We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.
Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.
Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.
It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.
1. They are in a position to buy, not sell
That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.
There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.
There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.
2. What they need and what they have to spend
What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.
What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.
The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.
While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.
That seriously limits what they can do.
Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.
Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.
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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.
1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?
This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.
Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.
Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.
Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.
This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.
Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.
Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.
The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.
3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?
Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.
That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.
Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace this season.
Sergei Bobrovsky has revealed that there was never a chance he’d re-sign in Columbus.
‘Bob,’ who was the biggest goalie on the free-agent market before he was snatched up by the Florida Panthers on a mammoth seven-year, $70M deal on July 1, told Sport24’s Daria Tuboltseva on Wednesday that he needed a change of scenery.
He also stated that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen knew his intentions a year before he was set to hit unrestricted free agency.
“They didn’t act,” Bobrovsky said. “On the contrary, they started to speak about a contract extension more frequently. I am that type of person. I made my plans known and didn’t play any games (with the organization). It would be much harder for me to look at the mirror in case I’d say to everyone that I’m staying and then leave.”
Kekalainen went all in at the trade deadline, electing to keep both Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin (along with selling a pile of futures for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel — both who also left the team in free agency) for a Stanley Cup run that would ultimately end in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.
Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy recipient, went into detail about a tumultuous final season, his last of seven with the Blue Jackets.
“I was suspended by the team, there were some conflicts in the team, a lot of meetings and some of them just because of me,” he said. “I didn’t feel myself comfortable. And still, the Jackets tried and tried to extend me all season long.”
According to Bob, the team went so far as to offer him a psychologist.
“It was weird because I have one since being 21 year old,” he said. “When your own team criticizes you and isn’t sure in you can’t like it, it’s awkward.”
The mental grind got to Bob, who posted a .913 save percentage and nine shutouts during the regular season.
“It was [tough mentally], especially at the start of the season. The atmosphere wasn’t really pleasant, there were conflicts inside the locker room, a lot of team meetings, [my] suspension, few other things. But as a professional, I was working hard to stay focused and win every game.”
One incident, in particular, played out in the public sphere.
On Jan. 8, the Blue Jackets lost 4-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bob was pulled in the third period after allowing four goals on 19 shots. He left the bench and didn’t dress for the team’s next game.
“There are certain expectations and values that we have established for our players that define our culture,” Kekalainen would say via a press release from the team. “An incident occurred in which Sergei failed to meet those expectations and values, so we made the decision that he would not be with the team for tonight’s game. This is an internal matter and we will have no further comment at this time.”
The wide-ranging interview also delved into Bobrovsky’s relationship with Blue Jackets bench boss John Tortorella, one he categorized as up and down.
“Torts has his pluses and minuses,” Bobrovsky said. “He is what he is. Impulsive. Says what he thinks. Does what he thinks is right. There were days when he was complimentary during the regular season, but there were also days when he might criticize during a press conference or in the locker room. I [didn’t always agree] with his opinion and because of that we had multiple [heated] conversations.
“But he has many pluses too. The team started to play better after his arrival. He installed discipline. He demanded the maximum from each player. We started to make the playoffs regularly. He’s also a skilled psychologist and a very strong motivator.”
Now 31, Bobrovsky revealed that he had other offers — good offers — but said Florida was his first option.
“It’s a good young team, solid management, a very good coach just arrived,” he said. “I believe I have a chance to win the Stanley Cup with this team. Plus living conditions, you play a winter sport in the South, with palm trees and ocean around you.”
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.
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.
What under-the-radar UFA could make the most impact next season?
SEAN: Brett Connolly turned himself from a top-five draft bust into a very reliable bottom-six forward with the Washington Capitals. He was vital in their run to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup title and his numbers improved in each of his three years in D.C. all while getting modest ice time (10:41, 12:00, and 13:20, respectively). He topped out is his walk year this past season with 22 goals and 46 points. The 27-year-old earned himself a nice raise from $1.5M salary this past season, and given how desperate some teams are for depth scoring, he might land in the category of an overpay even if he can give you 30ish points playing in your bottom six.
JAMES: The Flames already reportedly having interest in Cam Talbot makes me worried that the second-biggest reason I’m eyeing him (possibly being cheap?) could fall through … but if it’s a one-year deal, he’s low-risk all the same.
