Trading Ryan Johansen leaves the Blue Jackets with a hole at center, but Seth Jones fits the team’s long-term plans better. Why?
Wednesday evening was glorious. It gave us a good, old-fashioned hockey trade of an impact player for an impact player. No picks, no prospects, no retained salary, all real, no gimmicks. Center Ryan Johansen joins the Nashville Predators. Defenseman Seth Jones joins the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The natural question, commonly directed our way on social media over the past 24 hours: who wins the trade? As my colleague Jared Clinton has already pointed out, Johansen makes Nashville a better hockey team today. He’s the bellcow No. 1 center the Preds have never really possessed unless you count the brief whiff of Peter Forsberg.
But what about Columbus’ perspective? Does turning Nashville into a Stanley Cup contender imply the Blue Jackets lost the deal?
Not necessarily. While it’s true Johansen’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the Jackets’ depth chart, Jones becomes a new franchise pillar who could have a larger long-term impact than Johansen.
It wasn’t surprising at all to see Johansen moved for a promising defenseman, as that was precisely what GM Jarmo Kekalainen needed for his roster. The D-corps was a weakness. Fedor Tyutin, the team’s priciest blueliner at a $4.5-million cap hit, is in decline at 32. His average ice time peaked at 24:09 in 2011-12 and has declined every season since, from 24:06 to 21:25 to 19:55 to 18:34. Jack Johnson, 28, logs a team-high 25:17 per contest but has peaked as more of a top-four guy than the elite player he was once projected to become, the one Carolina drafted third overall in 2005, the one Columbus deemed worthy of acquiring for Jeff Carter.
Tyutin and Johnson don’t make nearly as much sense as they used to for Columbus’ long-term vision. They are difficult pieces for Kekalainen to move, under contract two more years after this one at more than $4 million each, and Tyutin has a no-movement clause. But the Philadelphia Flyers proved Wednesday anything is possible when they unloaded Luke Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier to the Los Angeles Kings, eating half each player’s salary. At the very least, Tyutin and Johnson will become more movable next year, with less salary remaining on their deals.
The future of Columbus’ blueline belongs to Jones, freshly extended David Savard and prospects Zach Werenski and Gabriel Carlsson, both of whom went in the first round of the 2015 draft. What really sums up how much Kekalainen has brightened the forecast for Columbus’ blueline: a year ago, Savard and Murray were the future. They were the top two young defensemen in the organization. Now they could rank as low as fourth and fifth, depending on how one projects Carlsson. Jones is now the undisputed crown jewel, blessed with tremendous size, reach, skating, shooting ability and smarts, and Werenski was among the most coveted players of the 2015 draft class. He was just named the 2016 World Junior Championship’s top defenseman. He and Jones take a ton of long-term pressure off Murray, who still has time to blossom at 22 but has not met the expectations of a player drafted second overall in 2012, ahead of Hampus Lindholm, Morgan Rielly, Matt Dumba and Jacob Trouba, just to name a few blueliners.
Suddenly we can picture a top six headed by Jones and Werenski, with Murray, Carlsson and Savard in support. Promising, isn’t it?
The problem with the Johansen deal, of course, is that it leaves the franchise without a No. 1 center. To me, that’s not something for Jackets fans to fret over. First of all, the team still has some good young offensive talent on the rise. Alexander Wennberg, the 14th pick of the 2013 draft, is a strong two-way player and center, just 21, and he’s barely gotten his feet wet at the NHL level. Coach John Tortorella likes him, and the Johansen trade should grant Wennberg more opportunities. Fellow Swede William Karlsson has plenty of potential as a pivot, too, and right winger Oliver Bjorkstrand turned pro with AHL Lake Erie this year after dominating the WHL for three seasons with Portland. (I won’t pretend Kerby Rychel figures into the Jackets’ plans anymore. He’s a goner, obviously).
Between Wennberg, Karlsson, Brandon Dubinsky, Gregory Campbell and Boone Jenner, the Jackets have more than enough bodies who can play center. And all that group has to do is plug a hole for the second half of what is probably a lost season anyway. Columbus is 11 points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot, and No. 8 seed Boston has three games in hand. Winning doesn’t matter for Columbus. Losing almost helps more than hurts at this point, as it means more lottery balls. The Jackets don’t need to win the No. 1 pick to find what they need in 2016, either, and they would still have a strong shot at the No. 2 or 3 lottery slots under the new format. The draft class is loaded with elite forward prospects, from Auston Matthews to fabulous Finns Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine. The latter two are wingers but would inject tremendous offense into the franchise regardless.
Jones will get to spread his wings, play lots of minutes and develop in a relatively pressure-free environment for the rest of the season. The Jackets will then use the draft and, in all likelihood, land a forward talent with a ceiling even higher than Johansen’s. The Preds were smart to make an aggressive move and land Johansen, but the Jackets should be just as pleased with the trade.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin