The free agency period has not always been beneficial for Ohio-based sports teams. Always stuck with the term “mid-market” (generously put) or “small market”, Ohio sports teams face very tight budgets that negatively affect their spending decisions. Spendthrift choices can often lead to mediocrity. In a game now controlled by a salary cap, the National Hockey League has become a business where critical spending decisions are pretty much the only way to succeed.
Very few National Hockey League teams win without big stars. Those who only have one or two big stars are on the golf course by mid-April. At best, the entry draft tends to produce one or two bona fide NHL players per team. When the new collective bargaining agreement was reached during the lockout, one of the NHL’s chief objectives was parity. Such parity has been reached, but not without forcing top teams to lose their big stars.
Currently, the Jackets cap number sits at $38,954,819 and the league’s salary cap is $56,300,000. Goaltender Pascal Leclaire is in line for a huge raise as a restricted free agent. Ron Hainsey is also an unrestricted free agent. That leaves them almost $12-14 million to spend on the team’s most glaring needs: a first line center, consistent secondary scoring, and a top-two defenseman.
With the current state of salaries in the NHL, the past couple trade deadlines have been the busiest in history. Teams just cannot afford unrestricted free agents and are forced to jettison them for cheap prospects and draft picks. One thing that this system allows teams to do is compete better after being at the bottom. With that, I bring you my 2008 unrestricted free agency wish list for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Broken down into the categories of Red Ryder BB Guns (the must have players of the group) Leg Lamps (the “it was nice to actually sign somebody”, but not at the top of the list group) and Bars of Soap (the signings that will leave a bad taste in your mouth).
Red Ryder BB Guns
Brian Rolston – While it is entirely possible that Rolston re-signs with the Minnesota Wild because they are a perennial playoff team and the team’s top offseason priority, he would be a great addition to the Jackets. Rolston has scored 30 goals the past three seasons on a team known for its defensive system. The two-way forward has posted an impressive +19 over the past three seasons. With a healthy Marian Gaborik in the 2004-2005 season, Rolston racked up a career high 79 points. Rolston turned 35 this past February, so he’ll probably be looking for a three or four-year deal. Rolston is a phenomenal penalty killer, plays well on the point on the powerplay, and can be very responsible at center in his own zone.
An update on this is that Rolston’s exclusive negotiating rights have been traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This means that they are the only team able to communicate with Rolston until 12 a.m. on July 1.
Kristian Huselius – Secondary scoring would help to take the pressure off Rick Nash and the glaring need for a legit first-line center. Kristian Huselius could provide that, or complement Nash on the first line. Huselius had a coming out party during the 2006-2007 season with 77 points and a +21. While his goal scoring took a small dive this past season, Huselius still amassed 66 points in 81 games with a +10. A crafty forward with 59 powerplay points over his last two seasons, Huselius would add some much needed scoring punch to the Jackets.
Matt Cooke – A player I have always followed because of his tenacity and ability to play on a mean third line should be available in Matt Cooke. While he is far from the big-name signing that the Jackets could use, he’s a Ken Hitchcock type player who has no fear of forechecking hard and playing the body. Don’t expect a lot of production from Cooke, but his intangibles are worth adding to a team that could use some more grit.
Cory Stillman – Cory Stillman hit his prime late in his career, having a breakout season with Tampa Bay before the lockout stopped hockey for a season. After being a point-per-game player in 2005-2006, Stillman battled injuries during the 06-07 campaign. Last season, he was traded to Ottawa at the deadline and wound up with 65 points in 79 games between Carolina and Ottawa. He’ll help provide that secondary scoring on a second line and has played on two Stanley Cup champion teams. Playoff experience is something the Jackets definitely lack.
Radim Vrbata – Just rolling into the prime of his career, Radim Vrbata has eclipsed his career high in points each of the last three seasons. With the signing of Olli Jokinen, Wayne Gretzky and his front office team will be looking to free up some cap room with Jokinen’s impending free agency. Vrbata had 56 points in 76 games this past season. He would likely fill David Vyborny’s role if he goes back to the Czech Republic as has been rumored.
