Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win: sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. In this edition, trade deadline madness is a curable disease.
To say that this season has been a complete disaster for the Columbus Blue Jackets is a bit of an understatement. When they traded for Jeff Carter and signed James Wisniewski in the offseason, it symbolized their willingness to bring in top-end talent and compete. They thought they finally had a number one centre for their franchise winger, Rick Nash and a powerplay quarterback to secure the back end.
Instead of competing for a playoff spot, however, they are in absolute dead last in the NHL, 11 points back on the next worst team, the Edmonton Oilers. And this has triggered a potentially massive overhaul, as Carter has already been shipped out of town to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Jack Johnson and a first round draft pick and Nash has been on the trade block for weeks.
Meanwhile, two of the other teams in the basement with the Blue Jackets just re-signed big-name players, effectively removing them from trade consideration.
Neither the Carolina Hurricanes nor the Edmonton Oilers have been as terrible as the Blue Jackets this season, but their results have still been disastrous. The Hurricanes saw their captain and franchise player Eric Staal get off to a putrid start, scoring just 5 points in his first 16 games and wallowing at the bottom end of the plus/minus rankings for far too long. The Oilers, on the other hand, had a hot start thanks to some unsustainable goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin and some heroics from first over all pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but came crashing down thanks to injuries and inevitable regression.
Both teams had impending unrestricted free agents in the fold that could have fetched a high price in the trade market. For the Oilers, Ales Hemsky was a tempting option, an extremely talented, potential point-per-game player, prone to injury troubles and having an off season. It seemed completely inevitable that he would be traded.
For the Hurricanes, Tim Gleason is the type of hard-nosed defenceman that playoff-bound teams covet, while Tuomo Ruutu is a tough, skilled winger with a couple 20+ goal seasons under his belt. Ruutu has been injured, dampening trade rumours, but he was still one of the bigger names in the trade market leading up to the deadline.
But the Oilers and Hurricanes took note of how much other teams wanted their players and decided that maybe they wanted them too. Hemsky was re-signed for 2 years and $10 million, while Gleason and Ruutu both re-upped with the Hurricanes for 4 years. It’s hard to argue with the re-signings and it puts the Blue Jackets’ actions in stark relief.
Re-signing Gleason and Ruutu made a lot of sense, mainly because replacing them would have likely cost even more money. Both are quality players who wanted to stay, and GM Jim Rutherford obliged. His comments on Ruutu could easily apply to both players: “Players like Tuomo are extremely difficult to replace, and it is very important for our franchise to keep him here long term.”
Replacing Hemsky in Edmonton would have been even more difficult, but re-signing him was a good move for another reason: it’s hard to imagine his trade value being any lower than it is right now. Hemsky is having the worst offensive year of his career since his sophomore season, with just 26 points in 47 games, and his minus-14 plus/minus isn’t attractive to potential suitors either. While the return in a trade for Hemsky would still be good, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it should be.
While Hemsky’s minutes are not as tough as those of his teammate, Shawn Horcoff, Hemsky regularly plays against tough competition and yet boasts the second highest Corsi rating on the Oilers. He’s only behind Taylor Hall, who benefits from starting most of his shifts in the offensive zone against weaker competition. Hemsky consistently pushes possession into the offensive zone, but hasn’t had the point production to go with it. It would have been foolish to trade him while he’s experiencing this type of slump.
Meanwhile, with the entire season a write-off, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson decided to leave his inevitable replacement a clean slate or, at least, a slate without any good players on it.
In addition to the Jeff Carter trade and the potential Rick Nash deal, the Blue Jackets have also sent reliable two-way forward Antoine Vermette packing, trading him to the Coyotes for a couple draft picks and goaltender Curtis McElhinney. Vermette has struggled offensively this season, much like the rest of the Blue Jackets, so this is a case of selling low on Vermette, exactly what the Oilers didn’t do with Hemsky.
Cam Charron explained exactly why those two trades were so terrible for the Blue Jackets yesterday. To summarize, Howson traded two good players with good contracts for two bad players and the uncertainty of the draft. Jack Johnson’s deficiencies have been well-documented and Curtis McElhinney is worse than Curtis Sanford.
Is there a plan in Columbus? Will the Blue Jackets have any forwards left after the trade deadline? Who will replace Rick Nash if he gets traded? The Oilers and Hurricanes looked at their options and chose to re-sign players that they did not think they could replace; it feels like the Blue Jackets should have done the same.