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Panarin, Blue Jackets seem destined for disappointing split

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In his first season with the Columbus Blue Jackets Artemi Panarin turned out to be everything the team could have possibly hoped for him to be. If anything, he may have exceeded their expectations. After two outstanding years riding shotgun alongside Patrick Kane in Chicago, Panarin arrived in Columbus and proved that he could be an impact player while carrying his own line and not only matched his production from Chicago, he managed to improve on it almost across the board.

He set a new career in total points. He averaged more shots on goal per game. His possession numbers jumped to an elite level. He was Columbus’ best and most impactful player for the entire season. When he was on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Blue Jackets controlled 57 percent of the total shot attempts. They outscored teams by a 61-37 margin. Without him on the ice the Blue Jackets were outshot (49 percent shot attempt) and outscored (108-111).

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

He gave them the exact type of player they had been lacking for years: an All-Star level forward still in the prime of his career that could be command the attention of every team in the league the second he jumped over the boards.

After all of that Columbus now seems like it could be on the precipice of losing him entirely, a development that would be yet another disappointing blow to an organization that has known nothing but disappointment throughout its existence.

Entering the final year of his contract, Panarin is now eligible to sign a long-term deal with the Blue Jackets, something the team would no doubt have an interest in doing. As already noted, Panarin is one of the best offensive players in the league and at age 26 is still at a point in his career where he should still have several highly productive years ahead of him. Signing to a long-term deal and making him one of your cornerstone players would be a totally logical and sensible thing to do.

The problem for the Blue Jackets is that both sides have to be willing to make that happen, and Panarin does not seem willing to sign a long-term deal with Columbus at this time. To the point where he does not want to even enter into contract negotiations with the team at this moment.

Over the weekend Panarin’s agent, Daniel Milstein, spoke with The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline regarding the current situation and none of it sounds terribly promising for Blue Jackets fans. While Milstein paints a great picture of Panarin loving Columbus, the team, and the coach, the entire thing boils down to this line: “It’s about, does he want to spend the next eight years in Columbus? That’s the only thing at stake right now. If it was a two-year deal we probably would have done it. But it isn’t a two-year deal. It’s gonna have to be an extended, seven- or eight-year deal put in place.”

Milstein also pointed out that while Columbus is trying to find a trade partner, he has not provided Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen with a list of teams he would go to and he has not asked for permission to speak to potential teams when it comes to working out a contract.

You can read the full interview here (subscription required).

This leaves the Blue Jackets in a less than ideal spot.

On one hand, they still have Panarin for at least one more season and while he is not willing to negotiate a new contract at this time, there is always a chance he could change his mind at any moment and decide that, yes, Columbus is a place he would like to commit eight years to. That would be the ideal result.

But if you are the Blue Jackets are you willing to take that chance and risk putting yourself in a position to get Tavares’d next July and lose your best player for nothing as a free agent? If you think you are one or two moves away from winning a Stanley Cup — or seriously competing for one — this season maybe you ride it out and hope for the best. But in a division that has the past three Stanley Cup champions, and in a conference where Toronto and Tampa Bay are going toe-to-toe in an arms race — and oh let’s not forget that Boston is pretty damn good, too — the odds seem remarkably stacked against Columbus in this one year.

As painful as it might be for Blue Jackets fans, a trade might be the most sensible option here.

And that would stink. For one, it is nearly impossible to trade a player like Panarin and end up coming out ahead when it comes to value (just ask the Chicago Blackhawks).

That still might be better than losing him for nothing.

Then there is the hit Columbus would take in terms of its reputation.

Despite back-to-back postseason appearances this is still a team that is fighting for an identity. After 17 seasons they have still yet to actually win a postseason series, while the few star players that have played for the organization have all moved on without much team success. They were never able to build a contender around Rick Nash, while Jeff Carter spent his half season in Columbus as a mostly empty uniform before being traded for Jack Johnson.

There has not been a lot of good here.

Last week Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella felt compelled to passionately (and profanely!) defend the organization after a perceived slight from Johnson after joining the Pittsburgh Penguins — Tortorella’s long-time arch-nemesis — and talking about wanting to be a part of a winning culture.

