Piece by piece, the Columbus Blue Jackets as we knew them crumbled over the past two seasons. First came the 2019 off-season UFA exodus of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, left winger Artemi Panarin and center Matt Duchene. The Jackets endured, overcoming injuries and departures and reaching the second round of the 2020 bubble post-season with a lunch-pail crew. They still had an underdog mentality baked into them by coach John Tortorella and a grinding style embodied by captain Nick Foligno and first-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois.
A year later? Dubois is gone as part of the January trade for Patrik Laine. So is Tortorella, who won’t be signing a new contract. Foligno? Sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade-deadline rental. Rugged second-pair blueliner David Savard? Dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning. And yet, as thread after thread got pulled from the Blue Jackets, the constant going forward was supposed to be the top defense pair of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. Well, no more. As reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman over the weekend, Jones, who is entering the final season of his six-year, $32.4-million contract, has informed the Blue Jackets he intends to test the UFA market in 2022 rather than re-sign with the team.
The Blue Jackets could theoretically hang onto Jones for 2021-22 and hope the on-ice results are enough to convince him to stay but, as reported by The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, GM Jarmo Kekalainen and freshly (re)hired president John Davidson have pivoted on that stance. The expectation is that Columbus trades Jones by the draft in late July.
So, for now, we can assume there’s a better chance than not that Jones get moved. Have the Jackets mapped out what they’d want in a Jones trade? They won’t say for now. Kekalainen indicated to The Hockey News Monday that everything there is to say on the subject at the moment is already out there. The Jackets management team will hunker down for the next two months and start exploring Jones trade scenarios.
They won’t have any trouble finding suitors. Jones, who turns 27 in October, possesses the skill set pretty much every team dreams of having. He’s big, with a long wing span, he skates well, he owns a powerful shot, he plays in all situations and he logs major minutes. He’s a prototypical No. 1 defenseman. He was drafted fourth overall in 2013 for a reason. Well, that’s at least the perception. Jones’ play has actually slipped in recent years to the point he’s graded out quite negatively in terms of his defensive play and impact on possession. Given his age, pedigree and the fact he has played on some teams devoid of top-end talent in recent years, there’s reason to believe Jones can turn things around on a new team with better players surrounding him, but one could certainly make the case he’s a great sell-high chip while he’s still perceived as a high-impact player.
So if we accept that Jones plays for a new team next year, where might he end up? Considering he has just a year left on his deal, any team making an off-season play for him would have to be hopeful of signing him to an extension, so we’ll factor that in as we explore options here. It’s also worth noting that Jones has a modified no-trade clause with a 10-team no-trade list.
THE BEST HOCKEY FITS
When I spoke with Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman last off-season, he expressed that, while his team was in a rebuild, the rebuild had started a couple seasons prior. With the drafting of forwards such as Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach and blueliners such as Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin and the theft of Dominik Kubalik from the L.A. Kings, Bowman felt his retooled team could still have a chance to compete again before Patrick Kane’s best years dried up. It was crucial that Bowman sold Chicago’s restless veteran core on that idea. A year has passed and, partially because Jonathan Toews’ illness stalled Chicago’s season before it started, the rebuild hasn’t progressed much. The Hawks missed the playoffs by nine points.
They have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league several years running now. If Bowman is intent on accelerating the rebuild, he could pony up for Jones. But would the Jackets’ ask include Boqvist? It would be a steep price to pay, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Hawks do it if they’re committed to giving Kane another good run with a contending team. Brent Seabrook’s unofficial retirement also moves his $6.875-million AAV to LTIR and will grant the Hawks flexibility to add plenty of salary. They haven’t been this financially malleable in years.
The Flyers defense corps just wasn’t the same following Matt Niskanen’s sudden off-season retirement, with no one elevating to join Ivan Provorov as a true top-pair partner, regardless of who got a shot in the role, from Philippe Myers to Travis Sanheim. For a team one year removed from looking like a real contender, there’s an air of urgency this off-season, and Jones would give Philly a proper top-pair horse who can affect the play at both ends of the ice. Playing on a relatively deep group would also take some pressure off Jones, though it’s possible the Flyers would have to surrender a promising young defenseman as part of a package for Jones. They’d be loathe to give up top prospect Cam York, but it would make sense for Columbus to request Sanheim or Myers as one part of a Jones trade.
