The Free Agent Frenzy is one of the three big events of the year circled on the calendars of armchair general managers, as it, the draft, and the trade deadline are always brimming with the possibility of high-calibre player movement. It is also a time of optimism where teams, fans, and reporters look toward best-case scenarios for their respective teams. That’s what we’ll be doing here today for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It will be a look into the “perfect world” additions at each position that the Jackets could sign on July 13. These players would also fill a need that the team has and could reasonably be added within their current salary cap structure.
As of the writing of this piece, the Blue Jackets have $16,916,667 in projected cap space. We’ll need to put some money away for Patrik Laine‘s new contract, however, this is a perfect world scenario, so we’ll say his contract comes in at $9 million so that leaves approximately $7.92 million to play with.
Even in a perfect world just under $8 million would probably only be enough to sign one of these candidates, so keep in mind that each of these scenarios would be mutually exclusive. My disclaimer is that some of these will be more realistic than others. Alright, now that we’ve laid everything out, let’s have a look at the “perfect world” free agent signings for this offseason.
Goalie – Braden Holtby
The Blue Jackets don’t need a goalie, as they’ve already got three signed to NHL contracts, but if they did, Braden Holtby would be a perfect fit.
How many former Vezina Trophy-winning and Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders are there on the market? There’s only Holtby. On top of those accolades, he brings eight years of starting goalie experience with the powerhouse Washington Capitals of the 2010s. He also knows what it takes to win over 40 games in a season, which he’s done on three occasions. Add in his 97 games of playoff experience and you’ve got a thoroughly experienced goaltender at the still young-ish age of 32.
If you look at it, that’s a player that you want the Blue Jackets’ starting goalie of the future to learn from. No matter if that’s Elvis Merzlikins or Daniil Tarasov, Holtby would be a great person to have in the locker room on a daily basis. The other benefit to signing him is that he has had a few weak seasons in recent history, which will drive his cap hit down into backup goalie territory.
This could all be moot dependent on if there is any truth to the recent rumour, reported by Daily Faceoff, that Holtby’s next season – and maybe career – are over due to a nagging lower-body injury that has plagued the keeper. However, in a perfect world, that proves false and he could be just what the Blue Jackets need in a backup goalie.
Defenseman – Josh Manson
This is not a “sexy” signing, but Josh Manson checks all the boxes of what the Blue Jackets’ defense needs, as he is a hard guy to move around at 6-foot-3 and over 210 pounds. He brings a blue-collar work ethic that comes from grinding his way through three years of college hockey after being recruited out of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). The other big factor that he would bring to the roster is a recent Stanley Cup win with the Colorado Avalanche. He also has a lot of experience that would be great to pass along to the next generation Blue Jackets that have championship aspirations.
Manson will be 31 years old when the next season kicks off, which is nearing a dangerous age range for a physical player, but regardless, his veteran presence would be a great help on the blue line. Even if his physical style catches up with him, think of how beloved the veteran tough-nosed defenseman Shea Weber was to the youngsters on the Montreal Canadiens – even though he was out often with injury.
Even if you have to overpay a little on Manson giving him a deal comparable to Tyler Myers at around $6 million, it could be worth it. That is of course, provided he’s signed for not too long at that number. A three-year deal would be a nice term for Manson at his age, as his hard-nosed, shutdown style mixed with experience is exactly what the Blue Jackets need on their back end right now.
Winger – Valeri Nichushkin
Coming off of the same championship run as Manson, Valeri Nichushkin will likely be another casualty of the reigning Avalanche. However, Nichushkin is a bit of a different case.
The Blue Jackets were heavily criticized for being too easy to push around in the corners, and Nichushkin’s 6-foot-4 frame is not an easy one to push around. He also has experience playing on the first line with legitimate talent in the Avalanche’s top-six, so you would think that he would be able to fit in well with a player like Patrik Laine.
This is a move that is made a lot more realistic if the Blue Jackets were to clear some of the logjam of top-six wingers. Let’s be clear, the team does not need any wingers. They have a surplus of them, which means to make room for Nichushkin, either Gustav Nyquist or Oliver Bjorkstrand would need to be moved. I circle those names since they all bring a similar role to the team and one could be moved to add more dimensions to the forward corps.
At only 27 years old and coming off of a career year, Nichushkin could be priced a little outside of the Blue Jackets’ price range. However his power-forward mentality and two-way game are exactly what they need to help add a new look up front.
Center – Evgeni Malkin
Somehow, at the time of writing, it’s mid-July and Evgeni Malkin has yet to re-sign a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. According to the Russian, the Penguins think he’s “not good anymore.” This means, they’re either executing some sort of negotiation tactic to get his cap hit down, or Penguins’ general manager Ron Hextall has lost his mind.
In his age 35 season, Malkin still posted 20 goals and 42 points through 41 games. Yes, he’s been hit with injuries the past three seasons, but that clearly hasn’t hurt his productivity. He is still a beast at 6-foot-3, who is able to turn his game up to the next level and make the big play when he is needed to. If he makes it to free agency, more than half of the teams in the NHL should be giving his agent a call.
For the Blue Jackets, adding a player like Malkin would be a dream. Even at 36, he would be a legitimate number one center. The energy of the Jackets’ young guns could also provide a boost to the former all-star since he’s used to playing with a veteran team in Pittsburgh. Adding a center who has won five different NHL awards and three Stanley Cups is exactly the type of guy that they need in Columbus to provide an example to their fresh young core.
Now while it’s a long shot, it’s not entirely unprecedented. Let me paint you a picture.
A former Hart Trophy winner and future hall of fame Russian centerman making his way to Ohio after hitting age 35. Does that sound familiar? Detroit Red Wings legend Sergei Fedorov made the same move to the Blue Jackets, providing a veteran presence in the back nine of his career. To be fair, the move to the Buckeye State wasn’t by choice, as he was traded to Columbus from the Anaheim Ducks, but still, we’ve seen a version of this before.
At this point in the franchise’s existence, with the number of players on their way up, they could be an attractive destination for a player looking for a fresh start. Rumour has it that Malkin has been offered a $6 million average annual value (AAV) contract from the Penguins. The Jackets could beat that figure on the market, not by much, but it is doable.
Realistically, I’d say only one of these players has a legitimate shot of playing in a Blue Jackets jersey next season. This was more of an exercise looking at the type of player that could be used to fill holes on the current roster. Stick around, on July 12 we’ll have the Blue Jackets’ realistic free agent targets at each position. Having said that, maybe one of the “perfect world” players could be a little more realistic than you think.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.