Jarmo Kekalainen

Blue Jackets at center of attention as NHL free agency looms

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Where many express concern, Jarmo Kekalainen says he sees only opportunity regarding the uncertain state of the Columbus roster a week before NHL free agency.

To Kekalainen, the fear of possibly losing stars such as Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on July 1 is offset by the knowledge that their departures would open significant space under the salary cap.

That would put the Blue Jackets general manager in prime position to fill those holes through trades or free agency at a time when the newly announced $81.5 million payroll maximum for next season is forcing various cap-strapped teams to shed salary.

”I think every $100,000 or every $1,000 counts at this point for some teams that are going to be squeezed,” Kekalainen said shortly after the new cap number – $1.5 million lower than initially projected – was announced. ”They’re going to have to sell their problems. We could be a solution.”

Kekalainen won’t rate the Blue Jackets’ chances of re-signing one or all three players.

”I’m sure we’ll get some answers shortly if it starts looking like they’re moving into another direction. But we thought this could happen,” he said, referring to the bold gamble Columbus made in choosing to acquire Duchene in a trade with Ottawa, and retain Panarin and Bobrovsky at the trade deadline in February knowing they were in the final years of their contracts.

”If it happens, we’re not going to be shocked,” Kekalainen added. ”If it is the case, then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”

The 27-year-old Panarin is considered the top free agent on the market. The NHL’s 2016 rookie of the year has topped 70 points in each of his four seasons and scored 116 goals in 322 career games. Duchene, a center, has topped 20 goals seven times in 10 seasons and coming off a year in which he had a career-best 31 goals.

And then there is the 30-year-old Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy-winner. The Blue Jackets could also lose center Ryan Dzingel, whom they acquired in a separate trade with Ottawa.

Other notable free agents set to hit the market are San Jose captain Joe Pavelski, Winnipeg defenseman Tyler Myers and Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner.

The list of top-end talent has dwindled with defenseman Erik Karlsson re-signing with San Jose, forward Jeff Skinner re-signing with Buffalo, and Philadelphia acquiring and signing center Kevin Hayes.

According to Spotrac.com, only nine of 31 teams are projected to be $20 million or more under the cap, and led by Colorado at $35.5 million. At the other end of the spectrum is Vegas, currently projected to be $1.6 million over the cap, and will have to be in compliance by the start of the season in October.

Some teams may resort to the rarely used option of poaching from the restricted free agent pool. This would require a team issuing an offer sheet, which would lead to the player’s team having to decide to match the offer or receive draft picks as compensation.

The Calgary Flames, in 2013, were the last team to issue an offer sheet in a bid to acquire then-Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly, only to have Colorado match the contract.

Speculation has focused on talented Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner being a candidate to receive an offer sheet, something Toronto GM Kyle Dubas acknowledged without committing to whether the team would match it.

”It’s kind of hanging over everything now,” Dubas said last week. ”It’s our intention they’re here for as long as we can possibly keep them. But if the dollar amount doesn’t make sense as far as our internal economics, it will be a decision as to what we might do.”

The Maple Leafs are at least better positioned to re-sign Marner after freeing up $6.2 million of cap space by trading veteran forward Patrick Marleau to Carolina over the weekend. Cap constraints were behind the Nashville Predators’ decision to trade P.K. Subban to New Jersey, with the Devils easily affording the play-making defenseman’s $9 million annual cap hit over the final three years of his contract.

Devils GM Ray Shero might not be done adding talent with nearly $26 million in space still available.

”We’ll see where it goes, and we want to be an improved hockey team,” he said. ”Our fans deserve that, certainly our players deserve that, and this is a great opportunity in time to do it.”

It wasn’t lost on Dallas GM Jim Nill of how Subban’s trade provides room for the Central Division rival Predators to add players.

”I know that David Poile’s a very good general manager and he’s looking at something else he’s got planned,” Nill said, referring to the Predators GM. ”But that’s the intriguing part of the game now.”

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Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

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.

John Davidson resigns from Blue Jackets, joins Rangers as president

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A busy off-season for the Columbus Blue Jackets is under way with the news that John Davidson, the team’s President of Hockey Operations and Alternate Governor since 2012, has resigned and will be taking up the role of president with the New York Rangers.

Davidson replaces Glen Sather, who stepped down from the position in April.

In a statement released on Friday, Blue Jackets’ president Mike Priest confirmed that the team granted the Rangers permission to speak with Davidson about the job. Davidson still had four years left on his contract with the Blue Jackets, but rumblings of his departure for New York surfaced this spring and only seemed to grow once their postseason run ended.

It’s expected that Davidson will be introduced by the Rangers on Wednesday.