Even though Neal Pionk has outplayed Jacob Trouba since the big trade with the New York Rangers, the right side of Winnipeg’s blueline hasn’t been the same since losing Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba from the lineup between 2018-19 and 2019-20. Most of Winnipeg’s defensemen were playing a bit higher on the depth chart than they should have this season, from Dylan DeMelo to Derek Forbort. Jones would give the Jets their most dynamic game-breaking presence on the right side since Byfuglien. Kekalainen and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff have already established a comfort level trading together, completing the Laine-for-Dubois-and-Jack-Roslovic deal this season. If you’re Columbus, any package from Winnipeg for Jones has to start with Ville Heinola’s name, right?
Detroit Red Wings
In his season-ending presser, GM Steve Yzerman indicated that he won’t trade just to make a splash but would consider exploring deals for additional young players that can be building blocks. The trade he made for left winger Jakub Vrana is a good example. Jones is just young enough that Yzerman could consider Jones part of a long-term solution and, despite Detroit’s struggles in recent years, Yzerman himself has the cachet to influence Jones’ chances of re-signing. The Wings are a long shot, however, because of the price it’ll take to get Jones. Detroit can’t afford to send any prospects away, from Moritz Seider to Lucas Raymond, and it doesn’t have enough attractive established NHLers to dangle.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils want a do-over on a disappointing 2020-21 season that got off to the wrong foot thanks to COVID-19 and Nico Hischier’s injury. They feel they’re much better than what they showed. They’re swimming in cap space and have a top-four blueliner coming off the books in Ryan Murray. Jones would give them a top-pair blueliner to build around for years to come along with puck-mover Ty Smith and 2020 first-round pick Shakir Mukhamadullin, with towering Kevin Bahl bringing the shutdown game. While the Devils don’t yet possess an elite prospect pool, they do have some intriguing young NHL forwards they could include in a package for Jones, from Jesper Boqvist to Michael McLeod to Nolan Foote. They could also include P.K. Subban as part of a Jones trade. He would fill Jones’ minute-munching void on the right side and, as a pending UFA, could be a rental chip to trade next season at the deadline should Columbus find itself out of contention.
THE BEST PERSONAL FITS
Jones spent part of his childhood in Colorado. He played the first organized hockey of his life in Denver when his dad, NBA power forward Popeye Jones, played for the Nuggets. Popeye sought advice for his son’s hockey career at the time from Denver’s biggest hockey star at the time: Mr. Joe Sakic, who happens to be the current Avs GM. Jones is also good friends with his fellow 2013 first-round draftee Nathan MacKinnon. Hockey wise, though, the Avs are loaded on defense. It wouldn’t make much sense to pursue Jones – unless they were worried about losing someone like Ryan Graves in the expansion draft and wanted to move two defensemen for one.
Jones is a Texan. He was born there and spent much of his childhood there while his dad played for the Dallas Mavericks. The Stars, theoretically, could have the inside track on the competition as a long-term signing destination if Jones wanted to pull a John Tavares. Defense is already a strength for Dallas, though it’s worth noting right-handed puck-mover John Klingberg’s contract ends in 2022 like Jones’ does. Would Dallas consider a trade that included Klingberg joining the Jackets?
With Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie becoming UFAs, the right side of Edmonton’s D-corps looks wide open. Larsson is likely to re-sign, but an alternative could be to target Jones and reunite him with his brother Caleb in Edmonton. Columbus’ ask would have to include a top defense prospect like Evan Bouchard or Philip Broberg, however.
THE BEST ALL-ROUND FIT
Los Angeles Kings
Do the Kings tick every box as a Jones destination? I think so. Hockey wise, this franchise has laid in the weeds since Rob Blake took over as GM in 2017, slowly piling up prospects. The Kings have reached a critical mass now. In Future Watch 2021, our panel of active NHL scouts and executives ranked L.A.’s farm system third in the league and placed six Kings prospects among the individual top 100. The Kings theoretically could ice a 2021-22 lineup including the following graduates from their recent drafts: Gabe Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Rasmus Kupari and Tobias Bjornfot, with Alex Turcotte, Samuel Fagemo and Akil Thomas knocking on the door. With Anze Kopitar still performing at a high enough level to handle all the toughest minutes as the captain and veteran shutdown center, the Kings are ready to start climbing in what should be a soft Pacific Division next year.
Adding Jones could accelerate the process – though he plays the same side as Drew Doughty. That could be a boon to both players, however, as they could each drive their own pair and have slightly less responsibility than they do on their own.
From a personal standpoint, L.A. could make a logical long-term home for Jones, too. He’s a CAA client under L.A-based Pat Brisson.