The Columbus Blue Jackets’ trade deadline strategy was daring. It was bold. It was among the most aggressive of any team in recent memory. And when the Blue Jackets pushed their chips to the middle by not only holding onto pending free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but by paying a veritable king’s ransom for two of the top deadline targets, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the expectation was that it would propel a wild-card club into contention for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Yet, with the deadline one week in the rearview, Columbus has every reason to be feeling much more panicked than confident about their post-deadline results.
In no uncertain terms, the past week has been a difficult one for the Blue Jackets. Since the trade freeze came into effect, Columbus has played in four contests and the results, simply put, haven’t been there. The first post-deadline game, occurring on deadline day itself, saw the Blue Jackets drop a crucial divisional contest to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next night out, Columbus eked by the hard-charging Philadelphia Flyers in overtime. But then came the past weekend, which bordered on disastrous. In what should have been a gimme game against the foundering Edmonton Oilers, the Blue Jackets were blanked 4-0, and the second half of the back-to-back saw the Winnipeg Jets break the game open late and skate to a 5-2 victory on the strength of four Blake Wheeler goals.
Now, as the Blue Jackets awake Monday morning, they find themselves two points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, three points back of the third seed in the Metropolitan Division and in such a position that it would be difficult to fault anyone involved if thoughts of the worst-case scenario started creeping in.
It’s clear enough what the worst-case scenario is for the Blue Jackets, too. With 17 games remaining on their schedule, the concern in Columbus has to be that even after the deadline acquisitions, even after shipping out six picks — including a pair of firsts and a pair of seconds — two promising prospects and a couple roster players, even after making a pool-clearing cannonball-sized splash that the Blue Jackets are going to fall short of the post-season. And such a scenario isn’t really all that far-fetched.
As it stands in the Metropolitan, the Blue Jackets are in competition with two clubs, the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes, that are playing better hockey than Columbus right now. Pittsburgh, while not necessarily white hot, has a wealth of experience and the top end of their attack, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, is going to do everything in its power to drive this team to the post-season. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes are driving hard for third place in the division, playing some of the best hockey in the NHL of late and on a five-game winning streak. That might leave Columbus fighting for the final wild-card spot with the Montreal Canadiens, who, like the Blue Jackets, have struggled of late.
The reality is that there’s more at stake here than missing the post-season, however. When the Blue Jackets gave up that stockpile of picks and a couple prospects to land two of the most sought after deadline assets, the hope was that at least one, if not both, would go beyond rentals. It was, in some sense, a way for Columbus to mitigate the future loss of Panarin by bringing aboard and hopefully convincing two additional pending free agents that putting down roots with the Blue Jackets was worthwhile. But it has to be asked: what happens if Columbus misses the post-season?
While Dzingel has expressed that he’d be interested in returning to the Blue Jackets, going as far as to say that there’s a “high chance” he’ll remain with the club if Columbus wishes to re-sign him. That, however, is no guarantee, much like it’s no certainty that Duchene, the real deadline prize, is going to remain in town beyond this season.
We’ve known for some time that Duchene’s desire is to play in the post-season. He said as much when the initial move came that sent Duchene from the Colorado Avalanche to the Senators back in November 2017. So what if the Blue Jackets miss out on the dance just as its two best players, Panarin and Bobrovsky, are about to depart? One can’t help but wonder if Duchene might not then to decide to test the market and find a home where the post-season prospects are much brighter.
And that might be the real worst-case scenario here, because as much as missing the post-season this season would sting, it’s paying greatly for rental pieces that do not remain beyond this year that would truly hurt Columbus moving forward, particularly given their modest prospect pool and the picks that have been moved along. Post-season success could be one thing that helps persuade Duchene, not to mention Dzingel, to remain in town long term, and that has to be the secondary goal here. That’s especially true given the difficulty the Blue Jackets have had in acquiring top talents via free agency. The last major unrestricted free agent get was Nathan Horton. That was in July 2013. Not since then has Columbus landed a top talent during signing season.
This isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom for the Blue Jackets. There’s still plenty of time left, with somewhere in the neighborhood of five weeks before the end of the campaign. And based on nothing more than strength of schedule, Columbus has hope. Carolina and Pittsburgh both have tougher draws, while Montreal’s remaining games carry a similar difficulty based on opposing teams’ point percentages. The Blue Jackets still boast a strong top six, a solid defense corps and a goaltender capable of stealing games, even if he hasn’t been at his very best night in and night out this season.
But even with all of those positives, it might still be a while before the Blue Jackets begin to breathe easy. Truthfully, Columbus’ post-season panic likely won’t subside in the least until they can say the word “clinched.”