He bet big, lost bigger and now has to pick up the pieces of a team that appears like it won’t have the star power that pushed them to their first playoff series win in franchise history.
Is that the cost of doing business? Or was it a short-sighted gamble — perhaps a little greedy — that was likely never really going to pay off?
Whatever the case, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has his work cut out for himself this summer. Seemingly set to lose Sergei Bobrovsky, the team’s starting goaltender, Artemi Panarin, the team’s leading point getter, and Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel (who is for sure gone now), two players that Kekalainen mortgaged the team’s future on to acquire around the trade deadline, the challenges to ice a competitive team will be many.
And it all feels self-inflicted.
[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]
The Blue Jackets weren’t exactly in a great spot on deadline day. They entered in in sixth place with a queue of teams behind them. Twenty-four hours later, they were down in ninth. Kekalainen says he’d do it all over again if given the chance, something he has to say. Teams in that kind of spot, with no guarantee of a playoff berth, don’t often become one of the most aggressive buyers in the market.
The Blue Jackets were, however, selling off draft picks for rentals and not cashing in on pending unrestricted free agents in ‘Bob’ and the ‘Bread Man’.
“We said all along we assumed the risk and if they’re gone by July 1, we’re going to have lots of cap space and lots of different other opportunities to move forward,” Kekalainen said. “Life goes on. That was part of the risk we were willing to take.”
Columbus’s draft this year included just two fourth-round picks after doubling down on their third, and a seventh rounder. Stocking the cupboards wasn’t a priority in a draft that appeared to be pretty deep.
The Blue Jackets certainly have cap space — nearly $30 million of it. But $30 million won’t replace Bobrovsky and Panarin. That talent isn’t on the free-agent market outside of those two players. And they have to sign Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray, so the cap space is less.
Now, this isn’t to say that the Blue Jackets don’t have some budding talent. And some established stars, too.
Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones are great players and Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are two pieces of a young crop of talent. But there can be no denying that losing a Vezina-calibre goalie and a point-per-game player is detrimental, if not back-breaking.
Remember, the Blue Jackets barely made the playoffs with the four players in question.
Kekalainen hasn’t seemed that worried in recent interviews. That, in itself, might be cause for concern among Blue Jackets fans.
Whether it all pans out or not remains to be seen. Can Kekalainen woo players into the fold after a bunch of big names headed for the hills? And will the team be competitive if they can’t?
Kekalainen certainly has his work cut out for him this summer.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.