Three questions facing Columbus Blue Jackets

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

For even more on Columbus, check these posts out, too:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough | Under Pressure]

1. Is this the year they finally make the leap?

Sports fans don’t love hearing about how “close” their team was to winning that elusive game, series, or title, but such thoughts can be absolutely crucial for decision makers.

To put it in stupidly simple terms, consider this: the Washington Capitals lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (both times Pittsburgh) before finally winning a championship of their own. To put it mildly, people were running out of patience with the Capitals. The Blue Jackets failed to get out of the first round these past two seasons, yet in each case, they lost to the eventual champions (Pittsburgh, then Washington).

Even beyond the questionable elements of the Penguins’ statements after signing Jack Johnson, you can understand why Torts blew a gasket. This team is scratching and clawing to build something special, yet sports can be cruel to those who fall just short. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that the Blue Jackets held a 2-0 series lead before things went sideways against Washington.

The Blue Jackets face some challenges in figuring out what’s next regarding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, two rare star players who enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts.

In Panarin’s case, in particular, there’s the very reasonable notion of trading him to get something in return, rather than losing him for nothing via free agency.

What if the Blue Jackets just throw caution to the wind and try to see how far this current group can take them, letting the chips fall where they may next summer? There’s a sober argument to be made that, while it would be painful to see Panarin go, they might have their best chance at a big run merely by taking one more shot with “The Bread Man” on their roster.

2. Youth movement, instead?

It’s not the easiest sell to ask Blue Jackets fans to tolerate a pivot, consider they’ve still never won a playoff series (“hey, look at the Winnipeg Jets,” they might say) and the darker days of the Rick Nash/Steve Mason eras.

On the other hand, the Blue Jackets could also be cagey about this, waiting just a little while for the right opening to really take control of the Metropolitan Division.

Consider these factors:

  • The Penguins and Capitals aren’t exactly spring chickens. Sidney Crosby is 31, Evgeni Malkin is 32, and many of Pittsburgh’s other key players could hit the aging curve. Alex Ovechkin is 32 and Nicklas Backstrom is 30. Both teams have unearthed some very nice, younger players, but those top stars still drive success the most. The Blue Jackets already gave the Penguins and Capitals some tough fights; imagine if they could bide their time and come back with another fleet of young players?
  • It really might be best to trade Artemi Panarin, and maybe even part ways with Sergei Bobrovsky, for all we know. Being proactive with Panarin, in particular, could be an example of short-term pain, long-term gains.
  • This team already boasts an enviable core of young talent. Seth Jones is 23 and is signed for four more years at a bargain $5.4M rate. They need to sign Zach Werenski after next season, but that’s a nice problem to have considering that he’s just 21. There are some nice forwards at young ages (Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand in particular), too. This point is especially prescient if Joonas Korpisalo can be a No. 1 guy, as he’s 24 (compared to 29-year-old Bob).

If the Blue Jackets decided to hand the torch to young players, in some ways out of necessity if Panarin’s leaving, then there is the risk that they can fall into a rut like before: boasting plenty of nice players, yet few of the game-breakers like Panarin who can swing a series. It might be frustrating to settle for the team resembling “a bunch of little rats” once again.

Sometimes it’s crucial to read the writing on the wall, though. Slipping a bit in 2018-19 wouldn’t be pleasant, at all, yet it might increase their odds of bigger gains in the future.

3. Is this the right front office for Columbus?

Naturally, a big barrier to a pivot or “soft reboot” is that GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella might – understandably – believe that they’re fighting for their jobs.

You’d understand each front office figure being pretty impatient with such an idea, even if there was enough job security to take a bigger swing in, say, 2019-20.

As stated before, the Blue Jackets haven’t won a playoff series in their franchise history, and Keklainen’s been a part of that drought since 2013. Tortorella’s dealt with a long personal drought, too, as he hasn’t presided over a team that won a playoff series since his tense final year with the Rangers in 2012-13.

This Blue Jackets franchise faces some incredibly tough questions and decisions in the near future. At some point, those tough calls may also revolve around the people making those decisions.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.