“Today is the start of a new and exciting chapter in New York Rangers history,” said Rangers owner James Dolan in a statement. “John Davidson is one of the premier executives in the National Hockey League. As we continue to build a team that can consistently compete for the Stanley Cup, John’s knowledge of the game and his experience and passion for the Rangers logo make him the ideal choice to oversee our Hockey Operations department. I am thrilled to welcome ‘JD’ and his family home.”

Davidson played parts of eight seasons with the Rangers and was one half of their television broadcast team for two decades before he moved into management as the President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues from 2006-2012.

According to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, there will be no replacement for Davidson within the Blue Jackets’ organization. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen will now lead the hockey operations department and assume the alternate governor role.

Davidson’s exit could be the first of many this off-season for the Blue Jackets. Unrestricted free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are looking like they’ll be leaving, while the futures of fellow UFAs Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid are also cloudy. Back inside the management offices, assistant GM Bill Zito has interviewed for open GM positions around the league, including the expansion NHL Seattle franchise.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets’ future cloudy after Kekalainen’s gamble falls short

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If you’re looking for a feel-good story about how the Columbus Blue Jackets ignited hockey fandom in a town for the past month, you won’t find it here on this Tuesday in early May.

Fuzzy feelings are fleeting when a team that went all-in, risking future assets and big returns on key pending unrestricted free agents, crashes out of the playoffs in Round 2.

The talk or progress would be a sentiment I could be more bullish on if they weren’t fixing to lose two or three of their stars come the summer.

Yes, the Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Swept them, no less, in emphatic fashion.

Sure, Columbus battled the Boston Bruins hard, taking them to Game 6 before being unable to solve Tuukka Rask

They showed tremendous tenacity during those two rounds and a sense of having bought into a suffocating style of hockey that stymied one of the best regular-season teams of all-time.

Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the Lightning will be memorable. As, too, will be the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave the Blue Jackets a chance every night, as did the scoring touches of both Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, who proved to be crucial pieces that stepped up when the lights shined brightest.

The crowds, the chants, the atmosphere, the cannon — all special while it lasted.

John Tortorella said his team made huge steps forward. True. The exact makeup of the team as of Monday’s Game 6 made huge steps forward over the past month, and there’d be a lot of build on here if it weren’t for this dark cloud that’s also been hovering over the team.

There’d be a reason to be optimistic if every player mentioned above were locked into varying lengths of long-term deals with the organization. The sad reality is they aren’t. And it seems almost certain at this point that they will lose both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency, and Duchene could walk to under the same circumstances if he so chooses.

Losing them is, at the very least, a step back, right?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gambled big here, so much so that he can probably skip his flight to Vancouver for this year’s draft because he won’t play a big part having only a third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh-round choice at the moment. (Not to mention no second- or third-round pick in 2020.)

The only thing that lasts forever in hockey is Stanley Cup banners and the engraving on hockey’s holy grail that goes with it.

Hockey’s a sport where if you’re not first, your last. You can raise feel-good banners, but they become the butt-end of jokes rather than revered pieces of fabric.

When the dust settles in or around July 1, the Blue Jackets could be without their top scorer, their No. 1 goaltender and the man they sold a good acre or two of the farm to get at the NHL trade deadline.

Per CapFriendly, Columbus’ projected cap space heading into next year is in the $27 million range. Can that coerce a No. 1 to sign in free agency if Bobrovsky leaves? Maybe, but the No. 1 goalie pool this year is slim at best.

Can it replace a 27-year-old superstar in Panarin? What about a 28-year-old point-per-game player in Duchene?

Kekalainen’s wand is going to need a full charge to pull off that kind of sorcery. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s a tall order in the highest degree.

Sure, the remaining players can draw on the experiences they had. Is there much to extract from that, however, if three big names are out?

“Next year who knows what’s going to happen?” said Cam Atkinson after Game 6. “Who’s going to be in this locker room?”

There’s a core in Columbus that will remain, however: Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Nick Foligno, who’s a consummate captain.

But you don’t just magically regrow a couple of severed limbs. That takes detailed surgery and an unknown timeframe get back to full strength.

Gambles, however well calculated they may be, are still gambles at the end of the day.

Kekalainen pushed all in and got caught by a better hand.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Roundtable: Binnington’s Calder hopes, Tampa’s challengers, Blue Jackets’ pressure

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Despite his number of games played, will Jordan Binnington garner enough support to win the Calder Trophy?

SEAN: It’s going to be hard to unseat Elias Pettersson as winner for rookie of the years, but certainly Binningon can make a challenge. He’ll likely get around 10 starts the rest of the regular season, putting him in 30 games player territory.

Only four goaltenders have won the award in the last 25 years with Martin Brodeur playing 47 games in 1994, the fewest of any netminder who took home the Calder. Binnington leads all goalies with at least 20 starts in even strength save percentage (.941) and is tied for third in the NHL with five shutouts. That’s all quite good for a guy who wasn’t a regular until Jan. 7.

