It’s no secret that the Columbus Blue Jackets lack center depth. In fact, it’s been a major point of contention among fans and pundits alike since the departure of Ryan Johansen in 2016. The Jackets need a top line center. The Matt Duchene trade has significant implications for Columbus.
Center Ice Depth
In the months following the Johansen trade, it has been left to the young Swede Alexander Wennberg to fill the role. He has handled his new role with aplomb for the vast majority of his time on ice. Despite his ascension, however, the picture begins to muddy quite quickly once you look past the first line.
Brandon Dubinsky, though a loyal servant of the club since his arrival, has simply not performed up to his price tag in recent months. Pierre-Luc Dubois, drafted to fill a hole down the middle, has found himself playing mainly on the wing throughout the first stretch of the 2017-18 season. With the departure of William Karlsson to Las Vegas, Lukas Sedlak has earned the role of 4C but has suffered from injuries to begin the year.
In short, the center situation in Columbus is precipitous at best. Nick Foligno has proven to be nothing more than serviceable at center. Ideally, the Blue Jackets would be looking to trade one of their many prospects for a reliable top-six centerman.
How the Duchene Trade Affects the Columbus Blue Jackets
Enter Matt Duchene. Throughout the offseason, the rumors continued to pour out of the Colorado Avalanche organization. Duchene had been vocal in his displeasure with the club during his time in Denver. For many Fifth Line faithful, the solution to their center woes seemed to be staring them in the face. Here was a top-six center being shopped by general manager Joe Sakic in return for NHL-ready defensemen, of which the Blue Jackets possess many. Last week, however, any hopes of Duchene donning the Union Blue dissipated as news broke of his transfer to the Ottawa Senators in a three-way trade involving the Nashville Predators.
For months, the consensus was that Sakic was demanding a king’s ransom. Duchene, though undeniably talented, had never really been a true top-line centerman. To the surprise of everyone following the trade saga, the Predators and Senators came together to actually give him his ransom. While Duchene made his way to the Canadian capital, the Senators traded center Kyle Turris to the already center-rich Nashville Predators. In return for these two players, the Avalanche walked away with Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev, Andrew Hammond, and Shane Bowers, as well as a first-, second-, and third-round pick.
Implications for Columbus
With this trade done and dusted the market for top-six centers is shrinking rapidly. What’s more, the fact that Joe Sakic was able to extort the league to the tune of what may become seven NHL starters could set a bad precedent for transactions involving such players in the future. Both of these problems affect the Blue Jackets. With a recent string of losses and an uninspired offense adding to tensions, management is likely looking to make a move.
While the Duchene trade is fresh in the background of any potential deals, other factors are important. Any trades must not only plug a hole in the Jackets’ lineup but cannot cost a fortune in return. With this goal in mind, below is a sampling of potential realistic targets. A trade would benefit both clubs involved.
A familiar name to fans of the Blue Jackets, Letestu spent four seasons in Columbus between 2011 and 2015. In his previous stint as a bottom-six centerman, he earned a reputation as a hardworking and adaptable player. In 233 regular season games, Letestu contributed 43 goals and 55 assists for a total of 98 points. The club decided not to renew his contract following the 2014-15 season. What’s more, his contract with the Edmonton Oilers expires after this year, meaning that the Oilers may be willing to move him for cheap. If the Blue Jackets are in “win now” mode, Letestu could certainly act as a serviceable depth forward.
With all that in mind, however, the 32-year-old veteran’s peak is behind him. Even if the asking price were reasonable, what the Blue Jackets lack is not third- or fourth-line centers. They need an elite 1C or 2C who has a consistent scoring touch and a desire to win at all costs. While Letestu has proven to be a hard-working and calming veteran presence, he doesn’t fill the Johansen-shaped hole in the lineup.
Letestu’s departure from the Oilers seems likely due to the expiration of his contract come next summer. Nugent-Hopkins’ situation, however, is quite different. Edmonton drafted him first overall back in 2011, but he just hasn’t panned out the way they’d hoped, especially in the shadow of their wunderkind captain Connor McDavid.
When he’s at the top of his game, Nugent-Hopkins fills the exact role that the Blue Jackets so desperately need. He is quick on his skates, makes incisive passes, and offers the production of a borderline second or third-line center while playing a strong two-way game. In 411 games with the Oilers, he has contributed 101 goals and 176 assists for a total of 277 points. Despite a disappointing 2016-17 campaign, he has started this year off strongly, notching 12 points in 16 games. He also put up career-high shooting and faceoff percentages of 15 and 52, respectively. With McDavid’s inevitable payday looming next year and Nugent-Hopkins earning $6 million per year through 2021, it only makes sense for management to clear cap space, and Nugent-Hopkins could be on the block.
That being said, however, the Duchene trade has the potential to drive general manager Peter Chiarelli’s expectations through the roof and could potentially cause the ever-cautious Jarmo Kekalainen to miss out on yet another excellent fit due to concerns about overpaying. Luckily, the Blue Jackets are flush with both offensive and defensive prospects who have performed reasonably well when called upon thus far. Names like Sonny Milano or Gabriel Carlsson, combined with a pick or two, may be enough to force Chiarelli’s hand and a change of scenery may be exactly what Nugent-Hopkins needs to perform well on a regular basis. After all, he is still just 24 years old and has the tools to be great.
Strangely enough, the final and indeed most likely option comes from another team struggling with depth down the middle. The relationship between Galchenyuk and the Montreal Canadiens could best be described as tense, and Claude Julien spent the entire offseason shopping him around to anyone who would listen before eventually agreeing to a three-year extension for the young forward.
Like Nugent-Hopkins, Galchenyuk is another young center who has displayed flashes of brilliance. He also has not necessarily wowed his club’s management. There is a lot to like about his play throughout the past few years. Despite completing only one of his past three seasons, Galchenyuk has put up 40+ points in each of them. He has maintained a career 45.5% faceoff average and a shooting percentage of 13.3%. At just 23 years old, he has years to grow and adapt as a player.
The Duchene trade will certainly raise the asking price on Galchenyuk. However, the Canadiens shopped him around all summer with little apparent interest. The Habs have numerous holes on both offense and defense that they need to plug, and Columbus has high-potential prospects on both ends of the ice. At $4.9 million per year through 2020, Galchenyuk’s price tag is lower than that of Nugent-Hopkins, meaning he would require less in the way of planning by Jackets’ management. Someone like Ryan Murray or Sonny Milano, paired with a pick or two, ought to be enough to at least pique the interest of the Habs. Galchenyuk himself will almost certainly be excited about ending tensions with the club once and for all.
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