Consider this: even after two rough seasons with the Oilers, Talbot’s career save percentage is still a solid .915. That’s not world-beating stuff, but I’d honestly feel better about Talbot – David Rittich than how they rolled the dice with Mike Smith last season. Besides, if it’s one year, so if things went off the rails, they could also pursue someone at the trade deadline. (As they, frankly, should have done re: Jimmy Howard in 2018-19, if you ask me … hey, Howard does only have a one-year contract in rebuilding Detroit. Hmmm …)
Otherwise, here’s my advice: sign players closer to training camp than July 1. If you need a slogan: “PTOs are the way to go.”
ADAM: Joonas Donskoi is the guy that I keep coming back to. I thought he got kind of a raw deal toward the end of this season in San Jose and could probably use a fresh start with a bigger opportunity. He’s always had some decent production, his underlying numbers are strong, and he’s still pretty young as far as unrestricted free agents go. He is still probably going to get a pretty nice deal for himself, but he is not the biggest name out there and I think I’d rather bet on him than a lot of the other names on the market.
JOEY: With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and a few other big names grabbing all the attention, it seems like Gustav Nyquist is flying under the radar. Sure, he struggled with the Sharks in the postseason, but he still managed to put up 22 goals and 60 points last season. He’s a top-six forward that would immediately improve any team he joins this summer. Nyquist has hit the 20-goal mark four times in his career.
SCOTT: I’m torn on this one. Is Semyon Varlamov an under-the-radar free agent? If so, I think he’d be a great add for several teams in need of a goalie, and a starter. Could he fit in Edmonton even after that insane Mikko Koskinen deal? Would Calgary welcome a No. 1 goalie with open arms? What about Ottawa or Buffalo. Varlamov didn’t have the world’s best season in Colorado but played a lot of games when the Avs were a poor team. He had a .920 the year before.
If Varlamov isn’t an under-the-radar choice, then Brett Connolly most certainly is. The former sixth-overall pick in 2010 had a great contract year with 22 goals and 46 points, both career highs. The risk here is that all the good production came in a contract year. But he’s a positive possession player in five of the past six seasons and is still quite young at 27. His cap hit last year was $1.5 million. That will go up, but if the Caps can’t find room in their cap, others will. Paging the Edmonton Oilers.
What team/GM needs to hit a homerun this summer?
SEAN: Dale Tallon has promised to be aggressive this off-season and many are expecting the Florida Panthers to land one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, if not both. The organization needs to strengthen big time to back up their talk, and if they underwhelm in free agency, how will that affect the fan base going forward and what will that mean for the temperature of Tallon’s seat?
Hiring Joel Quenneville was a boon. Now they need to add talent to the roster, starting with a replacement for Roberto Luongo in goal.
JAMES: I’d like to see the Dallas Stars pull the right moves, with the requirement being that, if they land big fish, they really need to play a more entertaining style. Even Ken Hitchcock would probably want them to pick up the pace a bit. Scratch that, Jacques Lemaire even would.
Jamie Benn looked dominant at times during the playoffs, and who knows how much more often that will happen with him being 29? Ben Bishop is 32; you can’t expect him to be the best combined regular season and playoff goalie year after year. And even consider the youngsters: you only get two more years of Miro Heiskanen on his rookie contract, while John Klingberg‘s obscene discount $4.25M will run out after 2021-22.
There’s a lane here, so the Stars should bowl over the finish line like Roope Hintz when he’s really on the loose.
ADAM: I think the obvious answer here is Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is going to lose his two franchise players, he is (probably) going to lose the two big trade deadline acquisitions he received, and is going to have to try and piece together a roster to fill out all of those spots. That will not be easy, especially as it relates to goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is not going to be easy to replace and they have nothing in house. Unless you get Robin Lehner the free agent market is pretty slim, too.
Dale Tallon in Florida is also probably under a lot of pressure. There has been so much anticipation around them heading into the summer and what they might be able to add. The core of that team is good enough to win … he just needs to make sure he puts something decent around them. Bobrovsky could be great in the short-term before he starts to decline in a couple of years, and Panarin would be a bonafide star going into that lineup.
JOEY: I think the pressure is on Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers to deliver on Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. This team missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and they need to make sure that they create a buzz in their market going forward (easier said than done). Everyone expects them to land prized free agents on July 1st, so failing to do so will be perceived as a wasted opportunity to improve their team. They have a good group of young players and it’s time they get them some help.
