COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Blue Jackets set their roster by the NHL’s deadline on Monday. But, with two days to go before the season opener, is their roster settled?
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen has been looking for a trade partner since the early stages of the offseason, hoping to relieve a roster glut on both ends of the ice. But his desire to make a trade was only intensified by the way certain players performed in training camp.
The immediate focus is on defense. It’s possible a trade could be finalized before the Blue Jackets open the season on Thursday versus Philadelphia at Nationwide Arena. If so, which players might be available to bolster another team’s blue line?
Kekäläinen overhauled the Blue Jackets’ blue line in June with the acquisition of veterans Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson, but he’s not finished. The Jackets are apparently trying to make room in the lineup for David Jiricek, the No. 6 overall pick in 2022, who was sent to AHL Cleveland on Monday when the club made moves to get down to 23 players.
Jiricek, who spent all of last year with AHL Cleveland, had a strong training camp and preseason, totaling 0-2-2 and a plus-2 rating in four games. In Saturday’s preseason finale, he played several shifts on the top pair with Zach Werenski and did not look out of place.
The Blue Jackets are flush with right-shot defensemen. Adam Boqvist, Erik Gudbranson, Andrew Peeke and Severson are all right shots, and so is Nick Blankenburg, who was sent to AHL Cleveland on Monday along with Jiricek.
Of that group, Boqvist, a small but skilled 23-year-old, and Peeke, a rugged, stay-at-home 25-year-old, would likely be viewed the Blue Jackets’ most expendable defensemen.
On Monday, Boqvist practiced as the Blue Jackets’ seventh defenseman, suggesting that he’s in line to be a healthy scratch in Thursday’s opener. Coach Pascal Vincent insisted, however, that the lineup versus the Flyers is still being determined.
Boqvist came to Columbus as part of the blockbuster Seth Jones trade with Chicago in the hours before the 2022 NHL Draft. Over the last two seasons — a total of 98 games — Boqvist has more goals (16) than any other Columbus defensemen and is second only to Zach Werenski in points (46).
The Blue Jackets have tried Boqvist on the right side of Werenski several times, but Boqvist’s defensive liabilities and his struggles to win puck battles make it hard to play him on a top pair.
Peeke is almost the complete opposite as a player. He wins puck battles and donates his body to the cause most nights, having played more games (162) over the last two seasons than any other Blue Jackets player. But he has limited skill and is probably best utilized in a third-line/penalty-killing role.
Of those two, Boqvist would likely bring the bigger return, as skilled defensemen are highly regarded in today’s NHL. Plus, at only 23 years old, he still has the capacity to become more polished on both ends.
In normal times, trading a player with Boqvist’s skill or Peeke’s competitiveness wouldn’t be an issue, especially with so many clubs seeking right-side defensemen to balance out their back end.
But the NHL has endured a stagnant salary cap in recent seasons, leaving most clubs with very little room under the $83.5 million salary cap.
According to CapFriendly, 19 of the 32 clubs are within $1 million of the salary cap, and eight clubs would be over the cap if it weren’t for their usage of the long-term injured reserve.
The lack of cap room means that most NHL GMs are either looking for trades in which they can unload salary or make dollar-in, dollar-out swaps to realign their roster. So, Kekäläinen is trying to swing a trade in a difficult environment.
If he trades Boqvist or Peeke — or anybody else, for that matter — he doesn’t want a roster player in return, because that doesn’t relieve the gut. The Blue Jackets do have enough salary cap space (about $3 million) that would allow them to take another club’s bad contract and bury it in the minor leagues.
The Blue Jackets view Jiricek as one of their top prospects, and they’re being ultra-careful in developing him the right way. Vincent has made it clear that Jiricek returning to the minor leagues could be the best plan for his development.
But it was a tough decision on Monday, Vincent said.
“A guy like Jiricek is right there,” Vincent said. “He’s close. He’s a good player. We know he’s going to be a Blue Jacket for a long time. But decisions have to be made and we made them. Some are really hard.”
(Photo of Adam Boqvist: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)