the requirements to become a ‘Group 2” RFA. Under the current CBA, no other team can draw up an offer sheet for him. Columbus holds the high cards in this (hopefully uncontentious) showdown.

Kevin Stenlund

A big (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), young (24), strong center with oodles of speed and potential, is Stenlund the home-grown first-line center of the future? Some of his teammates were raving about his potential more than a year ago. But this season, he hasn’t been getting the ice time (12:24 ATOI) and opportunities needed to prove anything to anybody. Is he not earning the chance to prove himself, or is he part of a numbers game?

Kevin Stenlund Columbus Blue Jackets
Kevin Stenlund, Columbus Blue Jackets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Even as the club experiments and teases with younger players as this season winds down, Stelund finds himself scratched for the opener of a two-game series in Dallas. I expect him to remain with Columbus on a short-term, low-cost contract. Hopefully, a breakout season will earn him both ice time and a better contract in a couple of years.

Kole Sherwood

A hometown boy (born in the suburbs of Columbus and a graduate of the Ohio Blue Jackets junior hockey organization), Kole Sherwood will be getting his chance to shine as the season winds down for the Blue Jackets. He’ll likely see third or fourth-line minutes, but there’s no reason why he can’t use that time on ice to make himself noticeable.

He’s 24 years old, over six feet tall and somewhere in the neighborhood of 210 pounds. Yet he moves well and with purpose on the ice. Pencil him in for a two-way contract and expect the undrafted Sherwood to continue to develop his game primarily in the AHL next season.

Cam Johnson

Goaltender Cam Johnson may be re-signed simply to make him available in the upcoming Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft. Under the rules for the expansion draft, the Blue Jackets can protect one goalie but also must leave a qualified goalie unprotected and available. If Joonas Korpisalo is still a Blue Jacket, he’s certain to be the protected man. (Elvis Merzlikins doesn’t need to be added to the protected list because he counts as a second-year player.)

If Korpisalo is gone, Matiss Kivlenieks is likely to be the protected goalie, which would require either signing Johnson and exposing him in the expansion draft or trading for another goaltender simply for the purposes of protecting Kivlenieks.

The Special Situation of Seth Jones

While star defenseman Seth Jones still has a full year left on his current contract, the club can begin negotiations on an extension starting July 1. Why would they offer an extension while the player is still under contract? Jones is a bell-weather case: If he agrees to make a long-term commitment to the Blue Jackets, it will show other players that there is, in fact, a reason to stay in Columbus. I’m not alone in considering Jones’ future a key to that of the Blue Jackets:

The Blue Jackets can sign Jones to an extension this summer, and his willingness to commit to Columbus long-term will be held up — one way or another — as a wellness check on the organization.

–Aaron Portzline, “Rebuild or ‘reload’? How Seth Jones’ contract and other key questions will shape the Blue Jackets future,” The Athletic, April 14, 2021

If Jones declines to sign a multi-year contract or decides to postpone negotiations until next summer, it will send a completely different message to other players, both on the team and free agents, considering an offer from the club. “If Jones doesn’t want to play there, why should I?” “If he doesn’t have confidence and faith in the club, why should I?”

Seth Jones Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones, a cornerstone of the Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The non-free agent with the not-expiring contract very well could be the key to the future of the Blue Jackets. Not to sound alarmist, but if Jones won’t sign a multi-year contract with the Blue Jackets, it could prevent the club from attracting and keeping key players. And if the club can’t do that, does it have a future in Columbus? Can an organization that can’t bring in and keep star players survive in a market like Columbus? If they can’t sign Jones to an extension, could it eventually lead to relocation? No pressure, Jarmo. No pressure, Seth. Nope, none at all.