SCOTT: In my opinion, it’s without a doubt Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Here we have a general manager who chose to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL Trade Deadline instead of shipping both Russians off for returns. And he sold other pieces off to acquire the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for a playoff run that started out tremendously against the Tampa Bay Lighting only to fall flat on its face in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.
The Blue Jackets had two fourth rounders after doubling down on the 81st pick in the third round in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Their third and final pick in this year’s draft came in the seventh round. Not much restocking there. The Blue Jackets stand to lose their best forward and their best goalie this summer, along with Duchene and perhaps others. Kekalainen sold his soul to the devil and the deal burned to ashes. Now he has to rebuild from the rubble. Those fond memories of a two-round playoff run will provide little warmth when they’re dead last by Thanksgiving.
Finally, are we really going to finally see an offer sheet signed this summer? If so, who is the most likely candidate?
SEAN: I’ll believe it when we see it. This year might be the closest because of the high number of talented RFAs, but I think NHL GMs will remain conservative and not want to upset the apple cart. If we were to see a player actually sign one, how about Kevin Lebanc from the Sharks? He’s coming off a great year and ready to cash in.
The 23-year-old forward scored 17 goals and record 56 points in in 82 games this season and nine points in 20 playoff games. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Labanc could fetch an AAV of a little more than $3.5M a season — by Evolving Wild’s model — and, according to the NHL’s offer sheet compensation for 2019, it would cost only a second-round pick. If a team wanted to try and make the Sharks not match, the next tier of AAV between $4,227,438 – $6,341,152 would cost a first- and third-rounder.
Doug Wilson has a lot of decision to make while using his $14M of cap space, but it’d be tough to imagine him not bringing back Labanc, who shows plenty of promise.
JAMES: My vote is no, it won’t happen.
For all the courage that’s demanded of hockey players, hockey executives are often among the most conservative, risk-averse people out there. Combine that notion with the prohibitive costs of signing an expensive offer sheet, and you quickly realize why offer sheets are a fun idea that would won’t happen any time soon, like the abolition of offside calls.
At first, I though Sharks’ rising star Timo Meier, as he might be a less-obvious choice than, say, Mitch Marner.
But context makes me wonder about Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes may very well be a budget team even after that great run, and judging by how they’re seemingly trying to lowball Aho, I wonder if a team try their luck in seeing if Tom Dundon would divert some of those AAF bucks to Aho? (Uh oh.)
When in doubt, follow the money, or in this case: perhaps an urge not to spend it.
(I still wouldn’t expect too much drama, but would be DELIGHTED if I’m wrong. I might stock up on some extra popcorn, just in case.)
ADAM: We should, but we will not. Mitch Marner is the logical candidate due to Toronto’s salary cap situation, and maybe Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, but I just don’t see it happening. Every year we try to talk ourselves into this and every year it never happens. I will say this: if I am Joe Sakic in Colorado I am marching into my owner’s office and trying to get the okay to spend as close to the cap as possible, because that team is the perfect one to make an offer sheet on a player Marner or Point. They are already a potential Stanley Cup contender and a team quickly building something special, they have more salary cap space than anyone, they just had two of the top-16 picks in the 2019 draft and have a bounty of young players so giving up the draft pick assets in the future would not crush them, and they could probably sign Marner and re-sign Rantanen to massive contracts and STILL under the cap. If any team could do it; this is the team. If they will not, no one will.
JOEY: I don’t expect to see one, no. But if there is one, I think it’ll be Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Would the Hurricanes be able to match a front-loaded contract from another team? Would they even want to? The ‘Canes are one of those small-market teams that need to make sure they take care of business with their best player before July 1st. It would be a shame to see them take a step back after having such a positive campaign in 2018-19.
SCOTT: I’ll be bold here and say yes. Someone is going to fire off an offer sheet to Mitch Marner that will cripple the Toronto Maple Leafs if they match. The New Jersey Devils are having quite the summer and they’ve taken Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes in two of the past three drafts and added P.K. Subban to the mix last weekend, too. Want to keep Taylor Hall in the organization? Throw enough money at Marner that Kyle Dubas can’t match. You have the cap space to do it and could probably find ways to get back into the first round down the line, especially if Hall gets shipped out.