The way Pierre-Luc Dubois figured, his decision to spend $3,000 on a bottle of Louis XIII cognac last summer was a pretty wise investment. You know how quarterbacks take their offensive linemen out for dinner or send them on vacations? That’s kind of what this was like. After all, Dubois had just made an extra $425,000 in bonus money in the first year of his contract and wanted to show his appreciation for the person most responsible for helping him earn it. Dubois had three goals when Artemi Panarin became his linemate, and Dubois ended his rookie season with 20. So he stroked a check for three large and gave it to teammate Seth Jones, who purchased the elixir because Dubois was too young to do it himself. He still is.
But that will change June 24 when Dubois reaches his 21st birthday and can drink like a man in the state of Ohio. Seven days after that, there’s a good chance Panarin, who has been Dubois’ linemate, friend and mentor for the past two seasons and is the owner of the bottle, will know exactly where he is likely going to spend the rest of his career. Panarin might even have a cheat day and eat a hamburger like everyone else does.
So when Dubois and Panarin do get around to clinking glasses and sharing an ambrosia that makes you feel like an angel is peeing on your tongue, it will mark a sense of closure in so many ways for so many people. Not only will Dubois be able to go out with his teammates after games with everything on the up-and-up, but it will also celebrate the conclusion of the most unlikely, logic-defying, unpredictable and downright bizarre periods in the history of this franchise. And that’s saying something because, hey, we’re talking about the Columbus Blue Jackets here. “It’s one of the most unique years I’ve been involved in,” said Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, “as far as some of the things that were going on in our locker room.”
For all of this season, the Blue Jackets did a delicate dance around two around two of their franchise pillars. Panarin, who led the team in scoring the past two seasons and is more than 50 points ahead of his next highest-scoring teammate, is due to become a UFA July 1. And franchise goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, whom former GM Scott Howson doesn’t get enough credit for stealing from the Philadelphia Flyers for futures in 2012, with two Vezina Trophies and a sterling 2019 playoff on his resume, will join Panarin on the open market, ready for the highest bidder.
Bread and Bob. Bob and Bread. Two Russians who came to the NHL as unheralded and undrafted in their early 20s and have risen to the top of their craft. They were born two years and a 26-hour drive apart, Panarin in the coal-mining town of Korkino near the Asian border and Bobrovsky in Novokuznetsk, a southwest Siberian steel hub that was known as Stalinsk from 1932 until 1961. If you listen to their teammates, no two players prepare for games more diligently and work harder to improve than Bread and Bob. The two have been and are inextricably linked when it comes to this year’s free agent market. If you believe what is being read around the league in the tea leaves, they could both be going to the Florida Panthers next season, a place where they have sandy beaches and no state taxes.
Last year was the most unique free agent season in NHL history, because never before had a player as young and talented as 27-year-old John Tavares been available to the highest bidder. This summer sets itself apart in that two franchise cornerstones are potentially available, possibly as a package deal. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads, really,” Dubois said. “But for sure it’s not the easiest situation to play in.”
Yet, remarkably, everyone made a situation rife with landmines work in Columbus this season. The 2018-19 campaign marked the first time in history the good people of central Ohio have known what it is like to cheer for a team that has won an NHL playoff series. And, man, has it been a long time. Nineteen years ago, owner John McConnell brought the NHL to this college-football town, and most of that time has been marked by dysfunction, ineptitude and mediocrity. If there was one place in the NHL that held the potential for this situation to become a gong show, Columbus would have been a good bet.
Not only did GM Jarmo Kekalainen not trade Bobrovsky and/or Panarin after not being able to sign them, he doubled down on the Blue Jackets and put his own job on the line by being the most active GM at the trade deadline. He acquired Matt Duchene from Ottawa Feb. 25 and made another move with the Senators the next day to acquire Ryan Dzingel – both of them pending UFAs themselves. Columbus was in third place in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of Pittsburgh and Carolina for the final divisional spot and tied with Montreal. One of those teams wasn’t even going to make the playoffs, and few would have been surprised if the one on the outside had been the Blue Jackets. Because Columbus.
It’s one of the most unique years I’ve been involved in, as far as some of the things that were going on in our locker room
– John Tortorella
The sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning and record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning was stunning, but the seeds for it had been sown much earlier than that. The Blue Jackets went 7-1-0 down the stretch after a players-only meeting and a dinner summit in Vancouver that came on the heels of a 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Everything was put out there, and the Blue Jackets cleared the air, much the way they did on the first day of training camp when they addressed the Bobrovsky and Panarin situations head-on.