Mark Recchi – I know that this looks like a move going in the wrong direction, but Mark Recchi is a guy who just knows how to win. At age 40, he may not be able to play all 82 games, but his experience and what he can pass on to such a young team would be invaluable. He managed to put up 40 points in 53 games with a terrible Atlanta team, so the tank is not empty yet. If GM Scott Howson wants to give the team a new outlook, this is a good move to start with. His cap hit will not be an issue and likely can be had for a one-year deal.
Bars of Soap
Mats Sundin – Arguably the second best player available this year behind Marian Hossa, Sundin is going to command a contract that will be an albatross to whoever signs him. The longtime Maple Leaf still produces consistently (78 or 76 points over each of the past three seasons) and is a definite leader. However, he is 38 years old. Certainly, he could be a stopgap at the first line center position until Derick Brassard is ready, but he will likely get a two or three year deal in the area of 6-7 million dollars. That is a figure that the small market Jackets cannot afford.
Miroslav Satan – Another player who has the ability to produce offensively, but has a tendency to be lazy more often than not. His point production has decreased in each of the last three seasons and he has been a minus player each of the last four. He will turn 34 this October. He has become more of a powerplay specialist than a consistent scorer, something the Jackets are already set with.
Overall Analysis of Forwards
It’s a very weak year at the forward position for free agency. I eliminated Marian Hossa from my wish list because the Jackets simply cannot afford him. He will probably command a four or five-year deal worth $8 million annually. With the consensus top free agent forward taken completely out of play, the Jackets can get value with any of the six guys mentioned above.
Brian Campbell – The consensus top free agent defenseman in this year’s group is definitely going to receive a pretty penny. Traded from Buffalo at the deadline because they felt that they had no chance to afford him, Campbell played well for San Jose before taking the penalty that led to Brendan Morrow’s eventual series winning goal. Campbell’s just now hitting his prime. With his patented spin-o-rama, Campbell has set career highs in points the last three seasons. This past year he racked up 62 points between Buffalo and San Jose. He will likely get a multi-year deal averaging $6-6.5 million annually.
Wade Redden – Wade Redden is an interesting case. For years, he had been overshadowed (as everyone is) by 6’9” Zdeno Chara in Ottawa. Now that he was the leader of Ottawa’s tremendous defense corps, he is looking to cash in. Redden is not as good a fit for the Jackets as Campbell would be, because he is more sound defensively. The Jackets are desperate for offense from the blue line, but Redden is still a shutdown top-two defenseman. Redden probably will not have a season like his 05-06 year where he had a career high 50 points and a terrific +38, but his 38 points last year were very respectable. He will also get a multi-year deal from a loser in the Campbell sweepstakes around $5-5.5 annually.
Michal Rozsival – Though Rozsival is not a household name like Brian Campbell to the casual hockey fan, he is a very good fit for the Blue Jackets. Just two points off his career high of 40 during the past season, Rozsival is a smart two-way defenseman with the ability to keep getting better. Because he is not a Redden or a Campbell, he can be had a little bit cheaper and he will turn 30 in September, making him a great long-term signing. He is rehabbing from hip surgery, which can scare some teams, and he turned down a $20 million extension from the Rangers, probably worth about $4 million annually.
Brooks Orpik – Orpik is coming off his best season helping the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final. Recently, he turned down a four-year $3.5 million annually contract with the Penguins. He will test the market, and probably look to command $4-4.5 million a year from his suitors. Orpik is a bruising physical specimen at 6’2” 219 and just entering his prime at the age of 28. Another guy who will not contribute much offense, but he can be a punishing force and a very good shutdown defenseman. He has become more disciplined, dropping his penalty minute totals in each of the last three seasons.
