The 2013-14 season was good to the Columbus Blue Jackets, but it wasn’t perfect. Despite a great show of forward depth, the CBJ were still lacking in top-level forward talent. There are some exceptions to point out, of course. Ryan Johansen’s 33 goal campaign is the obvious one, while Brandon Dubinsky’s continued great possession play (think Patrice Bergeron lite), and hints from Nathan Horton (with some weight given to his strong play in Boston and Florida) also stood out. As a fan of the team, I’m greedy about success and I want more.
Obvious statement time: bringing on more top-tier talent isn’t a simple task. Are there any good chances for this on the team? Maybe one of the upcoming rookies makes the team (Bjorkstrand, Rychel, Wennberg, Dano), but it’s unlikely they become great right away. Boone Jenner could take another step forward, but there’s no certainty.
The Cap Picture
Right now, CapGeek projects the Jackets to have $22 million in cap space for the 2014-15 season. Let’s assume two moves. First, let’s give Ryan Johansen a $6 million contract (somewhat arbitrary, somewhat comparable to the low end of a Toews/Bergeron deal). We won’t worry about term for now, we’ll just imagine the coming season. Second, let’s say the Jackets miraculously move Umberger, but retain $1.5 million worth of cap hit. That would bring the available cap space to around $19 million to fill 2-3 defensive spots and 2-3 forward spots. Splitting the money evenly leaves between $3.17 to $4.75 million per player.
Or, what if we gave out $7 million to one player and left $2.4-$4 million left for the other open spots? It’s a contract level that wouldn’t cripple the team (and with the cap likely to rise again next year, the impact would only diffuse with time). Who should be the target for that kind of contract? Paul Stastny.
Why Have This Dream?
Look, the situation is entirely outrageous. Columbus probably doesn’t qualify as a top free agent destination (despite the enthusiasm from Nathan Horton last year and the playoff run this year), Stastny might not even hit free agency, and all that Brad Richards Buyout space will probably burn a hole in the Rangers’ pocket. But if Stastny magically came to Columbus, he instantly becomes a top offensive option on the team.
Since his entry to the league, Stastny is one of only 50 players to average at least 0.80 points per game. Stastny’s career 0.85 pts/game ranks 41st in the NHL. Consider, Ryan Johansen only managed 0.77 pts/game this year and Nathan Horton’s best single season (4 years ago in Florida) was a 0.88 point per game performance. Even in his “down” most recent 3 years, Stastny has produced at a pace of at least 0.60 points per game. Mile High Hockey has a great writeup on Stastny, and the note about his linemates’ production is tantalizing. He’s probably past real prime, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he’s still a serious threat for the next few years.
But we know better than to just judge on points. Stastny’s shot differential metrics are also impressive. Checking out Behind the Net, Paul Stastny has been a positive Corsi player for 4 of his 7 seasons with data available, and a positive player relative to his team in 6 of the 7. And all this work is done with tough zone assignments against tough competition. This defensive skill and possession ability makes Stastny even more valuable to a team.
It’s the whole picture that makes Paul Stastny the top UFA this offseason. There’s almost no way the Blue Jackets actually get him, but can you imagine? With Umberger gone, the net openings would remain constant, but the forwards could look something like: Foligno-Johansen-Horton, Calvert-Stastny-Anisimov, Atkinson-Dubinsky-(Rookie?), ???-Letestu-(Skille?). Those top three lines would be something fun.