Monday, 3 March 2008

Columbus Revisited


Per the comments in another post I said I would take a closer look at the Columbus Blue Jackets. That turned into this.

Immediate Notes

Columbus is, regarding Cap and budget issues, in great shape. I could not detect any real weaknesses in the team salary grid and the one guy who is a LTIR risk doesn't make so much that he would cripple the budget if he went down again next year.


The chart shows that the Blue Jackets have, in 2008/08, ~ 23.35 mill of next years Cap space allocated to 9 forwards, 4 defensemen and 1 goalie. This leaves some 3 or 4 forwards, 3 or 4 defensemen and 1 goalie left to be signed.

Let's deal with 1 of those spots right away - the 8th defenseman spot will automatically be slotted in at 550k /year. New total is ~ 23.90 mill for 15 players.

If next year's Cap rises the 4 million some are predicting then the new Cap is 54.30. The difference is ~ 30.40 mill.

If Columbus is a budget team and the projected full budget for last year, ~ 44 mill**, is a safe guideline to use then the difference is ~ 18.10 mill for 15 players.

Cap or budget - this team has some serious coin to spend.

** Start of year player salaries for 2007/08 were in the 41-42 million range. It is safe to assume that the overall budget had an extra couple of million in there for flex.

The RFA's

Leclaire and Picard

Leclaire has had a great season. Other than Hitchcock he is the single biggest factor in the team's success this year. At 24 years old he is closer to UFA status than the team would like and it is a sure bet he gets a long-term deal or an arbitrated deal.

If an aggressive team wanted to make an RFA raid they wouldn't be looking at a guy like Pitkanen (sorry to burst your bubble Oiler fans) - Leclaire is big game and he should attract offers.

Hence, to repeat, he will sign a long-term deal or an arbitrated deal. He doesn't strike me as a 'me me me' type so I expect to see a 4 year deal at $4.5 mill /year in his future. Anything cheaper than that, in excess of 3 years, is an outright steal for Howson.

Picard is still, really, a rookie. I expect that $1.25 mill /year will me more than enough to lock him up for another couple of years.

RFA signings should cost the Blue Jackets an easy $5.75 mill next year.

UFA's

Hainsey, Hejda, Peca, Tarnstrom and Vyborny

Hainsey is the big money guy out of this group. He has finally matured into a dependable blueliner and at age 27 he will attract a LOT of attention if he is allowed to go UFA. I expect Hainsey to repay Hitchcock's mentoring in kind and sign a friendly 5 year deal in the $4.0+ mill /year range.

Hejda is a guy whould should attract scads of attention but won't. Howson should thank his lucky stars everyday that Lowe let this guy go and that, as a defensive defenseman, Hejda will be very cheap in a comparative sense. look for a $2.5 mill /year deal over 3 years.

Peca has had a decent year and as the Cap goes up so should his prospects of gainful employment. If he and Columbus continue working together (and they should given that Hitchcock's system maximizes Peca's declining skill base) look for a 2 year deal in the $2.0 mill /year range.

Tarnstrom and Vyborny are realists. If they stay in North America it will be for the money and neither guy will want to live life as a declining asset nomad. They will take less money to stay in Columbus if the deals are more than a year in length.

Howson needs the depth and the players need the employment. Look for both players to sign 2 year deals in the $1.75 mill /year range.

Cap Flex and Maneuvers

Howson doesn't need Cap flex. He has lots of room in regards to the Cap (~ $12.65 mill or so) and he even has some room in regards to his budget (~ $2.35 mill or so on a $44 mill budget).

Any maneuvers Howson may make are tempered by what he has to give up. Sure he can make a trade for a big money guy this off-season but that would probably mean giving up his 1st round pick or a prospect of value and he just doesn't have enough prospect depth to make that happen.

If Howson doesn't keep any of Peca, Tarnstrom or Vyborny it will be because he lowballs them or because he wants to make a splash (via trade or UFA offer) for someone a lot more expensive.
Note that I do not have Svitov listed because a) my chart is for 12 forwards and b) Svitov is interchangeable with any of number of players on that roster and c) he isn't anything special.

What Money problem?

Well under the Salary Cap the Blue Jackets have no Cap issues. Given the team made a legit play for Richards it seems that Howson can probably pull a budget of $48 mill or so if he can justify it.

Howson's problem isn't that of money. It is that of talent.

Talent and Depth Issues

The single most important elements of that team are Hitchcock and Leclaire. Because of the systems he teaches all Hitchcock needs is good goaltending and Leclaire is currently giving him that. Good for them. Get beyond that though and you have trouble.

Nash and Zherdev are legit talents but neither is a 'carry the team' kind of guy. Zherdev has rebounded nicely and Nash is learning to be more responsible defensively but this team is still crying out for a leader (hence, the interest in Richards).

From the veteran ranks, Peca, Modin and Vyborny are down to their last few years and so the only long-term mainstays are Chimera and Malhotra. Neither guy is a huge difference maker (Peca in his prime or Pisani now) and so the best that they can give is good steady play. Not a bad thing in and of itself but it won't get this team over the hump.