Mike Commodore – Big bodied Mike Commodore is one of the best bottom-four defenseman available. He is extremely responsible in his own zone and has great awareness. He struggled with Ottawa after being traded there at the deadline with only 2 points and a -9 in 26 games, but Commodore is a good, cheap option to provide depth. Commodore turns 29 this November, so signing him to a two or three-year deal carries little risk.
Mark Streit – Mark Streit will be viewed as the poor man’s Brian Campbell in this year’s free agency. He enjoyed his coming out party season this past year with 62 points in 81 games. With 27 assists on the powerplay, he fills a void that will be left by Ron Hainsey on the Blue Jackets powerplay unit. He will be a secondary option for teams that lose out on Campbell, so if the Jackets do not plan on pursuing Campbell, they should go to Streit’s agent first before the price goes up. He could be in line for a four-year deal worth around $3-3.5 annually.
Paul Mara – Yet another imposing figure, the 6’4” 219 lb. Mara could fill the same role as Commodore on the Jackets. Also about to turn 29 at the start of the season, Mara is a player that has always been known for being a good positional defenseman and somebody able to cover for a more aggressive defense partner. He had 17 points in 61 games with the New York Rangers this past season, battling some injuries later in the year.
Brad Stuart – Brad Stuart flourished in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs with the champion Red Wings posting a +15 in the tournament. After being a highly sought after commodity at the trade deadline, Stuart played just 9 games with the Red Wings before the playoffs, battling various injuries. The former 3rd-overall pick in the 1998 draft is another free agent turning 29 this November. He will probably be the most expensive of the non-top tier defensemen, searching for a deal worth $3.5-4 million annually, but could be worth every penny to a young team like the Jackets.
Jason Smith – A team leader and a veteran presence, Jason Smith will turn 35 in November. Smith is another defensive defenseman who will not contribute much on offense, but will certainly help the Jackets. He would likely be a bottom pairing guy, maybe somebody to help Kris Russell develop and someone that could cover his mistakes when he gets aggressive and turn the puck over. With only 11 points last year and a career high of 20, Smith does not address the biggest need, but adds depth and experience. He could probably be had for a two-year deal worth around $2.5 million annually.
Jaroslav Modry – The Philadelphia Flyers took a flier on Modry at the trade deadline and he was a -17 for them in 28 games. Modry had some success earlier this decade with the Los Angeles Kings, but turned 37 this past season and will not be any better than the Jackets’ current defensemen.
Rob Blake – A household name in the mid-90s and earlier this decade, Blake’s name has been thrown about in trade rumors in each of the past few seasons. Blake turns 39 this December and, though he played on a terrible Kings team, posted a -45 over the past two seasons. Avoid him like the plague.
Overall Analysis of Defensemen
I firmly believe that it is imperative for the Columbus Blue Jackets to get one of the top four defensemen (the Red Ryder group) to be a potential playoff team. With the most money to spend of any team outside of Nashville, the Jackets have to be especially proactive in terms of defensemen. Filling the cap of Ron Hainsey with an offensive defenseman is critical, as is being able to find someone to play with Kris Russell. Russell has tremendous offensive ability, but is still learning his trade and can get burned from being too aggressive.
To Become A Playoff Team
The Columbus Blue Jackets have the money to spend. They are the only NHL franchise to never make the playoffs. The time is now for that. Pascal Leclaire really matured as a goaltender last year and the Hitchcock system seems to be working for the players. The Jackets could do themselves a huge favor getting a top-four defenseman for three or four years until 2nd round pick Chad Goloubef is ready to contribute. A top line center may not be achievable this year in free agency, but surrounding Rick Nash with secondary scorers will help. With lots of assets to spend and a new philosophy under GM Scott Howson, the Jackets have a chance to vault themselves into a strong contender for a playoff spot come March of 2009.
A free agent tracking thread can be found in “The Neutral Zone”, the NHL forum on TheClevelandFan.com’s message board by following this link: http://www.theclevelandfan.com/boards/viewforum.php?f=19