Should Columbus trade Johansen?

The Chicago Blackhawks have a theory: Pay your top six and top two pairs gobs of money then fill out the bottom six and 5-6 defenseman with young or Moneypuck players.

It is a pretty sturdy model if your top six are proven stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and top pair is Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. For most other teams, deciding who to pay is a little bit trickier.

The Columbus Blue Jackets paid their two proven forwards Nathan Horton and Brandon Dubinsky – who will combine to take up $9.5 million in cap space next season and $11.15 from 2015-2020. The Jackets are not built to win like the Blackhawks, who landed on elite talent, then simply kept it. Columbus has four lines of solid players and a top six of hard-on-the-puck, two-way talents who can run the likes of Sidney Crosby ragged for a series.

So they have to handle Johansen’s situation differently than Chicago might. Keeping enough cap room to sign their up-and-coming talent and holding on to those strong bottom sixers is important, where it might not be so when a player like Kane can take over a series.

Simply put: The Jackets cannot afford an albatross contract. They have the second most cap room (before Johansen, of course) but have several major RFA contracts coming up next season in Cam Atkinson, Tim Erixon and Matt Calvert. Boone Jenner and Sergei Bobrovsky come the year after.

So if they toss $7 million per year into Johansen, it causes two problems: Atkinson, Erixon and Jenner are going to want BIG paychecks if they perform to their talent level. How could they not point to a mega deal for Johansen and ask: “Why not me, too?”

The other problem is that it pushes up their cap number and budget. Sure, they made the postseason last year, but it is impossible to know from the outside what cap ownership has placed on spending. The Blackhawks can spend to the cap, but not every team can.

Now for the hard questions: Should they cave and sign Johansen to a long-term mega deal? Sometimes those work brilliantly, like in the case of John Tavares, who will have a $5.5 million cap hit to be a $10 million player next year. Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog will have a similar cap hit – and be worth much more. And both players are under contract for so long (six and seven years, respectively) that they will be worth even more by the time their deals are up.

Hard question No. 2: Is Johansen Tavares or Landeskog? Or, rather, is he worth $6-7 million for a long time?

If he repeated last season’s production year after year, the answer would be a scream-from-the-rooftops “YES, he’s worth it!” He was Columbus’ second best even strength scorer with 2.01 points per 60 minutes, had the majority of his assists being “first” assists – which are more predictive of whether a player will continue to rack up assists – and had a fairly repeatable shooting percentage of 13.9%.

The deeper numbers say even more good things. Check out the With and Without You stats:

–          With Johansen, RJ Umberger had a 50.2% Corsi. Without Johansen, Umberger was a pathetic 41.2

–          With Johansen, Nick Foligno was dominant at 53.4% Corsi, without, Foligno was mediocre 48.1%

–          When Johansen played without Jack Johnson on the ice, his Corsi % was 54.0%

–          When he played with future star (?) Ryan Murray, they controlled an amazing 55.3% of the shot attempts – that’s with over 300 minutes played

None of this is screaming regression. If he wasn’t driving play, at very least he was helping teammates to drive possession. And he was finishing at even strength with 22 goals at 5-on-5, which suggests he’s more than a power play sniper – and that he might be able to tack on even more on the power play in the future.

Considering his age and draft status, everything is in line for Johansen to continue doing what he did in 2013-14. Could we see some variation? Like, say, 50 points instead of 63 or 25 goals instead of 33? Yes. But one year is probably enough in this case to figure that he will keep being a stud.

If the Jackets and Johansen cannot find middle ground, should they continue to play hard ball as the Colorado Avalanche have with Ryan O’Reilly? Should they risk alienating a good player and ultimately losing him just to sign him to a bridge deal?

It seems a tad shortsighted, but, again, there are other factors at play. So if they cannot come to an agreement, a trade seems like a more reasonable option than playing hard ball for two more years.

The price on a 22-year-old, 30-goal scorer must be high – but how high is difficult to say. Scorers of that ilk do not get traded enough to strongly say what the price would be. And the value of a player is fluid. It is only a first-round pick if someone has one to give away and it makes sense at that time.

And the Jackets want to win now. They have made moves that aim toward getting back to the playoffs, including grabbing Scott Hartnell from the Flyers. That is not a rebuilding type of play from GM Jarmo Kekalainen.

Could they land a proven scorer and a piece for the future for Johansen? Could a team be interested in moving one of their top players (remember Thomas Vanek?) because they are trying to land Connor McDavid and would love a young goal scorer? Could Kekalainen find another hard-nosed, two-way forward who fits the shut-‘em-down style the Jackets have?

They are all possibilities. Maybe ones that would result in continuing to have a strong top six, but it is really hard to find young, goal scoring talent. If Johansen is traded, he is almost assuredly the best player in the trade. That would be hard for the Jackets’ front office to justify.

Columbus is in a tight spot. The hardest thing to figure out in hockey – or any sport – is whether a player will repeat past performances. You can have all the numbers and information and still be wrong. And guess who’s accountable when you’re wrong? Everyone, even if it is unexplainable or bad luck.

The best outcome for both sides is probably the P.K. Subban situation: A bridge deal that leads to a mega contract. But if Johansen’s agent won’t play ball, the Jackets will either have to dive in 100% or trade him – and both of those options come with a great deal of risk.

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