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[HUGE IF TRUE breaks down the plausibility of the week's biggest rumor.]
The Columbus Blue Jackets are the worst team in hockey this year. There was plenty of reason to believe they would be bad, but not quite this bad.
It has been a weird season for the NHL overall — the Florida Panthers lead their division, the Anaheim Ducks are second-last in the West, the Pittsburgh Penguins are five points out of a playoff spot, etc. — but there were a lot of people who had Columbus actually doing something this year. They finished last season incredibly strong, they traded for Brandon Saad, they expected Sergei Bobrovsky to turn in a vintage performance, and so on. Pierre McGuire famously picked the Blue Jackets to win the Metro, which seemed crazy even at the time.
Instead Columbus is spiraling out and a tweet that has gotten a lot of play in the last few days highlights the real issue for the team:
Let's put it this way: The Blue Jackets are so bereft of answers for what has gone wrong that Ryan Johansen has somehow become the fall guy. He was healthy-scratched two weeks ago, the team has openly spoken of its willingness to trade him (or anyone else), and has been pulling fourth-line duty for a few games now.
Tough to guess how you watch this long, slow, never-ending car wreck and say to yourself, “The real problem here is the best center on the team by a mile,” but that's John Tortorella for you.
And ever since all this has gone down, rumors of a Ryan Johansen trade have been churning not so far beneath the surface.
Who's Going Where?
The good news for Columbus is that if they're looking to trade Johansen — and they 100 percent should not be — is that there will be a line around the block for his services. Teams always have a need for centers in their early 20s with 30-goal ceilings, and if he's being made available a lot of teams with cap space will want in on the bidding.
The bad news is that if Tortorella keeps using him as he has (and why would he of all people stop?) the value of the player is likely to diminish greatly. Further, it's not as if Johansen and Columbus have any sort of long-standing amicable relationship on which they can fall back to say, “Remember the good times?” There have, frankly, been very few good times between team and player in this situation, and continued treatment of this nature isn't likely to endear player to coach. Maybe you say the same is true of coach to player, but honestly if you think Tortorella has greater value to a franchise than Johansen, please see yourself out of the conversation at this point.
Here's team president John Davidson on the team's current openness to trade anyone, in direct response to a question about Johansen's status:
“The situation is we’re in a position where we’re trying to upgrade our team. If we can make a deal — I don’t care who it is — we’re sitting at the bottom of the heap right now. Unless the contract stipulates otherwise, everybody’s tradable. That’s hockey. It could be Joey, or it could be anybody else. If we feel it’s the right deal, we make the deal. …
“When Joey’s not playing as well as we’ve seen him play in the past, or when Joey is benched, people phone us. That’s what happens. You always answer the phone; that’s our job. And if something makes sense, no matter who it is … I’m not going to point just at Joey. This goes for anybody right now: If it makes sense, we’ll do it.”
Part of that quote — the part about people calling the Blue Jackets about Johansen's availability — is illuminating, especially when used in conjunction with the information from Elliotte Friedman earlier this week that Jarmo Kekalainen is hitting the phones harder than anyone in the league. But all indications are that he's “nowhere near a deal.”
It's probably a good thing that the team now realizes it has a mess of a roster on its hands, but their page on General Fanager is a house of horrors unrivaled in recent NHL history. No one has doubled down on poor talent as much as they have, both in money and term. And five of the team's worst players have no-movement clauses that make their already-untradeable contracts even more untradeable.
Let's put it this way: A few years from now, in 2017-18, Columbus will have 11 NHL players on their current contracts. Those players are Saad, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, David Clarkson, Scott Hartnell, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert, Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson, David Savard, and Sergei Bobrovsky. Not a great group there, especially when you consider their total cost against the cap for those players is nearly $53.6 million (!!!!!). Can you even imagine having to try to trade your way out of that?
If you were in that situation, you might feel so beleaguered that trading Johansen seems like your only reasonable option to improve your team long-term.
But again, if you let your coach treat your star player like this, that star player going to be upset, unlikely to re-sign in the first place, and perhaps most important in this situation, not producing on the ice.
Rumors persist that Johansen isn't in shape — in all this sound and fury the last few weeks, it's been easy to forget his distress or illness or whatever it was back in October, or that he was hospitalized over the summer — but regardless selling him now is selling him at his absolute lowest value, by a factor of 10.
Not that Johansen has the apparent value at this point in his career that Joe Thornton did so long ago, but that this parallel is being brought up on occasion these days is telling as far as the mindset goes. “Yeah they didn't get anything back for Thornton but they won the Cup five years later.”
If you think that's a reasonable issue here,
This Is So Huge, If True: Is It True?
On a B.S. detector scale of 1-5, with one being the most reasonable and 5 being the least:
The point of all this being Columbus's problems are so much bigger than Johansen maybe-maybe-not being in shape and getting benched and playing on the fourth line. He seems very much like one of those guys who, like Thornton, ends up going from borderline great to elite with a change of scenery that puts him on a team carrying actual talented players.
Again, this is a front office that has committed more than $53 million and plenty of term to 11 players — not including Johansen, mind you — who are just not very big difference-makers, but also feel as though this is a “collection of good players.” It is not. But if that's the level of talent evaluation at which they're operating, then it's perfectly plausible that Johansen would be traded.
As such, we can give this:
You can see where and perhaps even why they're laying the blame at his feet, in much the same way Thornton was blamed in a truly bizarre fashion so many years ago for Boston's struggles. They might trade him, but there's a huge gap between the impact the Thornton trade had and what a theoretical Johansen swap would have.
When the Boston Bruins traded Thornton, they cleared the modern-dollar equivalent of more than $12 million in inflation-adjusted cap obligations. That's a lot of money, especially when you consider that Johansen currently only costs $4 million against the cap. They'd need to also offload another $8 million and take back considerably less to make a similar impact on roster flexibility.
Also, let me know how Columbus does signing a Norris winner this summer and bringing in an actual elite coach.
(All statistics via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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