Tortorella prompted the training-camp meeting, and more than one player said it was important to deflate the elephant in the room right away. “Because then there’s no tip-toeing around the situation,” Tortorella said. “I think that helps you when you deal with things the right way. You deal with them like men, face-to-face and with honesty. I think it helps you down the road as you deal with some things.”
• • •
There were 12 minutes remaining in the second period of Game 2 in the Blue Jackets’ series against the Bruins, and the teams were playing 4-on-4. Jones jumped on a Charlie Coyle turnover and got it to Panarin at the bottom of the right circle. Panarin snapped a shot that ended up underneath the back bar of the net and tied the game.
You can count on one hand the number of players in the league who could make that shot. “I’ve been here eight years and been pretty fortunate to play with some pretty good players,” said linemate Cam Atkinson. “Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, guys with incredible skill. But he’s been the best player…not by far…but, yeah, he’s just a generational talent. Just to see what he does in practice, you sit back in awe.”
When Duchene first came to the Blue Jackets, it actually took him some time to adjust to the way Panarin plays the game. His sense of vision and ability make things difficult on defenders but also teammates who aren’t on the same plane at which he’s processing the game.
Duchene compared him to a basketball point guard the way he gains the blueline, then posts up and assesses the situation. “I haven’t seen a guy play quite that style a game before – it’s pretty cool to watch,” Duchene said. “I’ve played on and off with him at times, and it took me a little bit to figure it out. I just go to the other side of the rink and wait for the puck to come that way because I know he loves to look for that cross-ice (pass) and play that left side.”
I don’t know what’s going on in their heads, really. But for sure it’s not the easiest situation to play in.
– Pierre-Luc Dubois
Panarin has been in North America for four full seasons, but he has done only one interview without the help of an official translator, and even then only after being pressed by reporters and declining previous media requests. For a guy who talks as much to his teammates as he does, that’s kind of odd.
The feeling is Panarin could do interviews in English if he really wanted to, but why step into the spotlight unless you have to. “His English is fine,” Atkinson said. “He knows what’s going on. Sometimes you have to dumb it down a little bit, but he definitely understands. He’s a great guy, likes to have fun, loves hockey. He’s a good dude.”
Ever since coming to Columbus in the summer of 2017 in a trade for Brandon Saad, Panarin has never led on the fans or the franchise about his intentions. There were even rumors that one of the reasons why the Blackhawks dealt him in the first place was they knew they had no chance of re-signing him. There has long been speculation Panarin has wanted to pursue the rest of his career in a bigger city that is close to a major body of water, and all the Blue Jackets can offer is a fan-friendly city with a favorable commute and the Scioto River.
One person close to the situation compared it to a star soccer player who happens to be playing in Stockholm. Great city, perfect situation, but it’s not Barcelona or Paris.
Adding to the intrigue around all this is that, for the first three years of his career, Panarin was represented by agent Dan Milstein. He and Panarin made it clear before training camp it was nothing personal, that he loves playing in Columbus but wasn’t going to sign an extension before exploring the market July 1.
Deals were rumored, and there might have been some action with Winnipeg involving Jack Roslovic and Toronto involving Kasperi Kapanen, but they never materialized, largely because there was no prospect of a long-term deal. Then, two days before the trade deadline, Panarin dropped Milstein for Paul Theofanous, who also happens to represent Bobrovsky. (A call to Milstein to ask him about this produces the following response: “I have nothing to say. Have a nice day.” Click.)
It wasn’t an easy season for me, especially in the beginning. Now it seems it has settled down, and I just focus on hockey, and that’s it.
– Sergei Bobrovsky
Panarin is a free spirit who smiles easily, laughs often and has an impish quality that makes him popular with his teammates. He loves to talk hockey, “even in his broken English,” according to Duchene. And the occasional periods of conflict that have pockmarked the Bobrovsky negotiations haven’t materialized with Panarin. The organization understands he has earned the right to choose and doesn’t begrudge his opportunity to do so. His teammates, some of whom have been in the same situation and others who may be in the future, will be the last ones to hold anything against him.
It also helps that Panarin might be the hardest-working and most dedicated player on the roster. There is no dispute that he is the most talented. “He’s one of the best players in the NHL and one of the few game breakers in the NHL, and he still works as if it’s his first shift in the NHL,” Dubois said. “He’s a real professional. I think he’s the definition of it in everything he does, even away from the rink.
