Getty

Amid uncertainty over Torts, Panarin, Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets extend GM

4 Comments

Few GMs face the level of make-or-break decisions that Jarmo Kekalainen of the Blue Jackets is currently dealing with. In just about every big case, it’s about making pivotal calls about contract extensions.

At least Kekalainen will no longer need to worry about his own.

The Blue Jackets announced three extensions to key front office members on Thursday: Kekalainen, team president John Davidson, and assistant GM Bill Zito. In a very hockey/corporate note, Zito was “promoted” from assistant to associate GM, which feels like something Dwight Schrute would beam about.

The Blue Jackets didn’t specify how many years these multi-year extensions cover.

Overall, it might indeed be wise to give Kekalainen peace of mind heading into a series of enormously important decisions. I mean, unless executives can put together even better results under the pressure of a contract year, just like players. Naturally, the drawback would be that if Kekalainen messes this up, the Blue Jackets would either be stuck with him and his decisions or would need to fire him and spend money on an alternative.

Ultimately it’s a lot like the decisions Kekalainen faces: they can go quite well or really, really, really poorly.

Let’s take a look at the biggest calls he still needs to make, acknowledging that there are some scenarios where Kekalainen can only do so much to influence the results:

Artemi PanarinThe Panarin situation answers the question: “What if the Max Pacioretty situation played out with some wrinkles: 1) far less intense hockey market and 2) the player is perceived to be pushing for a trade/exit rather than the team?”

Much like with Pacioretty, there seems to be a deadline for extension talks before the season, at least if reports are true and Panarin hasn’t had a change of heart.

Panarin reportedly hopes to play in one of the NHL’s largest markets, with rumblings that he wants to soak in the atmosphere of New York City most of all. That’s understandable – this would be the slick star’s first chance to truly explore the free agent market without the contract limitations he faced when first signing with Chicago – but it’s brutal for Columbus. As well as the Blue Jackets have developed some very nice forwards, Panarin is that “gamebreaker” they’ve lacked since the end of Rick Nash’s run.

Kekalainen is seemingly tasked with either sticking with Panarin to see what happens (whether that be a deadline deal or crossing fingers that Panarin will decide to stay with Columbus, after all) or finding the right trade soon. The latter idea gets an added degree of difficulty because the Blue Jackets eagerly want to make a playoff push, so picks and prospects – the most likely Panarin trade package – might not get the job done.

Ouch, right?

Sergei BobrovskyLike Panarin, Bobrovsky is entering a contract year, and both players are stars who seek to be paid as such.

On the outside, it seems like the Blue Jackets face fewer hurdles in convincing Bobrovsky to stay in this situation. Instead, this is more about Bobrovsky seeking a big price – one would think he’d like to at least match Carey Price‘s $10.5 million cap hit – and the sort of term that gets scary for a goalie who will turn 30 on Sept. 20.

It’s unclear if the Blue Jackets have an internal budget that’s going to be lower than the cap ceiling, or will going forward. If true, gambling on a huge Bobrovsky extension becomes more frightening.

John Tortorella: The general feeling is that, while publicly waving away analytics talk,* Tortorella has become more progressive since joining the Blue Jackets.

One can see evidence of such a possibility in the way he uses Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as “rovers,” and also the fairly forward-thinking practice of deploying Sam Gagner as a power-play specialist a few years back. There’s innovation beyond the grit session mentality.

That’s great, and players seemed to enjoy his outburst following the Jack Johnson/Penguins weirdness, but is he someone stars necessarily want to play for? Beyond that, the Blue Jackets still haven’t won a playoff series, so is an extension really appropriate for Torts? Kekalainen must answer those questions.

* – It’s amusing and fitting that the Blue Jackets hired Jim Corsi as a goaltending consultant this summer.

Zach Werenski: The NHL’s CBA means that an RFA like Werenski only has so much leverage, so his extension situation isn’t as perilous as those of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Still, Werenski is a dynamite defensive scorer who will be due a considerable raise as his rookie deal expires. Kekalainen might want to get that done soon, rather than allowing Werenski to drive up his value with an enormous 2018-19 output.

One unlikely but interesting idea: This is a concept that’s been rattling around my head for a while now, yet could easily be refuted with “Yeah, like a lame duck front office would do that?” What if the Blue Jackets essentially “punted” on 2018-19? Now that Kekalainen & Co. have that job security, hear me out … despite this likely being too bold.

Panarin seems like he has one foot out the door. As great as Bobrovsky is, goalies are highly unpredictable, and a smart team might be better off taking short-term gambles on a netminder instead of getting stuck with a depreciating asset. What if Joonas Korpisalo justified the franchise’s confidence in him and ended up being a far cheaper, feasible replacement for “Bob?”

Also, the Metropolitan Division remains loaded, yet the Capitals and Penguins are also getting older.

