Is it time to panic in Columbus? Based off Twitter reactions lately, we’re already there. The Blue Jackets went all-in at the trade deadline, acquiring center Matt Duchene, winger Ryan Dzingel, depth defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid, and not trading away pending unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. It was a bold gambit for GM Jarmo Kekalainen and a lot of pundits applauded the move.
But it’s not looking so hot right now.
With a 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday night, Columbus further sank in the Eastern Conference standings and now sit four points behind the Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Even more pressing is the fact Columbus is out of a wild-card position, with Montreal and Carolina ahead of them. These are tough times in central Ohio.
Coach John Tortorella knows his team is playing tight right now and he tried to deliver a message for them to just “go out and play” before the Pittsburgh game; to not overthink things. But it did not matter.
So far, the deadline acquisitions have struggled in Columbus. McQuaid, not the speediest of fellows, has been a healthy scratch twice already – though he was back in the lineup against the Penguins and played 10:03 (keep in mind he was brought in for depth, not a starring role).
Duchene has just three points in eight games with the Blue Jackets and none in his past four outings. He’s still getting a good deal of ice time, so at least Tortorella is giving him the opportunity to work through it, but with goals a team problem right now, something needs to happen. Dzingel has two assists in six games with Columbus, while Kinkaid has yet to see action.
Columbus has been shut out twice in its past four games – and all four contests were regulation losses. That really stings at this time of year when every point is magnified by the playoff race. And it’s tough to lay it all on Duchene because he is still getting his feet under him with a new team. As my colleague Ken Campbell has often pointed out, the best moves at the trade deadline tend to be the ones people pay little attention to at the time – Michal Handzus joining Chicago in 2013 or Washington landing a new partner for John Carlson in Michal Kempny last year, for example.
Naturally, expectations for Duchene were sky-high, because he was having a cracking season with Ottawa before the move was made. The talented center has mostly been playing with Panarin and Cam Atkinson – Columbus’ biggest offensive threats – so the opportunities have been there, just not the raw results. Chemistry takes time, even when you’re talking about the most high-end of players. And sometimes it’s just not there: Sidney Crosby found it with Jake Guentzel instead of Phil Kessel, for example.
What is obvious is that the Blue Jackets need to snap out of their funk immediately and it will not be easy. Of the team’s 15 remaining games, 10 are against opponents currently holding playoff positions. Columbus also has nine road dates in that span, but if there is one saving grace, it’s that the Jackets have been much better away from Nationwide Arena than they have been within its cannon-sporting confines this season.
This summer, Columbus will in all likelihood lose Panarin and Bobrovsky for no return. Duchene could also bolt via free agency. Kekalainen shot his shot at the deadline and it was both bold and respectable that he wouldn’t let the future handcuff the present in Columbus. But boy, is it going to be a tough pill to swallow if the Blue Jackets don’t make the playoffs at all.