Expansion Draft Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

We’re only at the quarter pole to this shortened season, and already the Columbus Blue Jackets have been the focus of all the drama. Holdouts, benchings, trades, more benchings; and now that the dust has settled, a club that is fighting to stay above the .500 mark.

We won’t go over the early season hijinx except in summary: Pierre-Luc DuBois is out; Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic are in; and Head Coach John Tortorella’s relationship with the media continues to be contentious.

That’s not to say the drama is over, by any means. Torts prefers what I refer to as a “blunt instrument” style of play: skate-pass-check-shoot, none of this highlight reel nonsense; give 110% every shift, every game, both directions; and, most importantly, it’s my way or the highway.

Laine has just left one team amidst rumors of locker room politics and a botched relationship with his coach. He is a shoot-first forward, sometimes ignoring an open man with a better angle while firing off a low-percentage wrister. Only once in his career has he ended the season with more assists than goals. And his defensive effort can best be described as “casual”. To put it bluntly, he’s focused on himself, not the team.

Unsurprisingly, he has already run afoul of Tortorella’s unwritten rules once, and my hunch is that won’t be the last time. He is also a restricted free agent at the end of this season, setting the stage for a front-office showdown: is Laine worth more to them in a Blue Jackets uniform, or in somebody else’s?

But I get ahead of myself.

Protected List

I don’t envy the Blue Jackets their task for this upcoming expansion draft. In a way, they are a slave to Tortorella’s whims in terms of who they keep and who they expose to Seattle.

For example, winger Max Domi and his $5.3 million AAV contract are currently languishing in Torts’ doghouse and getting bottom-six minutes at even strength. But then when Columbus goes on the power play, Domi is the first one over the boards.

So, do you hang on to that player and his hefty salary, just for the power play boost? Do you want your 4th line right wing earning more than your 1st line left wing? And if you do choose to protect Domi, which one of your other young forwards do you sacrifice?

To help make up our protected list, we have leveraged the opinions from Columbus media sources — print, broadcast, and online — who are intimately familiar with the team and its players, management, coaches, and history with cap management.

So with the caveat that this list may or may not bear any resemblance to the list Columbus submits to the league this July, we assume that the Blue Jackets will adopt the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Max Domi, Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Jack Roslovic

Defensemen: Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov

Goaltender: Joonas Korpisalo

As we mentioned, the biggest question marks on this list are Domi and Laine, and assuming they are both still on the Columbus roster, there is little argument that they will be protected. But it would not surprise me in the slightest to see one or both of them moved at the trade deadline.

No Thank You

There are players that we expect to be left exposed that are either 1) too expensive, 2) not performing, 3) too old, or 4) fall into two or more of the aforementioned categories. As such, we will be dismissing the possibility of selecting either of the following players:

Forwards: Nick Foligno

Defense: David Savard

It should be noted that both Foligno and Savard will be UFA at the end of the current season. Furthermore, center Brandon Dubinsky missed all of last season with a wrist injury, has not played this season, and will likely be declared exempt from the draft due to a career-ending injury. He, too, is UFA at season’s end, when a retirement announcement is expected.

We will also state here that three players who have prominent roles in the Blue Jackets’ lineup — forward Alexandre Texier, defenseman Andrew Peeke, and goaltender Elvis Merzlikins — are all exempt from the draft.

Who’s Left?

We’ll eliminate forwards Riley Nash and Mikhail Grigorenko, who are regular performers in the Columbus lineup, but who are unrestricted free agents at season’s end. If Kraken GM Ron Francis has interest in either of them, we will assume he will pursue those players in the free agent market.

Setting aside the farm team fodder, this leaves three rather juicy selections available for the Kraken; two forwards and one on the blue line.

