So, it worked.
No matter what happens next, whether the Columbus Blue Jackets continue bushwhacking through the rest of these Stanley Cup playoffs or bow out quietly next round, GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s steel-bellied decision to double down on rentals around the trade deadline has already paid off in spades. Just look at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night. The sellout crowd cheered the franchise’s first-ever series victory, a historic bashing of the record-setting Lightning. The famous Civil War smoothbore cannon boomed again and again, enough times for a touchdown and the extra point in a 7-3 win. What was all that handwringing over mortgaging the future?
“Nobody asks those questions when you win it,” Kekalainen told SI.com before the postseason started. “If we don’t win, everyone will be coming after my head.”
Stash away the guillotine. Tell the executioner to take a holiday. The Blue Jackets boldly went all-in, and look where it got them: Not only a berth against the winner of Boston and Toronto, four more wins away from the conference finals, but a permanent place in league lore after becoming the first team to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the opening round. On the one hand, it was a shocking collapse by a presumed juggernaut that matched the NHL record with 62 regular-season wins. On the other hand, it made perfect sense in hindsight.
Shall we count the reasons why? An epic Game 1 comeback served as the sparkplug. Next came the harebrained suspension earned by NHL leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, and the flareup of an obvious injury to reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman. Facing the league’s top-ranked power play, Columbus went 5-for-10 throughout the series, including winners in Games 1 and 2. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky busted his personal playoff ghosts with 53 saves on 55 shots in Games 2 and 3. And coach John Tortorella’s physical, swarming neutral-zone forecheck proved to be the perfect antidote for Tampa’s vaunted, north-south rush attack.
It was the dream scenario for Kekalainen when he acquired four expiring contracts at the deadline in center Matt Duchene, winger Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid. Paired with presumptive free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky—although, who knows, maybe they’ll want to stay now—the Blue Jackets’ army of rentals represented a risk that Kekalainen saw few reasons why he shouldn’t take.
“Why wouldn’t we?” he said. “We lose picks? Okay. Those picks that we lose will be ready to play in the NHL five years from now, if then. But we have prospects who are closer to playing. We’re in good shape as far as young players go. This could be the last chance to enjoy Panarin and Bobrovsky and this group.”
Oh, they will enjoy it. The box office at Nationwide Arena will enjoy the invariable boost from ticket sales, millions of bonus dollars funneled into the bottom line. The fans in Columbus, many of them lifers from the franchise’s creation at the turn of the century, will enjoy the second round for the first time. Reporters, of course, will relish another chance to have their cell phones answered or body odor called out during Tortorella’s always-lively press conferences.
And the players? Oh, you bet. Take Duchene. After chartering a flight from cellar-dwelling Ottawa, the slickhanded 28-year-old arrived on the playoff bubble and needed a full 10 games to feel comfortable, by his estimation. He averaged less than 16 minutes per game during the first round—among Blue Jackets forwards, only Artemi Panarin eclipsed 16:17 as Tortorella rolled four lines with ease—but led the team with seven points (three goals, four assists).
“I don’t recall seeing a GM and an organization saying we’re all-in quite like this before, let’s worry about now and ask questions later, with the number of UFAs we have,” Duchene said before the playoffs. “But the cool part is, as players, it doesn’t matter if you’re fighting for a job next year, or a guy who’s signing a long-term deal for a lot of money, we’re all living for the now. And what we have right now is a really good chance.”
As the Blue Jackets soldier forward, the Lightning are left to sort out the wreckage. Last year, it took coach Jon Cooper until August before he could muster the stomach to rewatch Tampa’s seven-game series loss to Washington in the 2018 Eastern Conference final, so painful was the memory. How long will he need this time around? A contract extension should keep Cooper safe, but expiring contracts abound on the blue line and GM Julien BriseBois wouldn’t be faulted for feeling itchy to make larger changes.
Then again, as Cooper told reporters in Columbus, “We just couldn’t find our game. That was it. It’d been with us all year, and for six days in April, we couldn’t find it. And it’s unfortunate, because it puts a blemish on what was one hell of a regular season.”
Indeed, the Lightning had better Stanley Cup odds than anyone entering the playoffs, having matched the ‘95-96 Red Wings with 62 wins and clinched the NHL’s best record shortly after St. Patrick’s Day. But that is all past tense now. They are headed home, heads bowed and stunned, while the cannon in Columbus, manned with mercenaries, is loaded for another round.