But when the PHWA submit their ballots, Binnington likely won’t pass Pettersson for the award, but he definitely deserves a trip to Vegas in late June as one of the 2018-19 Calder finalists.

JAMES: The gap is simply too large between Elias Pettersson and everyone else, but I wonder if Binnington’s fantastic season might spark up some conversations about getting more Calder attention for non-forwards in the future.

In a slower season (like, say, when Nail Yakupov won a Calder), Binnington would be getting far more consideration, and Rasmus Dahlin or Miro Heiskanen would also get more hype. When it comes to the main awards, people often sequester goalies to the Vezina and skaters to the Hart, barring a truly transcendent season from a netminder. The Calder doesn’t allow such latitude, and I wonder if we may gradually change the way we measure different accomplishments.

It’s far too easy to dismiss just how enormous an impact Binnington’s made. He’s won 16 games despite being limited to just 20 starts (and 22 games played), which almost feels like it should be impossible. Pettersson’s special, and should probably be a unanimous choice (don’t get weird about it, Buffalo/Dallas/St. Louis beat writers), but Binnington saved the Blues’ season.

JOEY: I just don’t see it happening. Binnington has been terrific since taking over between the pipes for the Blues, but the fact that he’ll likely play in just over 30 games means that he can’t overtake Canucks forward Elias Pettersson in the race for the Calder Trophy. Pettersson has slowed down a bit, but he’s still a point-per-game player in his first season. What Binnington has done definitely puts him in the mix, it just doesn’t put him over the top. He probably won’t mind falling short in this race considering his team will be playing meaningful games in April. The 25-year-old’s short tenure in the NHL has been a huge success regardless of whether or not he’s named rookie of the year. 

ADAM: In any other year where there wasn’t a clear cut favorite that played in significantly more games I would say yes, because he has been that good and has quite literally been the savior of the Blues’ season. Okay, maybe not the savior, but definitely one of them. I just think Elias Pettersson is so far ahead of the pack and so outstanding that it would be really tough to unseat him. Point-per-game in his first full season in the NHL, and as electrifying as he is? Definite rookie of the year for me. Binnington probably definitely gets in the top-three, but the award is Pettersson’s.

SCOTT: He should be considered, but he won’t be because of when his rookie season began. The problem comes down to this all starting in early January and not in early October or November. He’s a victim of things outside of his control, like waiting half a year to give the kid a shot.

I get it, Jake Allen was the guy. Again, it’s just nothing something Binnington could control. But he deserves to be on the ballot and deserves to win the award. Why? Because while Elias Pettersson has been great, he hasn’t single-handedly put his team into the playoffs quite like Binnington has. This raises the prospects of him garnering some Hart votes, too. Call me crazy, but in its purest form, few have been as integral to their team’s success like Mr. Winnington.

[PHT’S PUSH FOR THE PLAYOFFS]

What team in the East poses the biggest threat to the Tampa Bay Lightning come playoff time?

SEAN: It’s not a big list, but you have to believe the Washington Capitals will take what they did last spring in the Eastern Conference Final and use it again against an even better Lightning team. 

If they’re to meet again it will once again be in the third round where the Capitals will have likely use the same approach as Barry Trotz did a year ago. If Todd Reirden keeps the same game plan, it’s slowing down the pace and suffocating the Lightning’s stars. Tampa was blanked in Games 6 and 7 last May, unable to solve Braden Holtby. 

Washington also managed to limit Tampa to only 24.8 shots per game in the seven-game series. As dangerous as their arsenal is, if they aren’t getting shots on goal, it’s hard for them to keep up their explosive offense. It’s a big challenge, but the Capitals know they can do it in a series.

JAMES: I find myself waffling between the Lightning’s likely second-round opponents: the Maple Leafs and the Bruins, a.k.a. my choices for second and third-best in the East.

It’s dangerous to imagine everything going right when it hasn’t always actually come together on the ice, but I just can’t shake the impression that Toronto has the higher ceiling.

With Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri down the middle, they’re one of – maybe the only – teams that could credibly hang with the Lightning’s deadly forwards. Both the Bruins and Maple Leafs have goalie(s) who could conceivably have a better best-of-seven series than Andrei Vasilevskiy, too.

So Toronto has a shot, but it’s not outrageous to look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Lightning as the NHL’s closest answer to a Golden State Warriors-style juggernaut. Luckily for Tampa Bay’s opponents, upsets are more common in the NHL … but the Bolts remain heavy favorites to win it all.

JOEY: The Bruins have been red-hot since the start of 2019. They’ve been just as good as the Lightning and they’ve found a way to do it despite missing David Pastrnak. Boston has one of the top lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak (when healthy), they have secondary scoring with Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and a few others, they’ve got a solid group of defensemen, and they have a great one-two punch between the pipes with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. If anyone can take down the Lightning in a seven-game series, it’s the Bruins. 

