UFA Options is a continuing series that gives a brief run-down of the unrestricted free agent market this summer, team-by-team. Our next team for consideration is the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets have six free agents of note, all of them depth players, and the team is well positioned cap-wise to retain any of them that they choose to, and even make some additions, with less than 43-million committed to next season and 19 players under contract. Whether they choose to spend to the cap or not remains to be seen; the Blue Jackets have lost a lot of money over the past few seasons, and are a textbook example of what an incompetent general manager can do to a good, emerging hockey market.
Not included in that list of six is ex-Oiler Mike York, who this past season put up his traditional NHL point totals in the AHL and needs to make up substantial ground to get another crack at the big leagues.
The year started off as a massive disappointment for Williams. Signed as an unrestricted free agent on the cheap by Atlanta, he disappointed, putting up only 18 points in 41 games. Columbus, who needed someone to play the point on their powerplay, grabbed Williams for defenseman Clay Wilson and a 6th round draft pick. I called it a clear win for Columbus at the time, and while the 26-year old Wilson continued to pile up points in the minors, Williams turned it on at the NHL level. Here are his statistics, split between Atlanta and Columbus:
- Atlanta: 41GP – 7G – 11A – 18PTS, -9
- Columbus: 39GP – 12G – 17A – 29PTS, +5
Williams isn’t a perfect player; he stays to the perimeter more than most would like to see and sometimes makes goofy decisions with the puck, but he’s a versatile offensive forward with good speed and an excellent shot . The 2008-09 edition of McKeen’s Hockey called him “a weapon when deployed wisely” and he seems to have found a niche in Columbus.
Peca had a relatively healthy year, which must have been a refreshing change after two seasons with significant time lost to injuries. His statistics in Columbus were a mirror image of his numbers in Edmonton, and from the games that I saw him play it seems like he’s continuing to transition from a physical force into more of a positional defender.
If healthy, Peca continues to provide the same reliable defensive play that he always has, but he hasn’t topped 10 goals or 35 points since the lockout, sinking to a low of 4 goals in 71 games this past year. Given his incredibly low shooting percentage (6.2%) I’d expect a bit of a rebound in that department but he’s not going to bring much in the way of offense for whoever ends up signing him.
Malhotra had a phenomenal year, as the 7th overall pick in the 1998 draft scored a career high 35 points and saw some time on the first line alongside Rick Nash. He also posted a high +/- despite being Hitchcock’s first choice for defensive zone draws. Asking him to repeat those numbers might be a bit of a stretch; this year he was blessed with a .930 even-strength save percentage behind him, but regardless of luck he still had a tremendous year and helped drive possession.
Malhotra’s often underrated, but he does all the little things right; he’s tremendous in puck battles (as one example, he recorded more than twice as many takeaways as giveaways), wins faceoffs at an incredible rate (went 58.0% on the draw in 1380 attempts), blocks shots and brings size and a physical game to the table. He is an ideal fit for any team looking for a checking line centre who adds a physical dimension.
Chris Gratton’s once-considerable offense has dried up since the lockout, and this past season he was waived by one of the worst teams in the NHL (Tampa Bay) and spent 24 games in the minors before the Columbus Blue Jackets picked him up.
Although people like Robin Brownlee have hinted at his off-ice reputation as the reason teams passed on him, his on-ice play has been quite good. Much like Malhotra he wins faceoffs (58.5% on the season) brings size and a physical game and generally does a good job in a defensive role. This is a player who, judging by his on-ice performance, had no business being in the vicinity of the waiver wire this past season, and will probably outperform whichever bargain-basement contract he ends up signing.
At first glance Backman appears to be a complete defenseman; he brings size (6’4”, 210lbs) to the table and has a wealth of puck-moving ability. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use that size, relying on positional play (only recorded 40 hits all season) and hasn’t shown an ability to handle higher-level opponents. He’d be able to get away with that if he were contributing offensively, but while he makes a very respectable first pass out of the zone he’s never topped 18 points in five NHL seasons.
Backman adds a good puck-moving dimension to a team in need of it on the third-pairing but it doesn’t translate to points, and he doesn’t do the other things that would endear him to a general manager. At 29 years old, he’s moved from being full of potential to being one more middling third-pairing defenseman. He could be a fit on certain teams (the 2006-07 Oilers would have loved him) but only in a narrowly-defined role.
Dubielewicz was an excellent demonstration of the stupidity of certain NHL waiver rules this season, but he didn’t do much else. Garth Snow recruited him to be a backup on the Islanders after Dubielewicz left the KHL, but he had to put him on waivers to get him on the team, and after all that work Columbus snatched him.
Why Columbus chose to grab him remains an interesting question; Dubielewicz was very bad in Russia, and he ended up playing only three games in Columbus, posting a 3.56 GAA and .870 SV%. There might be a team interested in him for AHL depth, but it’s hard to picture the 30-year old getting another shot at the NHL level without a stint in the minors.
It should be noted that this was quite an off-year for Dubielewicz; in 2007-08 he put up a .919 SV% on the Islanders in 20 games, and thus he may very well surprise next season.