The Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t considered Stanley Cup favorites. They’re not expected to take home the Presidents’ Trophy. And even the more modest prediction that Columbus can win the Metropolitan Division, one that was made in the pages of The Hockey News’ annual Yearbook, has been met with some skepticism.
But when the Blue Jackets begin the 2018-19 campaign, they may be doing so with more pressure than almost any other team in the NHL, and it has everything to do with Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin.
As the season fast approaches, all indications are that Columbus will enter 2018-19 not knowing the future of either player. Bobrovsky, the best goaltender in franchise history and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is about to enter the final season of his four-year, $29.7-million pact. Panarin, meanwhile, is about to play out the final campaign of a two-year, $12-million deal he signed before coming over to the Blue Jackets ahead of the 2017-18 campaign. And with both eligible for unrestricted free agency, there’s a chance that this is Columbus’ final season with arguably their two best players.
Speculation that this could be the final season for not one but both of Bobrovsky and Panarin has only grown throughout the off-season, too. Ahead of the draft, reports surfaced that Panarin, fresh off of a career-best season and two years removed from winning the Calder Trophy, had told the Blue Jackets he had no designs on signing an extension this summer, which has since changed to an apparent no-in-season-negotiation mandate. That led to trade rumors and gossip about what his preferred destination would be and who might be in the mix for the 26-year-old star winger. In the meantime, reports have continued to swirl about Bobrovsky’s future. The latest when it comes to the 29-year-old netminder is that negotiations haven’t progressed.
That neither Bobrovsky or Panarin has signed, either, puts Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen in a unique position. In recent years, rival GMs have had to stare down the potential of losing key free agents to the open market. The two most notable examples, of course, are that of the Lightning and Steven Stamkos and the Islanders and John Tavares, with the former deciding to remain in Tampa Bay while the latter jetted from New York to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. What neither organization had to face, and what no team has really had to deal with in the salary cap era, is a scenario in which two free agents the caliber of Panarin and Bobrovsky could leave at the same time.
What makes life all the more difficult for Kekalainen, too, is that he finds himself in a scenario that’s not all that dissimilar to Yzerman’s in the months and weeks leading up to his potential free agency. That is to say that Columbus undeniably has the opportunity make some noise this season, a chance to finally advance past the first round for the first time in franchise history and make a deep run at the Stanley Cup. Even though the Blue Jackets’ roster may not be as evidently talent-laden as some others throughout the NHL, what it boasts is solid depth up front, two standout blueliners in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and a netminder in Bobrovsky who has proven himself to be a game-stealer on a near nightly basis. That can be the recipe for far more than simply regular season success.
In saying that, though, Columbus has to weigh its options, because come mid-February, when trade talk is near its zenith with the deadline on the horizon, Kekalainen could face two of the hardest decisions of his tenure. If the Blue Jackets appear to be true contenders, do they roll the dice with Bobrovsky and hope that a potentially deep playoff run is enough to convince him that he should remain in Columbus long term? And do they keep Panarin around as well, knowing it’s also no guarantee that he remains? Each choice comes along with a win-win, win-lose and lose-lose scenario.
Whether Kekalainen believes winning will be enough to retain one or both of Bobrovsky and Panarin could play a part in that decision, too. Winning is invariably listed as a factor for each player when they sign a contract, and if the Blue Jackets can prove they can win and win consistently, is that enough for Bobrovsky to put pen to paper on a new deal or for Panarin to seemingly have a change of heart about his willingness to remain in Columbus well into the future? There’s no knowing the answer, of course. Money, term and family considerations will all become a part of both players’ decisions, among other things. But winning and truly contending certainly won’t hurt matters.
Possibly the most frightening thing for Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets in all of this is that this season could become a defining moment in the franchise’s history. Does Columbus have enough talent to compete and make the playoffs without Panarin? The offense would suffer, but success isn’t at all out of the question. How about without Bobrovsky? That would be cause for more concern, but the organization seems to have faith in Joonas Korpisalo. But if both are lost for nothing, if both are retained through the deadline without contracts and choose to depart as UFAs, the Blue Jackets won’t get as much as a single asset, not even a low-level pick, to replace what was lost. That could set the franchise back significantly, leaving a void in the crease and on the top line that could take several seasons to fill.
So, sure, other teams will be fighting to keep their championship windows open or seeking to strike while the iron is hot, but for the Blue Jackets, even more is at stake. Because depending on how this season goes — not just on the ice but behind the scenes as Kekalainen considers all options with his two top free agents-to-be — it could alter Columbus’ trajectory in a major way.