By Mitch Stacy (AP Sports Writer)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Drama stemming from the uncertain future of two of the team’s biggest stars has simmered in the background for half a season, but the Columbus Blue Jackets don’t seem all that bothered.
With a bye week bumping up against the All-Star weekend, most of the Blue Jackets enjoyed a long midseason break, knowing changes could soon be coming that will alter the team’s lineup and identity.
Two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin will be unrestricted free agents after the season and thus far have refused to sign extensions. At least one of Russian stars could be dealt by the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
Despite the inner tumult and an anemic power play, the Blue Jackets are winning. They entered the break 28-17-3, on track for a 100-point season and elbowing for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with the New York Islanders, Washington and Pittsburgh. After dropping a back-to-back before the bye week, Columbus won five of its last eight and put together separate winning streaks of four and five games since mid-December.
”They can handle a lot of things,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com. ”They can handle things internally, they can handle things face to face, and they take the message the right way and move along. That speaks well for the leadership inside the locker room and also the character of the players in the room.”
Columbus returns to action at home Tuesday against Buffalo.
The 30-year-old Bobrovsky, a fan favorite in his seventh season in Columbus , wants more money than the team is willing to pay for a multiyear deal. His contract has a no-move clause he would have to waive to be traded and he’s declined to say whether he would be willing to do so.
”Bob,” who will make $7.4 million this year, has been inconsistent (19-14) and not played to the level that earned him honors as the NHL’s top goalie after the 2012-13 and 2016-17 seasons. He received a high-profile rebuke from the team and was suspended for a game for an unspecified incident after coach John Tortorella pulled him in the third period of a 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay on Jan. 8. Although Bobrovsky apologized to the team, it’s not likely the situation helped him want to stay.
Tortorella has acknowledged that he’s given Bobrovsky’s backup, Joonas Korpisalo, more playing time this season because of the uncertainty over Bob’s future. The 24-year-old Finn has responded with a 9-3 record and a goals-against average of 2.95, not much worse than Bobrovsky’s 2.91. ”Korpi” already has played in more games than in all of last season.
”I was prepared for that,” Bobrovsky said of the additional starts for his backup. ”Every season brings some challenges, it doesn’t matter what kind of situation. There will be tough times, there will be fun times. It’s a long season.”
Panarin, 27, was traded to Columbus before last season and added critical scoring punch, setting career and franchise highs in points (27) and assists (55). “Bread” is playing his best hockey lately and is on track for a 100-point season. Linemates Cam Atkinson and Pierre Luc-Dubois have been terrific, too.
Panarin gives few interviews in English but seems unfazed by all the noise over his contract situation. He is not sure he wants to be in Columbus for the long haul.
”Every guy is different,” Atkinson said. ”Every guy goes through different personal experiences. He’s playing really well for us.”
A couple of billboards have gone up in Columbus in hopes of persuading Panarin to stay, including one from a distillery offering him free vodka for life if he re-signs with the Blue Jackets. He has had some fun with the offers on social media but hasn’t tipped his hand on which way he is leaning.
”I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do,” Tortorella said. ”But we can’t do anything about that. We’ve just got to keep going about our business.”
Captain Nick Foligno, who missed four games recently when his 5-year-old daughter had heart surgery, said the players’ approach to each game has not been affected by all the other stuff swirling around.
”It hasn’t been that strange for us,” he said. ”For us, it really hasn’t been any different. We have a job to do. Whoever is in the lineup doesn’t change that.”
For power play help, Columbus is looking to newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, who has been hired as a special teams consultant. St. Louis will be reunited with Tortorella, who coached him as part of the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
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