On Friday, Jarmo Kekalainen seemingly pushed his chips to the middle of the table. Yesterday, he broke the poker metaphor by swinging another win-now trade.
Kekalainen's acquisition of Matt Duchene gave the Columbus Blue Jackets something they've been sorely lacking – a potent 1-2 punch down the middle – as they gear up for a run at the playoffs. He followed it up by swinging a deal last night for Ryan Dzingel, a goal-scoring, fleet-footed winger.
This is now, unequivocally, the most talented squad the Columbus Blue Jackets have ever had.
As of yesterday (pre-Dzingel, pre-San Jose win) The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn's projection system had Columbus at a solid 79%. That's not guaranteed, but it's pretty damn solid, and should give fans some measure of comfort this year.
Beyond this year, though, that's a bit dicey. Luszczyszyn's model paints a bleak picture of this team's chances this year (and beyond) if they choose to move Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, saying that such a move would drop them from a 95-point true talent team to an 84 point one.
This was all, of course, before the Duchene and Dzingel deals.
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Duchene and Dzingel are both on expiring contracts, but there's plenty of reason to believe they're both more amenable to sticking around in Columbus long-term than their Russian compatriots. Either way, their presence down the stretch this year clearly bolster the Blue Jackets' playoff hopes.
But let's pump the brakes a bit. Making the playoffs shouldn't be the goal – making a deep playoff run should. This year, that doesn't mean aiming to be one of the eight best teams in the East – it means aiming to be one of the three best teams in the Metropolitan Division.
If the Blue Jackets slide to the second wild card spot, they'll draw the Tampa Bay Lightning – a burgeoning juggernaut in the East – who have dominated the Blue Jackets head-to-head over the last two years. Crazier things have happened, but it's tough to envision Columbus sticking around for more than five games in that series.
With Bobrovsky and Panarin almost assuredly leaving at the end of the season, would a first-round exit functionally be any different than missing the playoffs entirely?
Those two non-ideal outcomes – a fourth or fifth place Metro finish – have a 50% chance of coming to fruition according to Luszczyszyn's model. Losing that coin flip after the two recent trades – which shipped out substantial future assets – puts the franchise in a really rough spot moving forward.
Columbus already stood to lose Panarin and Bobrovsky – who elevated Columbus from a non-playoff team to a legit playoff team – for nothing. Now, they'll have one hell of a hard time rebuilding through the draft.
Columbus is now down two quality prospects, one first-round pick, two second round picks and either another first round pick or Duchene himself, depending on if he re-signs. From an asset management standpoint, that's a ton of value lost, all for a 50% chance of having a first-round matchup that's not doomed.
The prudent move – even if it seems counter-intuitive given the two recent trades – is to still move at least one of Panarin and Bobrovsky, provided they can get the right return. It's not like they have to look far for an example of a team that kept its star and lost him for nothing the following summer.
Why the New York Islanders are a cautionary tale
It's a narrative that's been beat to death all season: that the Blue Jackets should learn from the Islanders' mistakes with John Tavares. The Isles' missteps were far more egregious, though, as an 80-point team last season that let its franchise player walk for nothing. The Blue Jackets now are far better than the Islanders were then, but the point still stands.
Today, the Islanders are a far better team than they were last year – thanks to new coach Barry Trotz and a breakout year from soon-to-be free agent Robin Lehner. They're the top team in the Metropolitan Division, and they're looking to buy at the deadline to fix their biggest team issue: offensive production.
Thanks to their decision at the last deadline to keep Tavares, adding an impact player is going to be tricky. The Athletic's Craig Custance explains why:
Not to pour salt on a touchy subject, but I had an executive bring up the Islanders decision not to trade John Tavares at the deadline last year as something that hurts them right now. They’d have all kinds of extra assets in which to work with considering the return they could have received.
For a team that's coming off of an 80-point season, the Islanders' farm system still isn't particularly deep. Had they moved Tavares last February for a king's ransom – likely far more than what Duchene fetched yesterday for Ottawa – they could flip some of those assets this year for a guy like Panarin or Mark Stone, solving their offensive issues.
Today, though, the Islanders don't have those assets. Rather than adding a star like Stone and a secondary rental piece, they may only be able to go after a lesser rental piece, and will still be left with fewer assets going into next season than they would had they moved Tavares last year.
Eastern Conference Outlooks: 2019-20 and Beyond
While the Blue Jackets are understandably tempted to go for it in their last year with Bobrovsky and Panarin – given that they're elite talents that can't be directly replaced – their path this year isn't nearly as favorable as it will be next year and beyond.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa will likely still be the class of the East, but they won't be nearly as deep next year as they are this year, as they're headed right to cap hell. Factoring in huge pay raises for Nikita Kucherov, Yanni Gourde and Ryan McDonagh, Tampa is left with just over $6.3 million of cap space to fill out the remaining seven roster spots – and that's without even factoring in an RFA extension for breakout star Brayden Point, whose 78 points in 60 games make it tough to imagine him taking anything under $8 million per year.
Not only will the Bolts be leaning on lesser depth players (particularly on their blueline) next year, but they’ll likely need to move a top-six forward like J.T. Miller in order to stay under the cap.
