Looking through the standings and putting together a list of trade deadline buyers and sellers, the Columbus Blue Jackets would be among the former rather than the latter. Reason being is the Blue Jackets are holding down a divisional playoff spot in the tough Metropolitan, have one of the league’s top goaltenders, a young, promising blueline and an offense that, while it has struggled at times this season, is capable of making noise if it starts to click. It’s a team that most would have assumed would be looking to add, not move players by the time the Feb. 26 came to pass.
Despite all that, though, it appears Columbus may be saying goodbye to one of their top-four defenders before the post-season rolls around.
Over the weekend, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reported that Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, who serves as one of the team’s alternate captains, has requested a trade and is looking to be dealt ahead of the upcoming deadline. The reason for the request, according to Portzline, is that Johnson wants to land with an organization that will give him a bigger role and one that will help him drive up his value as he heads towards unrestricted free agency this summer. And that Johnson is unhappy with his role isn’t entirely shocking, especially given the steady decline in minutes he’s seen over the course of his time in Columbus and, more particularly, the past two seasons as the Blue Jackets’ blueline brought in some fresh faces.
Across his first four full seasons in Columbus, which came after being acquired in 2011-12 from the Los Angeles Kings in the Jeff Carter trade, Johnson was the clear-cut No. 1 on the Blue Jackets’ blueline, scoring 24 goals and 106 points while averaging 24:38 per game. The rise of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and David Savard, however, have moved Johnson down the depth chart. Last season, Johnson’s shift down the depth chart became somewhat evident as he went from averaging upwards of 24 minutes per game to less than 22 minutes, and he has seen his average ice time slide further this campaign. In fact, for the first time in his entire career, Johnson is averaging less than 20 minutes per game and his 19:24 average sees him firmly in the fourth spot on the Blue Jackets’ blueline.
Playing a bigger role would undoubtedly play a part in Johnson’s earning power in free agency, too. As a top-pairing defender, he could be one of the more sought-after commodities for a team seeking some stability on their blueline and the better his numbers heading into the open market, the higher the price Johnson could command. The further down the depth chart he slides, though, the less teams may be inclined to pay him. And, due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his November 2014 bankruptcy filing, Johnson is in a position where earning power has to be a concern as he enters the back half of his career. From the perspective of the player, moving into a situation where he’s seen as a primary piece instead of secondary skater would undoubtedly mean a higher paycheque. The split might be what’s best for both sides, too.
Make no mistake, Johnson is less a part of the core — and the future — of the Blue Jackets than ever before. The aforementioned trio of Jones, Werenski and Savard are the core members of the back end, while Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, Scott Harrington are capable of filling the fourth, fifth and sixth defender spots and up-and-comers such as Gabriel Carlsson and Andrew Peeke offer long-term depth. And with that in mind, Johnson is likely best served to move on when free agency comes, a decision that impacts both player and team in this instance.
From Johnson’s point of view, even if he is no longer a No. 1 rearguard, there are a number of teams who could use a top-two or top-three defender. Teams such as the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks, and maybe even the resurgent Colorado Avalanche, could use help on the back end now and in the future, which makes Johnson a potential fit. And save the Senators, who aren’t really looking to add as it is, each of those teams could afford to bring Johnson and his $4.36-million salary aboard this season and potentially hand him a raise ahead of free agency. He’s likely looking for a contract in the $5-million range, and that’s a figure he should be able to hit given how thin the UFA market will be in terms of top-three rearguards. There will be a number of suitors, to be sure, especially with the salary cap projected to rise by as much as several million dollars.
Meanwhile, from the Blue Jackets’ perspective, trading Johnson ahead of the deadline would do a few things.
First, it would remove the possibility of signing the rearguard to a deal that could, in the long-term, create a financial logjam on the blueline. Werenski will be due a raise — no doubt a significant one, too — in short order and having cap flexibility so as to not sink too much money into the blueline would be ideal. It would also prevent the Blue Jackets, who hadn’t been able to lock Johnson up to a contract extension, from losing the defender for nothing in free agency. If a deal hadn’t reached by the trade deadline, that’s a scenario Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen would have had to face. But in the immediate, moving Johnson could allow the Blue Jackets to address their needs this season by bringing in additional offense during a season where scoring hasn’t been their strong suit. With the second half underway, Columbus’ attack ranks 28th in the league, averaging 2.59 goals per game, a total no doubt dragged down by an almost embarrassingly futile power play.
Trading Johnson can bring the Blue Jackets exactly what they seek, too, as defenders with top-pairing potential are rare finds at this time of year. And Johnson doesn’t necessarily have to go to a team in the playoff hunt, either. A team such as the Canucks could be an interested party with an eye on signing Johnson to on an extension going forward, and the Blue Jackets might be able to use a power play specialist such as Thomas Vanek, who is having a good season in Vancouver. Swapping Johnson for, say, Senators sniper Mike Hoffman — whose cap hit is $800,000 more than Johnson’s — might also be a move of interest to the Blue Jackets, but such a deal would likely be much more involved given Ottawa’s cap situation and concerns about Erik Karlsson’s next contract.
The list of teams who potentially have offense to spare and could use a player such as Johnson go beyond the Canucks and Senators, though. You might even be able to throw divisional rivals such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders into the mix. The fact of the matter, however, is that Kekalainen can find a way to make the unexpected trade request, one that stands to remove a top-four piece from Columbus’ blueline, work in his favor.
And if Johnson finds himself a new home where he skates increased minutes with potential for a $5-million-plus extension while the Blue Jackets get the offensive jolt that they so badly need as the playoffs approach, we may not see either side looking back on this deal as one they wish they wouldn’t have made.