Skip to main content

The Bobrovsky boondoggle: What do the Blue Jackets do with their star keeper?

Just when the Blue Jackets have turned the corner as a franchise, they face a monumental decision on their Vezina-grade goalie.

So you want to be an NHL general manager? Consider the plight of Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who has been steadily building a deep and dangerous roster in Columbus, only to find out this summer that the team’s two best players – winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky – are probably gone after this season, if not sooner.

Panarin has drawn the most headlines because he’s been the most public, but it’s easier – not easy, but easier – to replace a top-end left winger than it is to replace a franchise goalie, one who has two Vezina Trophies in his collection. And the situation with Panarin, while bleak, hasn’t gotten nearly as personal or awkward as it has with Bobrovsky.

First, some background. Bobrovsky, perhaps more than any other player, has played a major role in the Blue Jackets’ fairly recent rise to respectability. He was traded to Columbus in 2012 by Philadelphia – oh, the Flyers and their goaltending – and immediately won his first Vezina Trophy. Since then, other than frustrating bouts with groin injuries in 2013-14 and ’14-15, Bobrovsky has been the Blue Jackets’ rock, their best player most nights and the biggest reason they’ve had three playoff berths in the past five seasons.

But about those playoffs. Bobrovsky has suffered unimaginable struggles in the post-season where he looks like a completely different goaltender than the regular-season version. Bobrovsky is 5-12 with a 3.38 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in the playoffs with Columbus, as the Blue Jackets have bowed out in the first round twice to Pittsburgh and last season to eventual Stanley Cup-champion Washington.

Those numbers cannot be ignored, and the Blue Jackets have stopped even trying. After the 2016-17 playoff exit to Pittsburgh in five games, Bobrovsky bristled at even the faint suggestion by the Blue Jackets – or questions from reporters – that he seek help to clear this hurdle, perhaps with a sports psychologist.

After the 2017-18 exit to the Capitals in six games, coach John Tortorella, while not pinning all of the blame on Bobrovsky, made it clear that his goaltender needs to be better in big games. All of this, apparently, has roiled Bobrovsky, and when the Blue Jackets’ initial contract extension offer this summer came in lower than desired, he felt fully snubbed. His agent, Paul Theofanous, has not spoken publicly regarding Bobrovsky’s situation, but reports suggest that Bobrovsky is looking for “Carey Price-like” numbers with his next deal. Price is in the first season of an eight-year, $84-million contract with Montreal.

Bobrovsky showed up for training camp on time, but nobody who has spent any significant time around him could recall him being as grumpy and defiant as he was when he spoke with the media one day before camp. He said the Blue Jackets knew what he was planning to do since the end of 2017-18, that he was done talking contract once camp got underway. “They know exactly what we’re going to do,” Bobrovsky said, although Kekalainen has denied that anything has been settled.

The Blue Jackets do not appear willing to stroke Bobrovsky’s ego by making him the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL. If there were playoff runs on his resume, maybe they’d slide a blank check across the table for him to sign, but they appear ready to let him walk at Price’s price.

Also, the Blue Jackets believe they have significantly more leverage in their talks with Bobrovsky than Panarin. How many NHL teams need a No. 1 goaltender? How many of those teams would be willing to carve out almost $11 million – roughly one-seventh of the salary cap – for a goalie with no track record of playoff success?

Perhaps only a handful of NHL teams fit those criteria, but the free-agent market could be flooded with goaltenders on July 1. The Blue Jackets think Columbus at, say, $9 million per season, might look better to Bobrovsky next July.

But the Blue Jackets aren’t of a mind to beg him to stay, either. Tortorella has already made it clear that the club must start taking a longer look at backup Joonas Korpisalo, who started on opening night in Detroit and, in one stretch, made three consecutive starts for the Jackets. Bobrovsky hadn’t sat out for three straight starts while healthy since he arrived in 2012-13.

Columbus could turn the crease over to Korpisalo next year, but there’s another wild card waiting in the wings. Elvis Merzlikins, 24, has been a star in Switzerland in recent seasons and has looked strong for his native Latvia in international competition. Three years ago, when it came time to sign an extension with Lugano, he asked for a three-year deal with his eyes on 2019-20. He knew when Bobrovsky’s deal expired.

If Bob leaves the building, so to speak, maybe Elvis will enter. – Aaron Portzline

TOP GOALIE PROSPECTS

BOSTON BRUINS: After impressing the Bruins at their 2017 prospect tournament, Kyle Keysersigned as an undrafted free agent and has been rising up the ranks since. Once the athletic Oshawa Generals goalie learns not be so overactive in the net, there’s a good chance of an NHL future.

