The moment the Blue Jackets signed Johnny Gaudreau to a 7-year contract, plucking one of the most talented wingers in the NHL from free agency – something had to give. This became more evident when the team signed Patrik Laine to a 4-year extension, vaulting them over the league’s $82.5 million dollar salary cap. Ultimately, GM Jarmo Kekalainen found cap relief by trading talented scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand for third and fourth round picks in the 2023 draft. On an emotional level, this trade stings. But, if you take everything into consideration: it was obviously the right move.
Originally drafted by the Blue Jackets in the third round of the 2013 draft, Bjorkstrand is one of the most successful home grown players in franchise history. In 382 games with the Jackets, Bjorkstrand scored 111 goals and 234 points – while also becoming one of the most reliable two-way wingers in the entire league. So why trade him, and not someone else?
When Gaudreau was signed, not only did he eat up a ton of cap space; he pushed someone out of a top-six winger role. He and Laine are the clear top-two. After that they were left with three guys for two roster spots: Gustav Nyquist, Jakub Voracek, and Bjorkstrand. To clear cap space, it was evident that one of the three had to be moved – it’s just a matter of too many bodies and too much money.
The video game GM in us all says it would be easy to sell off Voracek or Nyquist for draft picks or futures. In the real world however, that’s not so cut and dry. Every other GM in the league knew as soon as the Blue Jackets landed Gaudreau, that cap space would be an asset when bargaining with the Blue Jackets. I’m sure these options were explored, but in the end they just didn’t make sense.
Trading Nyquist probably meant adding in other assets – a second round pick? A quality second-tier prospect (for argument’s sake, Stanislav Svozil)? Maybe even both. With just one year left on his deal, I’m sure this contract was manageable for a lot of teams – especially since Gus can still produce. But, nobody was going to help the Jackets out for free.
In the case of Voracek however, while he remains a productive player, he has two years remaining at a hard-to-swallow $8.25M AAV. This contract is virtually untradeable, unless you are including first round assets. Yes, assets in this case being plural. And you still may have to take money back the other way.
The decision becomes easier if you have to take a step back and look at the long-term effects of this trade. Nyquist and Voracek are relatively short-term cap problems. Keeping them on the roster now means you have placeholders in the top-six, and quality veteran leadership for the young talent coming into the system. But, when their deals are up, you free up another $14m or so in cap space over the next two years. That’s a big deal when you’re looking at re-signing players like Cole Sillinger or Kent Johnson.
Sure, trading Bjorkstrand is still painful. He’s still pretty young, led the team in goals with 28 last season, and is signed to a team friendly $5.4M AAV deal for the next four years. He wore an “A” for the team last season and certainly seemed like part of the solution here. But in the end, a player like Johnny Gaudreau is so good, and so rare, that you have to make decisions like this. The saying “to get good players, you have to give up good players”, is correct … even if it’s not so linear as a one for one trade.
With all of that considered, you can’t judge this trade as simply Oliver Bjorkstrand for two middle round picks. This trade is, ultimately, Bjorkstrand for Johnny Gaudreau, and third and fourth round picks in a strong 2023 draft. That’s a big win for the Blue Jackets, both immediately and in the future. When we polled CBJ fans on Twitter, the response was overwhelming:
We can debate the signing of Erik Gudbranson, or even the contracts handed to players like Jack Roslovic or Sean Kuraly – but in the end, the team had too many wingers, and would have had to clear one out to sign both Gaudreau and Laine. If you take away one of the players I just mentioned, you find a gaping hole elsewhere in the lineup … and still have too many wingers. For all of these reasons, this is a trade that had to be made; regardless of money spent elsewhere on the roster.
In the end, I think the Jackets came out of July a with much stronger team, than the one they entered the month with. Bjorkstrand is a great player, a fan favorite and an amazing person. But Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine give this team a 1-2 scoring punch like it has never seen before. If you had to give him up, this was a good reason to do it.