• • •
Nick Foligno can’t remember exactly how it started, this hugging thing. But he doesn’t deny there is a unique kinship between him and Bobrovsky. They are two of the longest-serving Blue Jackets, having been acquired nine days apart in the summer of 2012. That first season, Columbus made an 8-1-0 run down the stretch, losing out on a playoff spot on the last day of the season to the Minnesota Wild via tiebreaker. During that stretch, Foligno embraced Bobrovsky after every victory and, seven years later, it’s a thing. After every victory, Foligno is the last in line to congratulate Bobrovsky, throwing his right arm with gusto around his neck, then tucking his left between Bobrovsky’s right hand and his body.
There was a time when Foligno simply yelled “Bobrovsky!” because he got a kick out of the way it sounded. “He just thought I was an idiot, probably,” Foligno said. “I just thought his name was hilarious. I don’t know why. Every game just got bigger and bigger. At first it was just a little hug, and then it got bigger because we kept winning. I remember I didn’t do it the next year, and he came up to me after one game and was like, ‘Hey.’ And I said, ‘Sorry, man, I forgot.’ And we just kept going.”
The message is different now, but the sentiment remains the same. “‘Love you, man, good game,’” Foligno said. “I don’t even know what I’m saying half the time. It doesn’t even make sense. But he’s smiling underneath his mask, which is great.”
The smiles weren’t always there this season, right from the first day of training camp, actually, when Bobrovsky cryptically suggested the Blue Jackets knew exactly what his plan was, then put a moratorium on questions about his future. One person close to the situation said that came after Columbus offered him a contract that wasn’t far off the eight-year, $84-million extension the Montreal Canadiens gave to Carey Price in the summer of 2017.
In the first month of the season, he and Foligno did their patented hug only twice. Bobrovsky lost five games that month and didn’t look particularly good doing so. By the end of the month, his record was 2-5-0 with a 3.58 goals-against average and an .882 save percentage. Things came to a head the night of Jan. 8 in a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a game in which Bobrovsky and the players in front of him were terrible. After giving up the fourth goal of the game on the 19th shot, Bobrovsky was pulled by Tortorella with 12 minutes to go in the game.
Instead of waiting for his teammates in the dressing room, Bobrovsky showered, got dressed and headed straight for the team bus. As a result, he was suspended for a game against Nashville for failing to meet the organization’s “expectations and values,” then watched from the bench as Joonas Korpisalo got the next start in Washington. He won both games in overtime. “It wasn’t an easy season for me,” Bobrovsky said, “especially in the beginning. Now it seems it has settled down, and I just focus on hockey, and that’s it.”
For all his regular-season magic and his two Vezina Trophies, his play in the playoffs going into this spring was suspect, to say the least. When asked what the difference was between the Bobrovsky who struggled through much of the first half of the season and the one that was nearly impenetrable down the stretch and in much of the post-season, he said, “I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t want to compare. I don’t want to analyze. I don’t want to think about it and say, ‘I did this and I did that.’ There were lots of things around me that were out of my control.”
One thing that sets professional athletes apart from those who don’t make it is their ability to compartmentalize things and not allow distractions to affect their game. With a few exceptions, Panarin and Bobrovsky have done that, as have their teammates. But at the beginning, when things were so raw between him and the organization and everything was so uncertain, it took a toll on Bobrovsky. “I think early in the year, the business side of hockey got to him,” Foligno said during the second round of the playoffs. “And you’re seeing him just play, and when you can do that as an athlete, it is scary, especially with a guy like him who has all that talent.
“I think he’s come to peace with it. We all have. There is no elephant in the room. There’s no issue. It’s just, ‘Let’s go play, boys, let’s have fun together, and let’s do this for each other.’ And man, every guy in this room loves him.”
So when July 1 rolls around, Dubois will almost certainly be losing his mentor, and it looks like Foligno will no longer have his post-game hugging partner. It’s just business, they’ll tell themselves as they say their goodbyes. The Blue Jackets will try to make a cult hero out of goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and they’ll hope their young players give them a little more to make up for the void left by Panarin.
They’ll sign a few free agents and they’ll move on. The former teammates will meet in rinks in the future and do the man-hug thing, knowing that for a short time in the spring of 2019, they shared something special. The Columbus Blue Jackets became the last of the 31 teams in the NHL to win a playoff series, and Bob and Bread were there for it. That’s not something people in these parts will forget easily.