This means that Brule, Fritsche and Picard HAVE to make huge gains in their productivity for this team's forward ranks to improve over the near term.

From the prospect pool the team has a legit, future star in Voracek. Brassard may make waves and someone else might surprise but I won't hold my breath. If Voracek (next year) can progress a la Gagner (this year) then maybe, MAYBE, this team will be a play-off bound club. That is a really big 'IF'.

From the defense the legitimate talent is comprised of Hainsey, Hejda and Klesla. Tarnstrom is a stop-gap and Westcott is Mr. Glass. Russell and Tollefsen will probably progress but each one has a really, really, really long development curve ahead of them.

If Howson is to go shopping in the off-season it is here, on defense, where he needs to make a splash.

Danger! Danger!

There is so little quality depth on this team that if any one piece is not re-signed or replaced by equal value it will take a big step back. Hainsey, Hejda and Picard are must-signs while Peca, Tarnstrom and Vyborny are all should-signs (especially if they come cheaper than my projections).

Another danger the team faces is that of its own budget. One wrong UFA signing and the team is crippled going forward. The Souray signing hurts Edmonton, a lot, but at least Edmonton can easily go to the Cap. Columbus doesn't have that kind of flexibility.

Looking at the UFA list for this off-season I don't see much that would turn this team into something special. Even the decent fits aren't at a stage in their career where they will make this team into something special. I like Langkow, Rolston and Mara.

Zherdev looks to have turned it around. He becomes a RFA in 2009/10. If his maturity level has improved then maybe this won't be an issue but the last thing this team needs is for him to be pressing for a big payday based just on big counting numbers.

Special Note on Vyborny. I am a firm believer that players are motivated by (in order) winning, money, respect, tradition and stability. A guy like Vyborny, a long-time Blue Jacket who earned regard wearing the jersey, should be a guy who retires in that sweater.

If the traditions of a team cannot start with a guy like Vyborny who can they start with?

Summary

This team needs top-end talent in the worst way. I will go so far as to say that the single best thing that could happen to this team would be for it to tank itself into a lotto pick and get a sure bet like Stamkos or Schenn (yes, yes, I know - they could help everyone).

This is why I wasn't too thrilled with the returns Columbus gained on trade deadline day - impact prospects are better than picks.

i.e. Foote and a prospect FOR Shattenkirk is a far better trade than Foote FOR a 1st and a 4th.

I can respect the returns Howson got. I'm just not thrilled by them.

Columbus remains a slow-growth team. Barring a miracle (like Voracek being an out-of-the-box superstar) this team will require the blessings of the injury gods AND a GM who makes no mistakes for it to become a legit play-off contender by, imo, 2010/11.

Final note - kudos to Howson for making a real play for Richards. Picking him up WOULD have been the miracle this team needed. It was ballsy even to try and I hope Columbus fans appreciate it. Howson has made some good moves but it will take some time yet to erase the MacLean legacy.

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Have a great evening everyone.

5 comments:

PunjabiOil said...

Great post.

I don't think Hedja will get that much. No more than 2M, likely less IMO.

Peca and Vyborny should be re-signed.

I like Columbus. I think they're a high end player away from making the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if they can attract some free agents, and fill in Foote's spot.

Also interesting will be Pascal LeClair's performance. Do you think he overachieved this year?

YKOil said...

I can agree to some extent on Hejda - a smart team tries to get him from Columbus and offers 2.5 to do it.

They have a great UFA signing period and maybe they speed up their competitive cycle.

As for Leclair - Hitchcock's system makes goalies look a bit better than they are imo and so I don't think it really matters as to whether or no he overachieved some. It would take a big drop for it to impact the team imo.

Slipper said...

http://nhlnumbers.com/freeagents.php?team=none&pos=D&status=ufa&type=salary0708

Hope that link works.

I see Hejda getting a signifigant raise. A big minute defenseman putting up positive results on an average team. With the cap rising, and being an unrestricted FA under 30 years of age in an off-seaosn with so-so choices available at D after the top 5, I don't think 4 years at around 12-13 million out of the question.

speeds said...

I don't think it's too hard to imagine CLB being a much better team next year, and Howson had a great UFA period last year with little money.

I don't know what the chances are that Voracek comes in and is instantly a "top 6" F, but I would imagine there's a pretty good chance that his season next year will be better than Gagner's season this year.

YKOil said...

I like Voracek too. A lot.

I have said it before and I will say it again - finding a way to pick up BOTH Gagner and Voracek at the draft was the way to go. I can't condemn Lowe for not doing it but I CAN be quietly morose all on my own.

In terms of upgrade, a lot will come down to the UFA's they pick up. Howson has no elite talent to trade so he has to go the signing route. Svitov won't get you much is all I am saying.

Oh. And Leclaire will have to repeat and Zherdev just CANNOT relapse.