“This is the Columbus Blue Jackets and we’re fighting our ass off to gain respect in this league, and we’re getting there,” Tortorella told Portzline (subscription required). “We’re getting there.”

And they are! They really, truly are.

Over the past two years the Blue Jackets’ 95 wins are the fourth-most in the NHL behind only Washington, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay. Given the success of those three teams (Pittsburgh and Washington won the Stanley Cup those two years while Tampa Bay was in the Eastern Conference Final this past year) that is strong company to be in.

Panarin was a big part of that regular season success this past year and would ideally be a part of the first Blue Jackets team to actually make some serious noise in the postseason. He is that type of player and could be that type of building block alongside Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

At this point, though, that just does not seem like something that is destined to happen and that one way or another his future seems to be in another city with another team.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Artemi Panarin involved in trade rumors again

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One reaction to the head-spinning series of trades that sent Mike Hoffman to the Florida Panthers was that the trade market for big-time forwards dried up considerably. Would the Montreal Canadiens see less interest in Max Pacioretty with Hoffman off the table and the Panthers no longer shopping, for example?

Well, we might not need to worry about the market drying up, depending upon how one very interesting situation plays out.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Columbus Blue Jackets are “testing the market” for Artemi Panarin after Panarin revealed that he’s not yet ready to discuss a contract extension.

Panarin, 26, can become an unrestricted free agent after his $6 million cap hit expires following the 2018-19 season. One can absolutely understand why Panarin would want to maximize his value during the summer of 2019. Despite earning a Calder Trophy in 2015-16 and basically being a star since he entered the NHL following a strong KHL career, Panarin’s been in a tough spot when it comes to leverage, whether it be during his Chicago Blackhawks days or now with Columbus.

So it makes a lot of sense that Panarin wants the freedom to “test the market” himself.

It also is sensible that Columbus wants to gauge its financial future regarding Panarin and others.

The 2019 summer stands as a terrifying obstacle for the Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky stands alongside Panarin as a pending UFA who could be in line for a big raise (even more than Bob’s current cap hit of $7.425M).

If that isn’t enough to make you mutter a “yikes,” consider that superstar defenseman Zach Werenski and coveted backup Joonas Korpisalo are both slated to become RFAs next off-season.

To recap: the Blue Jackets don’t know how much it would cost to retain Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Werenski after next season.

/insert another yikes.

By just about every measure, Panarin proved that he wasn’t merely Patrick Kane‘s running mate during his first season in Columbus. Panarin’s 82 points weren’t just a career-high, they also topped all Blue Jackets scorers by 25 points.

(Seth Jones came in second with 57. You have to reach all the way down to rookie Pierre Luc-Dubois’ 48 points to find the next highest-scoring Blue Jackets forward. Yeah.)

Oh yeah, Panarin was also a force during Columbus’ series against the Washington Capitals, scoring an overtime game-winner that oozed swagger:

That skill and swagger will come at a cost, and maybe the Blue Jackets would be forced to cut their losses via a trade? If Panarin is truly available, then any contender should go big to try to land him. His skills and affordable $6M cap hit make him a true game-changer.

Of course “testing the market” doesn’t mean that the Blue Jackets are likely to make a move. This could be more like dipping a toe in the water rather than diving in the deep end.

Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided the response you would expect:

“Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.”

Still, it’s fascinating to imagine all of the possibilities. Could the Vegas Golden Knights absorb some of Columbus’ other cap worries to grease the wheels? Might the Penguins improbably move Phil Kessel in some sort of mega-trade? Maybe the San Jose Sharks would get in on the star winger, or could it be the offense-needy Blues? (Remember, Vladimir Tarasenko campaigned enthusiastically for Panarin before he signed his first NHL deal.)

It’s all a lot of fun to think about, as people arguably still don’t realize how great Panarin is.

Well, it’s fun to get your imagination going unless you’re a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then you’re fearful that your team’s first true “gamebreaking” forward might just break your heart.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How should Columbus feel about its season?

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with a relatively young core. Even though Columbus was an “underdog” in its first-round series against the Capitals, Columbus has to be disappointed with the way things ended, and there’s a few reasons for that.

