How you view the biggest in-season NHL trade in quite some time might simply come down to where you stand on a debate hockey folks have been having for ages.
What has more impact on a team’s success: A top centre or a top defenceman?
Sure, there are salary cap permutations and development considerations to weigh with Wednesday’s blockbuster Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones deal, but what kept bringing the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators together during on-again, off-again talks and ultimately got them over the finish line was a clear positional need.
“If we didn’t make this trade today we’d be trying to make the same trade tomorrow, the next day, in the off-season,” said Predators GM David Poile. “We have been looking for a No. 1 centre forever.”
“We’ve been looking for a defenceman for a long time,” said Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “To get a guy this good you have to give up something real good.”
The fact the deal can be so easily broken down actually belies its complexity. Foundational pieces from two franchises — both recent No. 4 overall picks — have been uprooted before their 25th birthdays.
The risk is high here.
Johansen is two years older and therefore more developed, arriving in Nashville with a 60- and 70-point season already under his belt. But his salary jumps to $6 million next season and he will then need to receive a qualifying offer for that same amount in his final year leading into unrestricted free agency.
A rival executive recently labelled it a “contractual time bomb.”
Jones is currently in the final season of his entry-level deal, which means the Blue Jackets will have to make a fairly quick determination about whether they’re willing to give him a long-term contract or try to limit him to a bridge.
His career is at such an early stage that evaluating how impactful he can be in Columbus requires some assumptions. Scouts remain high on his potential. But the demands placed on him will be significantly different with the 30th-place Jackets than they were as a third-pairing guy on the NHL’s best blue-line.
Had the first half of this season not been such an equivocal flop in Columbus the organization probably wouldn’t be dealing Johansen now. However, the relationship between team and player hasn’t been the same since a contentious contract negotiation in 2014, and Kekelainen is looking to the future.
Surveying the construction of his roster — which features a lot of forwards on long-term contracts — he’s starting a process that will almost certainly end up in some form of rebuild.
“We’ve always believed that that’s how you build your team: From goaltending, defence and to the forwards,” said Kekalainen, speaking on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus.
With Nashville clinging to the Western Conference’s final wild-card spot, and ultimately trying to emerge from the murderous Central Division, Poile is counting on immediate returns from Johansen.
This was akin to landing his white whale. The trade represents a landmark moment for one of the NHL’s longest-tenured GMs, and elation was evident on his face as he addressed reporters at Bridgestone Arena.
“In my belief we accomplished something that we haven’t been able to do in 18 years of our history, and that’s to acquire a No. 1 centre,” said Poile.
Nashville has largely been good enough to avoid getting high draft picks — Jones is an exception — and they’ve never been able to unearth one anywhere else. It’s nearly an impossible task.
That’s the only reason why Poile came to grips with the fact he needed to part with a 21-year-old future No. 1 defenceman to make it happen. As recently as six weeks ago, he never would have dreamed of trading Jones.
“It’s a big change for us up front,” he said.
What really made this transaction sizzle was the fact it was a pure hockey move. Fans were already buzzing after Vinny Lecavalier and Luke Schenn were shipped from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for prospect Jordan Weal and a third-round — gasp, an actual trade! — but that proved to be nothing more than a cheap appetizer on this day.
We’re going to be able to use the Johansen-for-Jones deal as a clear demarcation point for both of these franchises.
While there is always a rush to anoint winners and losers immediately after trades, this is one we’re going to have to let simmer for a while. Like, say, a decade.
“I think both teams might be winning,” said Johansen. “Seth Jones is obviously an elite defenceman — every time we play them you know he’s on the ice, and you’re aware of him.
“I’m hoping I can be that dangerous top-line centre in Nashville.”
If both players end up blossoming, then it might simply come down to a matter of personal preference: Would you rather have a No. 1 C or a No. 1 D?