In the Columbus Blue Jackets’ nearly two-decade history, the team has yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. It was only last year when they finally accomplished the feat of going to the playoffs back-to-back seasons. In the overall scheme of things, however, that is not an accolade to be proud of when it took almost twenty years to do it. Baby steps are one thing, but this is patience-trying.
It’s not that they don’t have a good team as they have accomplished players like forwards Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc Dubois and Nick Foligno. In addition, the team has a pair of offensive defensemen in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. One of the biggest reasons for the team’s lack of postseason success though can be found in the missing key component of defensive defensemen. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see Werenski and Jones spend the rest of their careers in the capital of Ohio, but at the end of the day, a team requires defensemen whose first order of business is to grind and disrupt. After all, outside of the goal posts, these types of guys are a netminder’s best friends, which brings us to another issue.
To have a rock solid goalie in hockey is the equivalent of a football team finding that franchise quarterback. They are arguably the most crucial component in building a championship squad of players. Columbus is about to lose theirs. Sergei Bobrovsky originally came over to the Blue Jackets in a trade with Philly and in that time has become a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, but he has had his challenges in the postseason. Granted, a lot of that may be attributed to not having a great defense in front of him, although that is a separate discussion entirely.
In addition to Bobrovsky, or ‘Bob’ as he’s affectionately called, becoming a free agent after this season, so will teammate and winger Artemi Panarin. Panarin was obtained via trade with Chicago a few years back for Brandon Saad. Columbus definitely got the better end of that deal as Panarin has been deadly in front of the net while Saad’s production has been on the downswing. Regardless of that impressive display of offensive prowess, Panarin may be taking his talents elsewhere this summer.
After three days of talks last summer in Paris between Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and Panarin’s then agent (Panarin dropped him last week for a new agent), it felt more like the undertaking of a United Nations accord than it did an attempt to sign a player long term. Allegedly, Panarin’s agent was only looking to do a one or two-year deal while Kekalainen was thinking more along the lines of six or seven. Needless to say, no deal was inked by the time their French holiday had come to a conclusion.
Talks with Bob have been a lot less publicized, and that’s if any have taken place. The reliable Columbus backstop has put the kibosh on speaking publicly about his impending free agency, though anyone who has followed the team recently would have reason to believe he’ll be dealt at the trade deadline, as may Panarin, but for different reasons. With Bob, he has more years behind him than he does in front of him. He’s shown Vezina-like performances this season, but he has also had a fair amount of less than admirable ones as well.
In the case of the Russian winger, Panarin is a consistent offensive threat. He most certainly has a good five to seven years of assist and goal-scoring output left in him but there are clues he has other intentions for his future. There are two glaring circumstances that reveal those seasons won’t be played in a Jackets sweater. One is last summer’s inability to close a long-term Columbus deal. Two, it sure seems like he wants out of town. All indications point to him wanting to play in Tampa, although the Lightning are all but maxed out in their salary cap. In short, they can’t afford him.
I would love to be a fly on the wall in Kekalainen’s office. If the team hangs onto Bob, I think it’s an unfavorable move. Now’s the time to let backup Joonas Korpisalo take the reins. He needs to step up his play. Four goals a game is completely unacceptable, but it’s Kekalainen’s job to help bolster that defense at the same time. Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows all too well that the defense/goalie relationship is a symbiotic one.
As for Panarin, he’s gone on record saying he likes the team and he likes the city of Columbus. To me, that’s just playing nice in the sandbox. He may like it, but I don’t think he loves it. There have been numerous efforts to keep him in the CBJ organization, all with the same unsuccessful result. Albeit unfortunate, I do believe it is time to move on. The asking price will be high, but rightly so. Unless the GM knows something we don’t, I regretfully say ship ‘em out. For Kekalainen to watch the world go by and not deal both by the February 25th NHL trade deadline would be detrimental to the team’s future if nothing else.