ADAM: It is going to either take a great team with superstar talent all clicking at the same time, or a team with great goaltending. Or more likely a team that has both. When it comes to the latter, the Boston Bruins stand out to me as someone that could do it. They may not be able to match Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower or depth, but they have two starting caliber goalies that are both playing at an extremely high level this season. Washington is definitely a threat because of the talent they have at the top of the roster and as we saw last year if Braden Holtby gets on a roll at the right time he can change a series and a season. Then there is Pittsburgh. For as mediocre as they have looked for most of the season they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and presumably come playoff time, a healthy Kris Letang. Matt Murray is playing like a true No. 1 goalie again and they might be a good matchup for one another.

SCOTT: Boston. Tampa made Toronto look like a JV squad on Monday night. Boston beat them 4-1 earlier this year and lost a close 3-2 decision. Simply put, Boston has the experience and the skill to run with Tampa, and with Tuukka Rask playing as well as he is, if there’s anyone that can duel Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s the guy to do it at the moment in the East.

Now, with that said, can any team in the East (or even the West) go toe-to-toe with the Lightning over seven games and win four of them? I’m not sure that’s possible at this point. Tampa can make the best teams look like they belong in the American Hockey League (no disrespect to the AHL, but you get the point).

Boston has the only outside shot in my opinion, and everything would have to go right.

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If the Blue Jackets’ big gamble doesn’t pay off with a playoff berth, should that be the end for Jarmo Kekalainen and/or John Tortorella?

SEAN: I don’t believe there will be a cleaning of house should the Blue Jackets’ fail to either get in the playoffs or get out of the first round. I do think there will be a shortening of the leash, especially for Tortorella if that happens as we head into next season.

Kekalainen’s big moves at the deadline were one to push the franchise forward and accomplish something they’ve never done in 17 seasons: win a playoff round. It’s a big bet, but one that should be applauded next time we complain about a general manager sitting on their hands and standing pat rather than try and improve their team.

JAMES:  A thought has lingered in my mind this season: what if Artemi Panarin simply wants out because of John Tortorella?

Torts is brighter than his dimmest rants would indicate, but would it be that surprising if players found him gruff and intimidating, maybe leading to embarrassments in the film and locker rooms? Tortorella’s been around forever, and as his successes become more distant in the rearview mirror, I think that missing the playoffs should probably be it for him.
That’s a sad thought from an entertaining quote standpoint, and perhaps the Blue Jackets might flinch on replacing either their coach or GM after giving both of them extensions heading into this season. But what does it say about Columbus’ front office if they view this year as a time to go all-in and then they miss the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs altogether? Kekalainen’s been around since 2013 and Torts has been around since 2015. You have to wonder how many chances they’d need to get things right if they fall short here.
If Columbus misses, I’d move on, despite my belief that Kekalainen’s a pretty good GM.

JOEY: I really didn’t like what the Blue Jackets did at the deadline. I felt like they were in a unique situation given the contract statuses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Adding more high-end free agents doesn’t make that situation better. If the Jackets fail to make the playoffs, I don’t think Kekalainen or Tortorella lose their jobs, but I feel like they’ll be on the hot seat going into next season. Even if they get into the postseason and lose in the first round, jobs will be on the line going into next season. 

ADAM: Should it? That is a tougher question to answer than “will it?” Because if they miss the playoffs I think it would be awfully difficult for ownership to rest easy looking at this situation. You give up almost your entire draft class for rentals, you may lose some or all of them, you may lose your two best players that were already on the roster, and then you have to deal with the brutal look that is going all in as a buyer and falling on your face. But I also think that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the result more so than the process. Even if they do get in the playoffs they are probably not winning the Stanley Cup, so you are still going to be sitting there at the end of the season with no championship, no draft picks, and maybe a bunch of free agents walking out the door. If you want your GM to be aggressive and “go for it” I don’t see how you can punish him for doing just that, because he theoretically put his team in the best possible position to succeed. If it doesn’t, at that point it comes down to the coaching staff and the players themselves. Truly one of the most fascinating teams to watch down the stretch, because what they do is likely to have huge implications on what the upper management and ownership does in the summer.

SCOTT: I mean, for Kekalainen, he’d be gone as soon the word eliminated appeared beside the name of the Blue Jackets, no?

He went out, kept the two players that would have brought in a decent haul at the deadline, brought in two players who cost them most of this year’s draft and could conceivably have nothing to show for it come July 1… at least the league’s punch line (Ottawa) was able to recoup some goods when they lost everybody.

Torts goes, too. If they don’t make the playoffs and somehow manage to keep Kekalainen, then Torts takes the sword for him. If Kekalainen goes and a new general manager is hired, I assume they look at Torts in the same way — had a bunch of talent handed to him and couldn’t do anything with it. Goodbye.

It’s win or bust for both of them.