The Blue Jackets boast some outstanding young players as their core. Seth Jones is rising as an all-around, Norris-level defenseman at just 23. Werenski’s firepower might make him even more likely to take that award, and he’s somehow merely 21. Pierre-Luc Dubois looks like a gem at 20.

If a team dangled an impressive bucket of futures for a cheap year of Panarin and the opportunity to extend him, maybe Columbus would be better off taking that deal rather than getting the John Tavares treatment? Perhaps something similar could happen with Bobrovsky if they don’t feel comfortable inking him to an extension?

This scenario is far-fetched, especially since the Blue Jackets are probably closer to contending than their playoff results have indicated. Let’s not forget that, while they lost in the first round two years in a row, they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champions each time.

Still, it’s at least a path to consider, especially now that Kekalainen’s job is safer.

***

Overall, it sounds like Torts might stay in the fold, and the Blue Jackets might not experience drastic change.

That said, the Panarin situation is a volatile one. As bright as Kekalainen often appears to be, many will judge his reign by how that develops, and if the Blue Jackets can break through to become true contenders in the East.

These are tough tasks, but at least Kekalainen’s financial future is in less doubt. He’ll need a clear mind going into this series of daunting decisions.

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.

Under Pressure: Jarmo Kekalainen

Getty
4 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t the only NHL GM facing difficult decisions.

The difference between the Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM and many of his under-pressure peers is that, frankly, the ceiling’s higher for Kekalainen. While Senators GM Pierre Dorion is essentially just trying to clean up a severe mess, Kekalainen could help the Blue Jackets finally break through — if he can succeed in walking a tightrope (with alligators licking their chomps below, really).

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough]

Given the cruel nature of sports, it doesn’t seem to matter much that a frequently promising Blue Jackets team lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions two years in a row. The heat’s already rising considerably, and the toughest times may just be ahead.

Breaking bread

Just consider the uneasy futures for two of the Blue Jackets’ most important players.

There’s been plenty of speculation regarding Artemi Panarin‘s situation, as the game-breaking forward’s $6M cap hit will expire after 2018-19. The general feeling, via the Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, is that (no hard feelings but) Panarin simply doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career in Columbus, or seemingly most markets that aren’t large. Among other gloomy reports: Panarin wants “all business set aside” by Sept. 13, according to Portzline (sub required).

So, should Kekalainen trade Panarin sooner rather than later, instead of risking being in a similar place as the Islanders, who saw John Tavares leave for nothing but cap space and an open roster spot? The good news is that Panarin and his reps are illuminating the subject for Kekalainen. The bad news is that the hockey world knows, so he’ll look foolish if Columbus ends up with nothing, yet other GMs also know that he might be at a disadvantage.

Kekalainen would be forgiven for sweating the Panarin situation alone, yet that’s just one of some pressing issues for Columbus.

What to do about Bob?

Sergei Bobrovsky also will need a new contract after his $7.425M AAV expires after next season, and that situation is comparably tricky, only in different ways.

You’d be hard-pressed to pick apart the work “Bob” has done in Columbus, generating a beautiful .923 save percentage over 312 regular-season games, with especially impressive work done during the past two years.

The elephant in the room, for many, is Bobrovsky’s playoff struggles. More analytical types will roll their eyes at such criticisms – particularly when the tone really condemns – but it’s also fair to note that, for all Bob has accomplished in winning two Vezina trophies, Columbus hasn’t been able to put it together enough to win a mere playoff series yet.

If you’re Kekalainen, you’re fearful that Bobrovsky could become the next Carey Price.

Bob is already 29, and he’ll turn 30 on Sept. 20. When the Montreal Canadiens extended Price with a massive eight-year, $84M contract, it probably felt – to them – like the price of doing business with an all-world goalie. That deal already looks horrifying, and it’s only officially going to begin in 2018-19, with Price already 30.

The Bob situation could turn out poorly for Kekalainen in a variety of ways, sadly.

The Blue Jackets may decide to roll with Joonas Korpisalo and other, younger, cheaper options … only to see “Bob” flourish somewhere else. Conversely, they could see Bob turn into Carey Price 2.0, a goalie with memories of elite work but a contract that screams “albatross.”

The Panarin and Bobrovsky situations stand as brutal challenges, and the Blue Jackets also must pay some young players soon. Most pressingly, Zach Werenski is set to enter the final season of his rookie contract. The American defenseman is, bar none, an elite talent. It’s unlikely that his value will go anywhere but up after he accrues another season of work in 2018-19. Getting that contract done would provide some cost certainty, yet Werenski might be smart to wait this out for maximum value. That’s another big challenge, and a crucial situation regarding Columbus’ future.

Reaching for the Alka-Seltzer yet, Blue Jackets fans?

Some hope, but big risks

You could probably place Kekalainen somewhere in the Brad Treliving range of NHL GMs.

There’s a lot to like about what Kekalainen has done since taking over in 2013.