BUFFALO SABRES: Finland finished a disastrous sixth at the 2018 WJC and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen disappointed along with his teammates. But the Sabres took a chance on him in the second round in 2017 and it’s paying off. He has been a key part of Sudbury’s strong start in the OHL.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Carolina has drafted several goalies recently, and finding creases for all of them has been a challenge. Jeremy Helvig spent an overage year in the OHL for that reason, but he looks like the best in the system. He’s big, can steal games and is off to a great start with ECHL Florida.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Columbus has some intriguing goalie prospects, but 24-year-old Elvis Merzlikins is the furthest along in his development. The Latvian national plays for Lugano in the Swiss League, where he has already won the Jacques Plante Trophy as goalie of the year – twice.

DETROIT RED WINGS: Though he started his season at the University of Denver on the injured list, Filip Larsson had already made the jump to North America. He starred for the USHL’s Tri-City Storm in 2017-18, where he was goalie of the year after posting the league’s best GAA (1.65) and SP (.941).

FLORIDA PANTHERS: After struggling in his first pro campaign, Sam Montembeault has rebounded with a strong start in the AHL this season. The 2015 third-rounder had a 3.25 GAA and .896 SP as a rookie, but the Panthers hope he’ll become more consistent and step in once Roberto Luongo retires.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: Cayden Primeau, a seventh-round pick in 2017 and the son of former NHLer Keith, has impressed Montreal with his performance at Northeastern University, where he was Hockey East’s top goalie last season. He has the size and ability to project as a future No. 1 goalie.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: After a mediocre start to his AHL career, Mackenzie Blackwood spent time in the ECHL last season and it seemed to do the trick. He was part of a long playoff run and stepped up in a supporting role. Big and calm, he’s back with AHL Binghamton and off to a great start.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Ilya Sorokin is under contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL until April 2020. After that, it would help to see him in the AHL in order to get acclimated to the North American game before he joins the Isles, but there’s a ton of potential in the mature and athletic Olympic gold medalist.

NEW YORK RANGERS: The rebuilding Rangers are close to getting Igor Shesterkin over to North America. The SKA St. Petersburg goalie is under contract in the KHL until April, so he may not arrive in time for a game this season, but the agile netminder and is worth waiting for.

OTTAWA SENATORS: After being named the best goalie at the 2018 world juniors and a strong season in Sweden’s top pro league, Filip Gustavsson hasn’t missed a beat with a solid start for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate. He was also named the best goaltender at the world under-18s in 2016.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: How soon can CArter Hart take over in Philadelphia? We kid, we kid. The Flyers’ ace prospect was getting the lion’s share of starts with AHL Lehigh Valley, but his stats weren’t great early on. Don’t worry, though. The rookie pro has the maturity to succeed, he just needs time to adjust.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: The lack of goaltending depth is shocking in Pittsburgh. Tristan Jarry is one of two candidates – free-agent junior signing Alex D’Orio is the other – the franchise has in the system. Jarry had an extended tryout when Matt Murray was hurt last year, but he wasn’t convincing.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The Bolts liked what they saw from Connor Ingram in his AHL rookie season in 2017-18 and hope he’ll continue to develop. It remains to be seen whether he can become a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, but at the very least he projects to be a reliable backup.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: At 20, Joseph Woll is already a junior at Boston College. While he struggled early this season, Woll has displayed enough improvement to warrant the Leafs’ faith in him. Don’t be surprised if he makes the jump to pro hockey when his 2018-19 season with the Terriers ends.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: He has first-round pedigree and a KHL title, but Ilya Samsonov got off to a rough start in his first North American campaign. The big, talented netminder was getting vastly outplayed by the more experienced Vitek Vanecek with AHL Hershey. He needs time to find his footing.

TOP HEADLINES

USATSI_18104395
Play

The Future is Bright for the Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings' hopes of making the second round were dashed on Saturday, but better days are ahead, and a little bit more patience in getting there should go a long way in seasons to come.

2022 IIHF World Championship
Play

Men's World Championship Recap: Unpredictable Day to Close Out First Weekend

Canada and Switzerland remain perfect, Sweden won with a short lineup, France and Norway won important games and USA avoided total disaster against Austria on Day 3 of the World Hockey Championship.

USATSI_18273603
Play

The Maple Leafs Lost Again – What Now?

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost another Game 7. Now, their future is entirely uncertain.