The first shoe dropped.
After weeks of buildup, the NHL's trade market is officially in motion; center Matt Duchene changed dressing rooms ahead of Friday's tilt between the Senators and Blue Jackets in Ottawa.
|TO COLUMBUS||TO OTTAWA|
|Matt Duchene (F)||Vitali Abramov (F)|
|Julius Bergman (D)||Jonathan Davidsson (F)|
|1st-round pick (2019)|
|1st-round pick (2020 - conditional)|
(Ottawa receives 2020 first-rounder only if Duchene re-signs with Columbus)
Let's unpack the blockbuster.
We now know general manager Jarmo Kekalainen's intentions.
By bringing in Duchene, a bonafide top-six pivot who's having a career year offensively, Kekalainen sent a message to the hockey world. Columbus, for the first time in its lackluster, 18-year history, is acting like a true, knock-the-door-down deadline buyer.
The cost of doing business is somewhere between negligible and steep for the Blue Jackets. You have to pay for premium rentals like Duchene, and that's what Kekalainen did after sending a first-round pick (possibly two) and a pair of decent prospects to Canada's capital. The payoff could be large, with the potential short- and long-term benefits - winning the franchise's first playoff series and then re-signing Duchene to an extension - fairly attainable.
Acting like a contender and being a contender are two different things, mind you. Seeing as the Jackets aren't in a playoff spot as of Friday afternoon (one point back of the Carolina Hurricanes with two games in hand), there's no question the spotlight will shine brighter on the small-market organization as Monday's trade deadline nears.
If the Jackets happen to miss the postseason and are unable to re-sign Duchene, this deal is a misfire. But, as the saying goes, you have to shoot your shot. And, considering the club's sad history, this is a shot worth taking - one must reward a loyal fan base at some point, right?
Of course, the Duchene acquisition won't have the same shine if the Artemi Panarin drama ends with the Russian star draped in different colors following the deadline. Shortly after the Duchene trade, Kekalainen told The Athletic "nothing has changed" in the club's approach to the Panarin situation, which means he'll still pull the trigger in a trade for the pending unrestricted free agent, but only if the offer is substantial. "It would have to be a deal that we can't refuse," he said.
Nevertheless, Duchene is a significant boost for a team in need of a game-breaker. Prior to the deal, Panarin, winger Cam Atkinson, and center Pierre-Luc Dubois were the only dangerous forwards in a Blue Jackets uniform. Adding a fourth weapon shifts the whole dynamic of Columbus' attack, especially since he's a veteran center.
Dubois and Duchene should form an impressive one-two punch down the middle. Already a 27-goal man in his 10th NHL season, Duchene is on pace for career highs in goals (39) and points (84) in just 72 projected games. The 20-year-old Dubois, meanwhile, is enjoying a breakout sophomore campaign, tallying 22 goals and 29 assists.
The club's other centers - Boone Jenner, Alex Wennberg, and Riley Nash - now slot in at a more appropriate part of the depth chart. The Duchene addition also takes a little heat off support guys like Josh Anderson, Nick Foligno, and Oliver Bjorkstrand. All of a sudden, the Jackets' top nine looks fine.
This year, the Jackets evidently have an opportunity to seize the moment. On Friday, Kekalainen managed to take a step forward without jeopardizing their future in a major way. The question now is, are they done?
There are two ways to look at this trade from a Senators perspective.
The uglier, big-picture view surrounds the franchise altering its outlook. Over the past 15 months, Ottawa drastically shifted from a contending to a rebuilding mindset, and as a result, the timeline to compete for a playoff spot, let alone a championship, is further down the road than it should be.
In late 2017, GM Pierre Dorion snagged Duchene from the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team trade to pursue a Stanley Cup. The package leaving Ottawa that day: goalie Andrew Hammond, forward Kyle Turris, prospect Shane Bowers, and two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, one in the first round and another in the third. The first-rounder could ultimately turn into franchise cornerstones Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.
If you happen to win the Cup, sure, that’s a trade you can live with. Banners fly forever, etc. In the current context of the Sens, though, the organization was not only delusional to think they were 2017-18 Cup contenders, but also unstable after ditching their blueprint to contend not long after the Duchene pickup.
Remember, the overachieving 2016-17 Sens squad that made it to the Eastern Conference Final had some big-time NHL contributors, including Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Turris, and Derick Brassard. Aside from Stone, who may be gone in the coming days, all of them have been moved to new teams.
The haul back for these players has been underwhelming, to say the least. Even though there have been several draft picks involved - some of which haven’t been used and others that are conditional - it’s safe to say Dorion didn't fleece anybody. Aside from goaltending prospect Filip Gustavsson, you can't point to a single piece that could be categorized as a sure thing.
Now, the second way to view the Duchene-to-Columbus trade is by looking at it in a vacuum.
Given negotiations between the Senators and Duchene’s camp had dried up and the 28-year-old was set to test the open market following this season, Dorion fared OK. Two prospects, a first-rounder, and potentially an additional first-rounder is a solid package for a pending unrestricted free agent of Duchene’s quality.
The prospects could be of higher caliber, but Abramov, 20, and Davidsson, 21, both project to make the NHL at some point, with the former having a higher ceiling as a 5-foot-9 skilled winger. The guaranteed pick, Columbus’ 2019 first-rounder, should be around the 15-20 range, seeing as the Blue Jackets will likely squeak into the playoffs.
It’s not an ideal return, but the Sens have done worse.
What else does Dorion have up his sleeve? Pending UFAs Stone and Ryan Dzingel, both believed to be on their way out of Ottawa, sat for the second straight game on Friday. The teardown is just beginning.
John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.