Usually, when a team has a pending unrestricted free agent star who publicly makes clear intentions to test free agency, that team does everything in its power to trade the player. As great as he may be, or as much of the team’s success that he contributed to, the team knows they’ll be without the individual come year’s end anyways. Rather than watching a strong asset walk away from the team, General managers prefer to at least trade the piece to get something in return. When that can’t be done, the team must sit and watch their star leave for another club, “John Tavares style“. Right now, the Columbus Blue Jackets are flirting dangerously with that fate.
For Columbus, the pending UFA’s would actually do more damage to their roster when they leave than Tavares did to the New York Islanders. That is saying a lot because the Islanders spent the last decade shaping their roster around Tavares.
Columbus Blue Jackets Backs Against the Wall
Rather than one all-star walking, Columbus must battle for their two best players. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky sits in the final year of a four-season deal, while forward Artemi Panarin completes the final year of a two-season deal. These two would be all-stars on whatever roster they suit up for, and the Blue Jackets depend on the duo heavily. No other team has to deal with a pending disaster quite as bad as this one could be. There’s no easy solution to the problem, either.
In the seven seasons that he’s played for Columbus, Bobrovsky’s accumulated two Vezina Trophies, multiple All-Star Game appearances, and even finished in the top three for Hart Trophy voting two campaigns ago. He’s been the franchise’s only true starting goaltender, holding the fort down with more consistency than the vast majority of goalies around the league.
His dominance in net allows the Blue Jackets to play a faster, riskier game. They’re built for speed, with skilled forwards and puck-moving defensemen. And that style of play has transformed the team into an annual playoff contender in recent years. With Bobrovsky between the pipes, Columbus has had all of its best seasons. As a result, he holds all franchise goaltending records worth mentioning.
On the other side, the team has an elite forward in Russian-born Panarin. He’s on pace for his fourth consecutive season with at least 70 points. Actually, he’s well ahead of that pace too; if he keeps his current production up, he’d blow out previous career-bests with his first 90-point campaign.
A first-line winger, Panarin is the Columbus Blue Jackets deadliest weapon. He’s one of a very small crowd in the league that has game-breaking ability. Panarin can take over a game, can deliver wins on his own. Very few organizations have a luxury like that on their roster. Its been that way since his debut in the league back in 2015-16, when he won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Why We Haven’t Seen a Deal Get Done
So, clearly, these two players are important to Columbus. There’s still some hope from the team’s side that they can get deals done with the two. A sentiment exists too that if one stays, it greatly increases the odds that the other would, too. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen must believe some of that, otherwise, you’d likely see more trade rumours and speculation. Despite the situation remaining fairly quiet for now, most people tend to think it’ll all pick up dramatically around the trade deadline.
Team’s Success Complicating the Situation Even More
But, there’s also the fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets is having a really solid season right now. They’re in a dogfight atop the Metropolitan Division, jockeying for first place with the Washington Capitals. As of today, they’re just two points behind the Caps. Without Bobrovsky and/or Panarin, that surely would not be the case.
So, how much is Kekalainen willing to sacrifice the future for the team today? Holding the assets through to free agency would almost surely result in the two signing contracts elsewhere. Panarin’s value compared to other unrestricted free agents this summer is unparalleled, and Bobrovsky would be the best available goalie by a million miles.
Columbus Blue Jackets Might be Handcuffed
Although the team has some budding young talent, both up front and in the net behind Bobrovsky, you can’t lose two all-stars without expecting some drop-off in team success. They simply wouldn’t be the same team. The only way to justify making a trade would be that it undoubtedly would improve the team’s future. Anything short of a top-end prospect or multiple high-end draft picks would fail to meet that requirement.
The trade-off has to be worth it. They have to be able to justify giving up on this season in order to strike a deal. The only way Columbus would be willing to give up on this season would be for something that dramatically raises their potential for years down the road. A fourth-round pick doesn’t do that. AHL forwards don’t do that. It is going to cost another team at least a first-round pick and a top prospect or two. That or some roster assets, but usually teams looking to add a stud like Bobrovsky or Panarin are trying to make a playoff run and don’t want to sacrifice from their current roster.
Jackets fans, unsurprisingly, want something done too. “Get them signed or get them out,” said one sign at a recent game against the Vancouver Canucks held by Andrew Flett. Fans love their team, but they also are quite aware of all that could be lost sooner than later. Those concerns are universal in that fanbase, as the situation must be resolved inevitably. “The clock is ticking,” said Flett.
If the Columbus Blue Jackets were awful this year, Bobrovsky and Panarin would probably already be gone. But the Metropolitan Division has been up for grabs all year, and they’re playing as good as anyone else right now. Maybe, just maybe, this is the season they finally win their first playoff round.
One thing’s for sure: without Panarin and Bobrovsky, they’ll be favourites again for a first-round exit this spring. Hanging on to the two greatly increases the potential for a playoff run. And winning the division would mean home-ice advantage, and against a wildcard team. That’s a much more favourable matchup the last two years (facing the eventual Cup Champions in round one each time).
If the team does stay intact, and they do go win a playoff round or two (or three…or four…), the chances Panarin and Bobrovsky want to stay in Columbus will increase dramatically in the process. Nothing solves a player’s problems in the NHL quite like winning does. Maybe this is what Kekalainen is banking on. He would look great if it goes that way and the team sets new franchise records before locking up two stars.
But if it doesn’t, he’d be on the hot seat overnight. A lot rides on the next few months for this organization and its employees all the way around.
Main Photo: DETROIT, MI – OCTOBER 04: Artemi Panarin #9 of the Columbus Blue Jackets controls the puck while playing the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on October 4, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)