Sure, the Panarin situation is challenging, but it was a huge win for Columbus and could still reap rewards if they make the painful decision to trade him. As nice a talent as Ryan Johansen is, it seemed like his relationship was untenable with John Tortorella, so Kekalainen deserves even more kudos for (in my opinion) winning the trade by landing near-Norris-level defenseman Seth Jones. Kekalainen’s draft acumen has paid off nicely, too, with Pierre Luc-Dubois ranking as the latest breakthrough.

Even so, you have to wonder if the clock is ticking on his tenure, and there are some less-than-ideal contracts on the books, considering that Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, and Cam Atkinson combine for $17.225M for the next three seasons (with Atkinson’s $5.875M lingering through 2024-25).

There’s a nightmare scenario where the Blue Jackets end up on the wrong end of the Bobrovsky/Panarin situations while still never tasting the second round of a postseason, all while spending a pretty big chunk of cash.

Fair or not, it’s tough to imagine the franchise keeping Kekalainen around if most of these situations go sour.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Pierre-Luc Dubois

Getty

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

June 24, 2016 seemingly marked a rare occurrence: the Edmonton Oilers might have outmaneuvered someone else.

With the third pick of the draft, Jarmo Kekalainen – the first Finnish GM in NHL history – passed on consensus third choice Jesse Puljujarvi (yes, a Finn), instead selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois. Many believed that the Oilers were again lucky in the draft by selecting Puljujarvi at fourth, while some wondered if Kekalainen was going too far to prove that he doesn’t merely favor Finns.

And then they played the games.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

Now, look, it’s more than plausible that there could be more twists and turns in the saga of PLD vs. Puljujarvi. They both turned 20 fairly recently.

So far, though, Dubois flipped the script in a big way, providing a useful bullet point for Kekalainen to use the next time us simpletons doubt his expertise.

An extremely quick learner

During a loaded 2017-18 for rookies, PLD didn’t finish as a Calder finalist, yet he settled for re-writing some Blue Jackets records. His 20 goals and 48 points both set new franchise marks for rookies. He also collected his first career hat trick:

Dubois didn’t just generate some nice point totals for a first-year player.

He skyrocketed up the Blue Jackets’ depth chart, eventually forcing his way to become Columbus’ first-line center. John Tortorella marveled at his rapid growth in January, as Sportsnet’s Luke Fox noted.

“We think we’re smart — the coaches, the managers. We have all these ideas about developing players and worry about too much,” Tortorella said. “He has blown us away as far as how he has handled the situation.

“He has grabbed a hold of it and wants more.”

Beyond collecting nice point totals, the Quebec native generated some resoundingly impressive possession stats for a player of any age. You can plainly see why PLD basically gave Torts & Co. no choice but to deploy him in a prominent role. It stands to reason, then, that Dubois will carry that clout into 2018-19.

Some caveats

There are a few reasons to pump the brakes a bit, at least as far as penciling him in for even bigger things.

To start, there are some areas of improvement, as you’d expect even for a rookie who seemed to skip a few steps in his learning curve. As you might expect, Dubois struggled on draws, winning just 43.8 percent of his 1,052 faceoffs in 2017-18. Such issues sometimes get blown out of proportion, but there’s the worry that key losses in the dot might prompt the occasional demotion.

Dubois also couldn’t ask for a much cushier situation than what he enjoyed as a rookie, even beyond heavy starts in the offensive zone.

Merely glance at his most common even-strength teammates from Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see a who’s who of Blue Jackets players. Artemi Panarin easily leads the pack, also joined by star defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.

Plenty of NHL teams try to spread the wealth by asking prominent forwards to carry their own line, rather than loading up on one or two packed ones. Such a situation could be a drawback to PLD’s meteoric rise: he might be asked to do too much, which may entail fending for himself with lesser linemates.

(Of course, there’s the grim possibility of Panarin skating with a totally new set of teammates after being traded, but let’s not linger on that … at least not in this post.)

More to come?

Those concerns are real, yet there are also some counterpoints for why even bigger things could come for PLD next season.

Most obviously, he’s just 20. While his climb in prominence means that opponents will “gameplan” against him more often, he’s also that much more comfortable with NHL life. These are the years of rapid improvement for more talented players such as Dubois.

Again, he also could receive richer opportunities.

Dubois averaged 1:56 PP TOI per game, less than Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, and Nick Foligno. Maybe he’ll get a boost in that area, or failing that, more than the 16:38 he averaged overall in 2017-18? His massive playoff deployment (23:09 per game!) implies that he has Torts’ trust.

***

One could see Dubois stumble as a sophomore, or take off to even greater heights.

Either way, the big picture is awfully bright for a player who’s more than justified being picked third overall in 2016. For a Blue Jackets team dealing with playoff letdowns and frustrations regarding retaining star players, Dubois’ dazzling development must feel that much more refreshing.

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.

Panarin, Blue Jackets seem destined for disappointing split

Getty
27 Comments

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

Getty
12 Comments

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.