As he looks over the season that was, Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen probably can’t help but wonder what might have been. And we’re not even talking about what might have transpired had the on-ice officials not missed a blatant five-minute major to Charlie McAvoy in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins. It’s hard to imagine the Blue Jackets would have pulled a San Jose Sharks even if the penalty had been for five minutes instead of two. Regardless of the egregiously blown call, the better team won that series.
No, Kekalainen has to be wondering how things might look for his team had he taken a different approach to the trade deadline. Because on one hand, his gambit to go all-in failed because the Blue Jackets didn’t even make it halfway through the Stanley Cup playoffs. On the other hand, Columbus escaped the ignominy of being the only one among the NHL’s 31 teams never to have won a playoff series and they did that by beating a team that had scorched the league in a record-setting regular season. They also re-energized their fan base, something that should not be minimized.
But let’s pretend for a moment that Kekalainen had looked at his playoff-bubble team at the deadline and gone in the completely opposite direction. First, he would have had the return on dealing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and top scorer Artemi Panarin at the trade deadline. That would have represented a bevy of futures in the form of picks, prospects and young players. He also would have had the two players – Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidson – along with the first-round pick he gave up for Matt Duchene, Anthony Duclair and the two second-rounders he surrendered for Ryan Dzingel, the fourth- and seventh-rounders it cost to get Adam McQuaid and the fifth-rounder in 2022 that departed to get Keith Kincaid.
The Blue Jackets will lose their first-rounder next year as well if they manage to re-sign Duchene, an asset they would gladly give up to have Duchene stick around in the long-term. As it stands now, the Blue Jackets scouts might as well skip the draft because Columbus has only two picks in seven rounds. In fact, if Duchene re-signs, the Blue Jackets will go the next 10 rounds over 2019 and 2020 drafts with only those two picks. From that perspective, it’s completely reasonable to question whether Kekalainen did the right thing sacrificing all those future assets to say his team has finally been able to win a playoff round.
But what is done is done and now the Blue Jackets must look toward the future. By winning the first round and giving the Boston Bruins all they could handle in the second, the Blue Jackets made themselves relevant again in a market that was getting tired of never seeing what it was like to watch their team play hockey in May. History tells us that these moves are going to hurt the Blue Jackets – possibly in a big way – in the long-term future. And as for the short-term future, it has been all but pre-ordained that both Bobrovsky and Panarin played their last games in Columbus Monday night. As for Duchene, he’s probably a 50-50 proposition at this point, while Dzingel is likely looking to cash in on the best offensive season of his career.
The uncertainty surrounding Bobrovsky and Panarin has hovered over the Blue Jackets all season and, truth be told, everyone involved did an excellent job in refusing to allow it to become a distraction. The Blue Jackets must plot their future now on the assumption that they will be without a two-time Vezina winner and their top scorer the past two seasons, one of the few wingers in the league who is capable of driving a line and being an elite and dynamic offensive player. Those are going to be nearly impossible to replace, even when you have $28 million in cap space.
But if the New York Islanders proved anything this past season, it’s that a team can survive the departure of a franchise player. And going into the 2019-20 season, the Blue Jackets have a lot more talent on their roster than the Islanders did entering this season. First of all, they have a very good, but not spectacular forward corps. Pierre-Luc Dubois will no longer have Panarin, but the two years spent playing with him groomed him to become a legitimate No. 1 center, with beast-like potential. Having a fourth line taking up $12.4 million in cap space – in Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner and Riley Nash – isn’t ideal, but it can work.
The Blue Jackets’ strength, though, is on the blueline. In Seth Jones, they have a player who has developed into one of the league’s top 200-foot defenders. He and partner Zach Werenski have truly hit their strides and have the potential to be one of the league’s best all-round tandems in the next couple of seasons. Jones will win a Norris Trophy someday, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Alexandre Texier and Vladislav Gavrikov both stepped into the lineup in the playoffs and acquitted themselves well. The Blue Jackets don’t have much top-end talent in their pipeline, but they do have three goalies with promise – Elvis Merzlikins, Daniil Tarasov and Veini Vehvilainen – and are hoping to hit on one of those.
Kekalainen said when his team was eliminated that he wants players who are proud to be Blue Jackets. It’s probably a little easier to puff your chest out over this team after this season. The Blue Jackets are swimming in cap space and if they get a little more from the players they have and make the right moves over the summer, there’s no reason they should take a step back, even without Bread and Bob around.
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