COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets watched three of their best players leave for other teams on the opening day of free agency and did relatively little to fill the holes.
When the dust settled after Monday’s comings and goings, many questions remained about whether general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will be able reassemble enough pieces for Columbus to make a run at the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
The success of the team in 2019-20 will depend on a player or combination of players filling the offensive void left by departed forward Artemi Panarin. And it will require last year’s backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo – or someone else – to be nearly as good as two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
Panarin, who was considered a long shot to re-sign with Columbus after two seasons, inked a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $81.5 million. Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers after seven years in Columbus, and center Matt Duchene, picked up at the February trade deadline, moved on to Nashville.
Forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid – all acquired at the deadline and now unrestricted free agents – are not likely to stay with Columbus, which also lost its top executive, John Davidson, to the Rangers’ front office.
The Blue Jackets did pick up free-agent forward Gustav Nyquist from the San Jose Sharks. The Swedish winger was dealt by the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline and helped the Sharks advance to the Western Conference finals. He totaled 22 goals and 38 assists last season.
Kekalainen has said he wants only players who are happy to play in Columbus. Nyquist said that includes him.
”I think it’s a team that has some really good pieces, some young pieces and also some great veteran leaders, and a team that’s really heading in the right direction,” Nyquist said. ”You saw that in last year’s playoffs. Those were things that really excited me.”
Nyquist said the departure of some of the stars doesn’t concern him.
”I’m sure the media will talk about that,” he said. ”But I think we want to prove that there is going to be opportunity for other guys who are going to try to come in and fill some of those holes, and I’m sure everyone will be excited to keep building on what they’ve done here for the last few years. I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be a really good team.”
Kekalainen had declined to deal Panarin and Bobrovsky at the February trade deadline, even though he knew there was scant chance of re-signing either. Instead, he added Duchene, Dzingel and others for an ”all in” playoff run.
That paid off when Columbus won its first postseason series in franchise history, stunning the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning with a four-game sweep. The Blue Jackets then lost to Boston in six games in the second round.
Kekalainen said he knew some of those players might leave, but ”then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”
That increases the reliance on scoring forwards Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois and Josh Anderson. It also puts pressure on underachieving center Alexander Wennberg to play up to his potential.
Talented defenseman Ryan Murray and Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky’s backup last season, signed new contracts Monday. Bobrovsky leaves huge skates to fill for Korpisalo, who will compete with flashy rookie Elvis Merzlikins for the starting job in the net.