C Kevin Stenlund, $874,000, RFA. The most noteworthy thing about Stenlund is his size: 6’4″ and 209 lbs., and he uses that big frame to his advantage. The knock against him is his skating, but he plays big and smart: solid puck handling skills, protects the puck well, intelligent passer, and he is difficult to play against. He’s also a right-handed center, though his face-off win percentage needs work. At present he is averaging 13 minutes a night as the 3rd line pivot, and working the hash marks on the 2nd power play unit. At age 24, there is plenty of room to grow his game.

LW Eric Robinson, $925,000, signed through 2022. This is John Tortorella’s kind of player: big, fast, and goes straight at the problem. He does his best work in the slot, slipping free of defenders and looking for deflections and tap-ins. But he will also cheat to the red line, catch a breakout pass, and blow the doors off of unsuspecting defensemen. Not afraid to do the dirty work, the 6’2″ New Jersey native is grinding it out on the fourth line for the Blue Jackets, where he has 3 goals, 4 assists, and a plus-4 rating. Robinson is not a work in progress; he is a fully-formed defensive forward offering depth scoring.

RD Dean Kukan, $1.65 million, signed through 2022. Kukan is the consensus pick among the league pundits, though I’ll argue that he isn’t a slam-dunk choice. After posting zero points and a minus-5 in 3 games against Carolina, he’s been a healthy scratch for the last week. He’s billed as a two-way defenseman, but his instincts are offensive: the good news is, he has good judgment when executing his Bobby Orr expeditions up the ice, so he rarely gets caught out of position. His shot from the point needs work, being too often high and off the mark, no doubt contributing to his low point totals. But there is some potential there, and a single year at $1.65 million offers flexibility if he doesn’t pan out.

We’ll note here that with goaltender Merzlikins exempt and fellow ‘keeper Korpisalo protected, many armchair GM’s are looking at next-in-line Matiss Kivlenieks as being worthy of consideration — assuming the brain trust that roped in the other two must have access to an untapped pipeline of talented netminders, and Kivlenieks is cut from the same cloth.

But Kivlenieks doesn’t appear to be nearly as talented, and his stats show that pretty conclusively. He has failed to produce at the AHL level, and even within the Columbus organ-eye-zation his stock is falling. When compared to young netminders available from other teams, Kivlenieks doesn’t make the top 10, and we don’t consider him a potential target for the Kraken.

Let’s Make A Deal

With this short list of players being potential targets, none of whom are irreplaceable, it seems unlikely that Columbus will attempt to lure the Kraken towards a less worthy selection by dangling a draft pick. Similarly, with these young and serviceable players available, one would think the Kraken reluctant to accept such a deal even if offered.

The only scenario that could potentially result in a deal with Columbus is if the Kraken had their sights set on an exempt prospect who was a few years removed from making their NHL debut — Russian forwards Dmitri Voronkov or Yegor Chinakhov for instance. In that circumstance the Kraken would have to cough up something of value to coax Blue Jackets’ management into consummating that transaction, which I see as highly unlikely on both fronts.

Final Thoughts

I’m not convinced that Kukan stacks up against other defensemen who are likely to be exposed in the expansion draft, and as such I think the Kraken’s choice comes down to either Stenlund or Robinson. Stenlund’s size and smarts are enticing, and having an imposing center getting the matchup against other teams’ top lines is likely to tempt Ron Francis’ scouting staff.

But ultimately I would guess that Eric Robinson is the selection for Seattle. He will never be more than he is right now, but he seems happy in that role and will be able to do it for a decade or more at a reasonable cost. Robinson adds tremendous speed and a lingering scoring threat to an “energy line” in the bottom six. And if the Kraken find themselves out of a playoff spot in the spring, Robinson will also draw attention from other teams looking to add scoring depth at the trade deadline.

There’s no better way to get familiar with the possible expansion draft candidates than watching them yourself. You’ll get a chance to see both Stenlund (jersey number 11) and Robinson (50) tonight and again on Thursday, when the Blue Jackets take on the Chicago Blackhawks.

Whether Kukan (46) is out of Tortorella’s doghouse and back in the lineup remains to be seen.

Author: Tim Currell

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