The Penguins, who have already seemingly taken a step back from where their roster was when they won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, seem to be in a similar predicament. They have six pending free agents and less than $700k to fill their spots – a feat made impossible without either a large cap escalation or shipping out some veterans like the recently-acquired Nick Bjugstad, Tanner Pearson or Brian Dumoulin.
Beyond that, their core is getting older. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang will all be 32 or older by the end of next season. Compounding matters, they don't have any blue-chip prospects in their pipeline and have just three picks in this year's draft. Folks, their window is closing.
The Caps' cap crunch isn't nearly as bad as the teams listed above, but the defending champs still have to fill nine roster slots with just over $9 million of cap space, making it very tough to add any meaningful pieces through free agency.
Like the Penguins, most of their stars are on the wrong side of 30, and their farm system doesn't have any future stars or surefire impact players.
New York Islanders
The Isles have plenty of reasons to be excited about the future – a couple of blue-chip prospects (Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson), a young star in Mat Barzal and one of the league's best coaches. They're also set to have plenty of cap room this summer, giving them a chance to add scoring and take another run at things next year.
Beyond that, though, it gets a bit murkier. If they buy at the deadline this year, they'll deplete their future assets even more. Barzal's entry-level deal expires after next season and he'll be due a huge raise. And there's plenty of risk in either extending Lehner, who doesn't have a consistent record of success, or making a run at Bobrovsky, who will demand a huge deal and is already 30 years old.
The Best of the Rest
The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs both have intriguing farm systems, high-end cores and huge organizational resources – but neither of them are in the Blue Jackets' division, and the Leafs are going to have some cap issues soon enough.
The rest of the East is filled with teams who are either rebuilding (the Rangers, Senators, Red Wings, Flyers, Devils), are intriguing but unproven and have flaws to address (Panthers, Hurricanes) or have some good pieces but don't scream 'cup contender' just yet (Canadiens, Sabres).
The Columbus Blue Jackets (If they keep Panarin/Bobrovsky through the deadline)
Even if Duchene and Dzingel extensions get done, Columbus would still likely fall into that last category, where they have some nice pieces in place (particularly their core) but have a few issues to address; namely, goaltending and depth along the wing.
Moving out Abramov and Davidsson – and the presumed loss of Panarin – would thin out the Blue Jackets' wing depth really fast. Leaning on Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to form a reliable, quality goaltending tandem is anything but a sure bet.
But with that said… a few free agent additions would keep the Blue Jackets competitive next year, at least. It's hard to see them running away with the division or making a huge trade acquisition, but they'd certainly be in the thick of things.
The longer-term outlook is less solid, though. Thanks to the Vegas expansion draft and now the Duchene trade, the Blue Jackets are looking at a four-year stretch (2017-20) with just one first-round draft pick. The team's best prospects – Liam Foudy, Emil Bemström and Kirill Marchenko – all seem like long-term developmental prospects.
Not the worst situation – and this year's team could be make some serious noise with the right playoff matchup – but there's an opportunity cost to consider.
The Columbus Blue Jackets (If they trade Panarin and Bobrovsky)
Folks, let's get hypothetical here.
With Duchene off of the market, the supply of elite players has gone down by one. Cup contenders looking to add an elite offensive piece (and there are plenty of teams that fit the bill), leaving just Stone and Panarin on the market. That gives Kekalainen a huge leg up in negotiations.
It's not a sure thing, but given the scarcity in the market that the Blue Jackets have created, the Blue Jackets should be able to get a bigger package now for Panarin than they would have before the Duchene deal. Bobrovsky's market is a bit harder to predict, but teams like Calgary, Florida or San Jose could all be fits there.
Any Panarin deal would have to include a quality young forward who can contribute this year and beyond (Toronto's Kasperi Kapanen or Nashville's Kevin Fiala, for example) – which keeps Columbus competitive this year and giving them a difference-maker for the next few years. That'd be in addition to a few future-geared pieces, like a first-round pick and an intriguing prospect.
Had such a return been on the table prior to the Duchene trade, Panarin could already be wearing a different sweater. With Duchene off the table – and the deadline fast approaching – it suddenly feels far more realistic.
If a Panarin replacement can be scored at the deadline – plus some future assets to recoup those lost in the two Senators trades – Kekalainen will have the makings of a long-term contender that's still pretty damn competitive this year.
A Bobrovsky trade is a bit trickier, given the volatility of the goalie market in general, but he'd likely fetch far more in a trade (especially from a team like Florida or Calgary) than any other goalie on the trade market would. If that goalie is Jonathan Quick or Jimmy Howard, they'd come with a far better playoff record, too – a nice sweetener for this year if you buy into Bobrovsky's playoff struggles.
Obviously, there are a ton of moving parts there, and the clock is ticking. Still, if the Blue Jackets can pull it off – and choose to – they'll remain quite competitive this year while loading up their talent pipeline for the future. Those assets can be used to supplement the roster as their core gets more expensive or in future deadline deals to add more firepower.
As it stands now, there's a lot to be excited about for this season – but is this truly the season to push all your chips to the middle of the table? A bigger-picture approach here could be the difference between being a team that squeezes into the playoffs and being the powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
Kekalainen is taking a big swing this year. In the long run, though, moving Panarin and Bobrovsky would give him a bigger bat – and easier pitches to swing at – in the coming years.
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