What is Jarmo Kekalainen up to? The GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a man never afraid to be bold, has traded defenseman Ryan Murray to the New Jersey Devils for a fifth-round pick in 2021. Now, Murray is a legit top-four blueliner and still in his productive years at the age of 27, so on the surface the trade looks quite lopsided. But what Columbus gets in return in cap space – and with free agency season achingly close, the Blue Jackets suddenly look like players.
The Murray trade is actually the third chess-move by Kekalainen, following the buy-out of center Alexander Wennberg and a deal with Florida that sent D-man Markus Nutivaara to the Panthers in exchange for prospect Cliff Pu (there was also the Josh Anderson-Max Domi trade, but that wasn’t about immediate cap space).
While the Blue Jackets do have an important restricted free agent to re-sign in No. 1 center Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kekalainen now has about $14 million to play with – and the Murray trade really gives off the sense that the wily GM is hoping to line up someone big on the free agent market. Is Taylor Hall a target? Columbus could certainly use his speed and scoring potential. Failing that, there’s also Mike Hoffman if the Blue Jackets are looking for points. Or perhaps Kekalainen wants to super-size his blueline by adding Torey Krug – or shoot for the moon and go for Alex Pietrangelo.
Whatever the intent may be, Kekalainen has put himself in a position to strike when the market opens.
Murray was good for the Jackets, but with Vladislav Gavrikov proving he belonged in the NHL this past season and a very good prospect in Andrew Peeke making his pro debut, Columbus had some wiggle room here.
As for the Devils, this is a fantastic deal for them. Murray’s injury history is long and sordid, but when healthy he’s a mobile, two-way defenseman who can provide solid minutes. New Jersey is in the midst of a rebuild and defense was a major problem for the team this past season. Needless to say, veteran P.K. Subban has to play better next year, but bringing in Murray adds experience and skill to a back end that could use it.
As for Murray himself, he gets a one-year tryout with New Jersey before he is eligible for unrestricted free agency and with the Devils in possession of two promising young centers in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, he might just want to stick around as GM Tom Fitzgerald attempts to steer the franchise out of the woods and back to the winning ways that Devils fans are accustomed to.