The Columbus Blue Jackets are in an incredibly awkward spot right now. They’re a playoff team, but they have two stars that are pending unrestricted free agents that almost definitely won’t be back next season. Even though the Jackets are talented, it appears as though these peculiar situations with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are starting to wear them down.
Columbus hasn’t won a game since Jan. 15. They’ve dropped five games in a row and they’re about to head out on a three-game road trip out west, as they’ll take on Colorado, Arizona and Vegas. Are the Panarin and Bobrovsky situations a distraction? Is it time for GM Jarmo Kekalainen to make a move?
The simple answer is yes.
The level of tension seems to be rising by the day. By now, we’ve all seen John Tortorella’s rants about only having one center at his disposal and about his team failing to show up for a game.
Finding a taker for Panarin shouldn’t be too hard for Kekalainen. Even on an expiring contract, the Jackets would be able to bring in a significant return for the Russian forward. The 27-year-old has put up three multi-point games in a row and he’s up to 20 goals and 59 points in just 49 games this season.
So if they decide to put him on the market, there’s no reason to think that they won’t be able to get a great package for him. The issue, is that they won’t be getting one player as good as Panarin back. But at this point, it’s something they might have to do based on the fact that they’ve fallen apart over the last few weeks. That’s not to say they can’t get things back on track with their current lineup, but they’ll be losing Panarin for nothing in a few months, so they might as well make a change.
“We’ve said all along we’re going to make hard decisions if we have to, but our focus is on getting our team better and making it as competitive as possible for this spring but also into the future obviously,” Kekalainen said last week. “If we have to make a hard decision, we will. We like Artemi and would like to keep him, and it’s his right to go into free agency. If he chooses to do so, we’ll be knocking on his door July 1, but we’re going to go about our business here and try to win hockey games and make the playoffs and go as deep as possible this spring, too.”
Moving on from Bobrovsky will be a little more difficult. The goalie market just isn’t there. They might be able to find a taker for their franchise netminder, but there will be less teams interested in him and the return probably won’t be as high.
Besides their position, the biggest difference between Panarin and Bobrovsky is their performances on the ice in 2018-19. As was mentioned above, Panarin has been terrific. On the flip side, Bobrovsky just hasn’t been himself. The 30-year-old has a 19-16-1 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .901 save percentage.
When both players are on their game, they’re dominant. The big question moving forward is whether or not they have to unload both players. The issue is that they have to figure all this stuff out in exactly three weeks (the NHL trade deadline is on Feb. 25).
If they do end up making a move, the other issue is whether or not they can remain competitive without their two Russians. Kekalainen is in a delicate position. There’s no right or wrong decision here. The Jackets GM will have to roll the dice and hope that whatever comes up is for the best.