The Jackets caught the league by storm last season, as they went from a 76-point season in 2015-16 to a 108-point season in 2016-17. John Tortorella’s team went from being 15th in East to third in the Metropolitan Division, but they eventually lost to Pittsburgh in five games last spring. At the time, that outcome was widely accepted as being successful (by people outside the organization) because of the quick turnaround from one year to the next. This year’s playoff loss is a different story.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Before we dive into what went wrong during the postseason, let’s take a look at the 82 games of the regular season first.

Columbus won eight of 12 games in October. They followed that up by dropping four games in a row early in November, but they responded by rattling off six consecutive wins. Even though they got off to a good start, Tortorella made it clear that their stars weren’t playing well. A lot of their early-season success came from Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar play.

Their play fell apart in the middle of the year, but even though it looked like they were in trouble, they managed to get their season back on the rails.

Artemi Panarin eventually got comfortable and he became the offensive catalyst the Blue Jackets expected him to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s still just a teenager, also grew up quite a bit during the season. He looked more confident down the stretch. It took some time, but Cam Atkinson also picked up his play in the second half of the year. Combine all that with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and company on defense and Bobrovsky, and you have a team that ended up finishing in a Wild Card spot. For whatever reason, it simply didn’t end up working out in the postseason.

Things were looking good early on, especially because they found a way to win Games 1 and 2 in Washington. Going back home with a 2-0 lead should have resulted in the Jackets eventually punching their ticket to the second round. Instead, they’ll be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted to.

That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets totally fell apart. Four of the six games against Washington ended in overtime. In Game 5, they completely dominated the Capitals, outshooting them 16-1 over the final 20 minutes of regulation. Unfortunately for them, they ended up losing in overtime on a perfect deflection from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington ended up taking a 3-2 lead in the series and they never looked back.

“We learned a lot about ourselves, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m tired of learning,” Nick Foligno said after being eliminated, per beat reporter Steve Gorten. I want to continue to get better, and continue to move on. I hope we understand that now’s the time for this team.

“We had a real good opportunity being up 2-0 and didn’t make the most of it. That’s how fine it is to win. It’s hard in the postseason to close out things. I hope guys understand and realize the window you have to win. This is a hell of a team. Now’s the time to start winning.”

The quote above says it all. They may have put together back-to-back solid campaigns, but they’re a team that has legitimate expectations when it comes to making a run. As well as they’ve played at different times over the last two years, it doesn’t mean much if they don’t take the next step when it counts.

The Blue Jackets aren’t just a good story anymore, they’re a team that people expect to see in the playoffs every year. But simply getting into the postseason isn’t good enough by the fans’ standards or the team’s standards.

There’s some solid building blocks in place, now it’s just about gaining the confidence necessary to overcome adversity in the playoffs. The next two or three seasons should be interesting for this organization. Still, you can’t help but feel that they didn’t take a step forward in 2017-18.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Capitals finally get playoff bounce as Lars Eller saves their season

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Nobody would blame you if expected the worst for the Washington Capitals as Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets went to overtime on Tuesday, the third time in as many games the teams needed sudden death to decide a winner.

After all, this is the Capitals. This is the playoffs. This is a team that over the past two games seemed to invent new ways to crush the spirit of both themselves and their fans.

It seemed inevitable that something, somehow, was going to go wrong in overtime, especially as Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin turned into a one-man highlight reel every time he touched the ice. The Capitals had no answer for him, and he seemed destined to destroy the Capitals’ hopes and dreams on Tuesday.

Then, halfway through the second overtime period, something unexpected happened.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 A bounce — several of them, actually — went the Capitals’ way in a playoff game to help them pick up a 3-2 double overtime win.

After Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was unable to cleanly snag an innocent looking shot off the rush, Zach Werenski attempted to clear the rebound away from the front of the net only to have it bounce directly to Capitals forward Lars Eller.

Eller then simultaneously swatted it back off of Werenski’s leg, where it then bounced off of Eller’s skate and into the wide open net to give the Capitals their first win of the series.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

With that, we now have a series.

Even with everything that has happened through the first three games to put the Capitals in the 2-1 deficit they are facing they should be feeling pretty good about themselves. They did enough to build a two-goal lead in each of the two games they lost before stupid mistakes helped things unravel.

Braden Holtby, their No. 1 goalie, is back in net and has looked pretty good since replacing Phillipp Grubauer, stopping 40 of the 43 shots he has faced (that is a .930 save percentage) over the past six periods of hockey.

