In his first major test as the general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, rookie Jarmo Kekalainen didn't just sneak through with a passing grade. He set the standard for what every bubble team should aspire to at the annual NHL trade deadline.
Some will disagree with that statement, citing the need for the Blue Jackets to rebuild with high-end draft picks, but the context here is important. The team has been terrible almost literally since inception. In 11 of their 13 drafts they have made a pick in the top 10; the lone exceptions coming after a Steve Mason-fueled playoff appearance in 2009 and a trade of the pick who would become Sean Couturier to Philadelphia in 2011. Other teams have built through the draft, but the Blue Jackets have seen their top picks either fail as players or fail to overcome the lousy organization around them.
Eleven years of losing has had a predictable impact on attendance. In the early years, the market was strong, playing to reported crowds of 95% capacity or better every year before the 2004-05 lockout. Attendance started to slide after the work stoppage, reaching a low of 14,823 per game (81.7% capacity) in 2007-08. It immediately improved in 2008-09 when the Jackets made the playoffs, and continued to improve in 2009-10 before falling off again. Now, the Jackets have one of the poorest home attendance records in the league, drawing more fans than only the New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes. The league's attendance numbers are a crude tool for measuring the health of a franchise, for a number of reasons, but it's clear that the team is in trouble in the market. Former general manager Scott Howson has been criticized for his summer 2011 decision to try and instantly turn the club around through trade (including the Couturier deal) and free agency, an attempt that failed, but it's easy to understand why he tried. After years of listening to Doug MacLean, fans in Columbus will turn out to see wins; they won't turn out to see draft picks trying to learn the game at the NHL level.
For the Blue Jackets, a slow buildlike the one in Edmonton, like the one Calgary appears to be embarking onis not an option. Whatever goodwill has been generated by the team's new management and meager successes this season would evaporate if the Blue Jackets opted to sell at the deadline and start from the beginning again.
On the other hand, while the playoffs are a possibility for Columbus, they are far from a certainty. The Blue Jackets are the lowest-scoring team in major league hockey, and they face a tough battle with Detroit, St. Louis, Edmonton, and Nashville for the two remaining playoff spots. Cashing in significant futures in exchange for the possibility of a first round exit now would have been devastating for the team's long-term health.
That's why the approach of Blue Jackets' management, headlined by Kekalainen, was so superb. The team entered the deadline with three first round picks; they left with three first round picks and the best available offensive player on the market. They helped the team now, they helped the team next year, and they did it without significantly impacting the prospect and draft pick pool that represents the future of the club. Not only that, but the Jackets also managed to move out a veteran with very little actual value for a comparable player and an additional draft pick.
The Gaborik deal. Marian Gaborik has scored 40+ goals three times in the last five seasons. He is suffering through a tough shooting percentage year in New Yorkat eight percent, he is firing at just 60% of his career average. On the other hand, Gaborik is firing roughly the same number of shots this season as he has over the last few, so it seems sensible to expect him to recover. He is under contract for next season; he immediately becomes the most potent part of the Blue Jackets' anemic offense both this season and into the future.
Derick Brassard, the center leaving the organization, is a quality NHL player but isn't in Gaborik's class; importantly, he can be replaced internally as the club has a number of similar pivots. Derek Dorsett is also a good NHL player; not only does he hit and fight but he moves the puck in the right direction in a depth role. On the other hand, Dorsett is also on injured reserve. John Moore is a solid prospect, but not a sensational one, and defense is the team's greatest organizational strength both on the current roster and in the prospect pool, so moving him is unlikely to have a significant impact on the franchise's fortunes. A sixth round pick was also included in the deal.
The Mason deal. Steve Mason won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 2008-09, and due to that, and the fact that he's not yet 25, he is seen in some quarters (including, obviously, the front office of the Philadelphia Flyers) as having potential. The reality is this: over the last four seasons, Mason is one of only two regular NHL goalies with a save percentage under .900 (Jonas Gustavsson is the other). Steve Mason has had one good month as an NHL goaltender, and four years as a guy who shouldn't be dressing for major league games. The time when the latter should obliterate all thought of the former has long since passed.
Coming back the other way is a third round draft pick and goaltender Michael Leighton. The third round pick alone makes it a steal of a deal for the Blue Jackets; the addition of Leightonan unspectacular journeyman whose career save percentage is within a whisker of Mason's (.901 to .903) means that the Blue Jackets essentially managed to move a $3.2 million terrible backup for a $900,000 equivalent while getting a draft pick thrown in for free. It saves the team money, it adds an asset, and there is likely to be no discernible difference between Leighton and Mason in the one or two games the backup might get between now and the end of the year.
The Comeau deal. The lone rental Columbus made was veteran forward Blake Comeau in exchange for a fifth round pick. Comeau will fill Dorsett's spot on the roster; like Dorsett, he is quite physical, like Dorsett he has a pretty decent track record of moving the puck in the right direction. The difference is that Dorsett is a prolific fighter, while Comeau has some track record of offensive production (albeit not all that recently).
Add it all up, and it is some impressive work. Leighton for Mason is essentially a wash, while a third round pick for a fifth and a sixth round pick is a pretty reasonable trade. Dorsett is a more valuable player than Comeau, but they play similar roles and Dorsett is hurt; that puts the total price of upgrade from Derick Brassard to Marian Gaborik at John Moorea decent prospect playing in a position the Blue Jackets don't need help in. That is a big upgrade now, and it is a big upgrade for next year. Taken together, the Jackets managed to increase their chances of making the postseason this season and next season without hurting the future, and that is an extremely impressive achievement.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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