The Columbus Blue Jackets are headed toward what might be the most fascinating offseason of any team in the NHL thanks to their trade deadline splurge that saw them send off most of their 2019 draft picks in an effort to load up for a playoff run.
The good news is the additions of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs for the third year in a row (their longest streak in franchise history), but also have their most successful postseason to date, reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs where they fell in six games to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins. That came after a stunning and emphatic Round 1 sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning. It gave Blue Jackets fans a taste of success they hadn’t yet experienced and helped raise the bar on a franchise that had consistently been an afterthought.
None of that is a bad thing.
The problem is that along with their own stars, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Duchene and Dzingel are also eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and there is a very real chance that none of that quartet will return to the team next season. Combine that with the fact the team only has two draft picks in this month’s draft (their own third-round pick, and a seventh-round pick that previously belonged to the Calgary Flames) and, as of now, only five for the 2020 class (if Duchene re-signs with the Blue Jackets, their 2020 first-round pick will also go to the Ottawa Senators as part of a condition attached to that trade) and there is a lot of work for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
That means a lot of changes are probably coming for the Blue Jackets.
The biggest of those changes will be in net where Bobrovsky is almost certainly going to be moving on in free agency.
With limited trade resources at their disposal and a thin crop of potential free agents at the position that spot might have to be filled from within, and that is not going to be easy given how important Bobrovsky has been to the Blue Jackets over the past seven years. Poke fun at his playoff resume and worry about the potential issues that would come with signing him to a seven-year contract at his current age all you want, but the reality is he has been one of the league’s best goalies and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the team.
It is not going to be easy to just replace that.
The internal option is Joonas Korpisalo, Bobrovsky’s top backup the past four years, while the team also signed 25-year-old Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year, one-way contract this past month.
On Monday, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella appeared on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus and talked about the team’s offseason, with a special emphasis on the goaltending situation without Bobrovsky and how that might impact the team’s style of play.
“I don’t think Bob’s going to be here,” said Tortorella while appearing on his Hockey and Hounds segment with hosts Anthony Rothman and Bobby Carpenter (you can listen to the full segment here).
“You’re losing a very, very good goaltender. We may have young goaltenders that are going to be taking over that position. I have to start thinking about just a little bit of a change in style of play in order to protect them a little bit to get their feet wet. Korpi has obviously played, but Merzlikins is coming in here, we have couple of other guys coming in here, I’m not sure what it looks like. So we have to start thinking about style of play.”
The only conclusion that can be reached when hearing him talking about protecting inexperienced goalies is a more conservative approach, which might be necessary anyway Panarin and Duchene leave.
He was later asked if Korpisalo can be a No. 1 goalie for the team and after a slight hesitation in his response, expressed some confidence in him.
“I do,” said Tortorella. “I say that in a respectful way, because it’s hard to say if a guy that is kind of spotted in — you know Korpi ran with the ball early in the regular season, and we saw once he was playing a lot of games, we saw his game grow. I have not given him many opportunities to run with it because I simply can’t because I had Bob. He has certainly showed us, like a lot of players at that position, if you have the ball and you run with it and you are playing every other night and you get into a little bit of a roll, you are certainly going to play better. So that’s what we are going to look for with Korpi, we feel it’s in him, he hasn’t really had an opportunity go a couple of months being the No. 1 guy, he’s had a few weeks at certain times. He’s going to get an opportunity, that’s one think as I’ve talked to a few guys coming here, and maybe some guys from last year that didn’t get the ice time they wanted, it’s going to be an open book, you’re going to get an opportunity and you’re going to make the decision on if you play or not.”
The concern with Korpisalo is that his performance the past three years has not been great, even after a promising start to the 2018-19 season.
His save percentage the past two years is only .897, and if you go back to the start of the 2016-17 season it is only .899, a mark that places him 61st out of the 65 goalies that have appeared in at least 40 games since then.
Combine that with Merzlikins, who has zero games of NHL experience, and there is a lot of uncertainty at the position.
It is no wonder that Tortorella is looking at a slight change in the team’s playing style.
Making a trade seems like a major challenge given how depleted the team’s trade chips are after the deadline, while the free agent market after Bobrovsky is, in a word, unappealing. Robin Lehner is the next most significant name out there, but the New York Islanders are probably not going to let him get away.
Even with the likely free agent departures there is still a good bit of talent on this roster. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are stars on the blue line and there is still going to be some real talent at forward with Cam Atkinson and rapidly improving younger players like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But the goaltending might end up making or breaking what this team is capable of in 2019-20, and right now the entire position seems like a giant mystery.
(S/T 1st Ohio Battery)