Do they have enough to come back and win three of the next four games? That remains to be seen. But the fact they were able to get one on Tuesday night and avoid falling into what would have likely been an insurmountable 3-0 hole is a huge start.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Why the Johansen-for-Jones trade has become one of NHL’s best moves

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When we think of great trades we almost always seem to look for the ones where somebody ended up getting ripped off.

We frame it as a “great trade” for the team that ended up getting the better end of it. After all, it is just more fun to marvel at one team making out like bandits, completely changing the fortunes of the franchise, while laughing at the other for looking like a bunch of goobers for giving away a future MVP, or something.

But if we are being honest here the whole point of a trade is for both sides to get something out of it, and for both teams to come away thinking, “this helped us.”

There is perhaps no better example of that sort of trade than the Jan. 6, 2016 deal that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators swap Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones.

A simple one-for-one trade. A “hockey trade” as they might say where two teams took players they could afford to give up and used them to fill other areas of weakness.

Try to think of a better one-for-one trade in recent NHL history.

Think back to where both teams were at the time of the deal.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Predators were a pretty good team, but had not yet taken the big step toward being one of the NHL’s elite. They had an embarrassment of riches on defense but one of the biggest things holding them back was the lack of a true top-line center. An essential ingredient in making any team a contender.

The Blue Jackets on the other hand were still a struggling, seemingly directionless franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six years and were leaning on the likes of Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray to be their top defenders. They had a need for somebody that could be a top-pairing defenseman, move the puck, chip in offense, and play big minutes in all situations. And while Johansen was coming off two outstanding years, his long-term fit with the team seemed bleak given his unsettled contract situation.

He had clearly become a trade chip.

From the moment the trade went down it just seemed like one that made sense for everybody.

That is exactly how it has played out in the two-plus years since.

Jones, along with the arrival of Zach Werenski, has helped form one of the NHL’s best young defense pairings in the league. Over the past two years Werenski and Jones have played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside each other. During that time the Blue Jackets have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored teams by a 95-69 margin (that is plus-26). They are as good of a pairing as there is in the NHL right now, and are a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ return to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

On Thursday, Jones was spectacular in the Blue Jackets’ Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals by playing over 30 minutes and sending the game to overtime with a rocket of a shot on the power play late in the third period. Both Jones and Werenski will probably get Norris Trophy consideration this season (Jones, for what it is worth, was in the top-five on my ballot).

Meanwhile, for Nashville, they were able to turn their ridiculous surplus of defenseman into the top-line center that the team had needed for years. And years and years and years.

It also says something about the depth that the Predators have accumulated on their blue line that they could trade a player as good as Jones and still have the best top-four in the league. Johansen may not be a top-line center in the sense that he is going to put 100 points on the board or score 30-goals, but there is a lot to be said for a 60-point, two-way player that can drive possession the way Johansen does.

Especially when that player is paired up with a winger like Filip Forsberg. They complement each other perfectly.

Since Johansen’s arrival in Nashville he has played mostly alongside Forsberg to help form a dynamic top-line.

In their two-and-a-half years alongside each other the Predators are a 56 percent shot attempt team and have outscored teams 79-52 during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice together. They were especially dominant in the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago (57 percent Corsi and 13-4 in goals) and continued that level this season.

Johansen had an assist in Nashville’s win on Thursday over Colorado.

(The only negative to his game on Thursday was a controversial hit on Tyson Barrie, but he avoided any supplemental discipline from the league on Friday).

What makes the trade stand out even more is it came just months before two other significant one-for-one trades that completely backfired for at least one team, when Nashville swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and Edmonton sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Those trades turned into laughers for one team (New Jersey and Nashville) and turned the others (Montreal and Edmonton) into punch lines.

Those types of trades are great to look back on in amazement as one general manager gets praised for pulling off such an amazing deal.

The Jones-for-Johansen swap is the bizarro world version of those two.

The best deals are the ones where both general managers come out looking great, and there has been perhaps no trade over the past decade that accomplished that more than the Johansen-for-Jones swap.

Both teams got exactly what they wanted and needed out of it and both are significantly better for it today.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.