If/when Sergei Bobrvosky and Artemi Panarin bolt in free agency, there's no arguing how difficult it will be to replace them. On accolades alone, Panarin is the franchise's all-time leader in single-season points scored, besting his own record in his only two seasons with the Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky is the only active two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in the NHL. I don't need to waste any more of your time. Obviously, losing Panarin and Bobrovsky is going to be a painful loss.
But despite being arguably a tier below his Russian teammates in the NHL's pecking order, Matt Duchene would be more devastating for this franchise.
Strength Down The Middle
An overused-but-incredibly-apt hockey adage is some version of "you win up the middle." NHL teams still seek strength down the middle was literally the name of an NHL.com article written more than 10 years ago, and nothing has changed since.
Centers are so vital because they have more on their plates than any other position on the ice. They're tasked with more defensive responsibility than their wingers, and, unlike (most) defensemen, they are looked upon to also drive the offense. The defensive duties are taxing, and a certain blend of hockey sense, defensive acumen, and offensive instincts required make good centers – much less great – difficult to find.
Many of the top players in the NHL are centers, and that's not a coincidence. Using hockey-reference's point-share metric, seven of the top 10 forwards in 2018-19 in the NHL were centers. Not coincidentally, the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins' centers are well represented on this list, with Patrice Bergeron (#14), Ryan O'Reilly (#29), David Krecji (#50), and Brayden Schenn (#100) all cracking the top 100 forwards in the NHL. Duchene, for reference, was #45.
Weak Center Depth Chart
A few seasons ago, the Blue Jackets were confident that Alexander Wennberg would become the franchise's No. 1 center, able to compete against the vaunted list of centers that litter the Metropolitan Division, from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom to Evgeny Kuznetsov, (then) John Tavares, Claude Giroux, and so on. Wennberg never took that step.
And while Pierre-Luc Dubois has exceeded expectations at this point in his young career (he was #53 in point shares among forwards this past season), there's still not enough on this roster to feel good about the state of the position should Duchene move on. Losing Duchene would be crippling to a roster that lacks any semblance of high-end center depth.
Strong Winger Depth Chart
On the other hand, the Blue Jackets will still boast a strong core of wingers. Cam Atkinson (41), Josh Anderson (27), and Oliver Bjorkstrand (23) all set career-highs in goals a season ago, and there's room for optimism there. Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno, both of whom can play both wing and center but are probably more naturally suited as wingers, can be solid contributors. Alexandre Texier is expected to make the club and contribute in a scoring role, while Eric Robinson, Markus Hannikainen, and Riley Nash/Brandon Dubinsky are serviceable in a fourth line capacity. Emil Bemstrom could make things interesting, too. Simply put, there isn't a shortage of skill on the wings, especially compared to their lackluster center depth.
Are Elite Goalies Necessary To Contend For A Cup?
Let's get this out of the way quick: without a quality goalie, you have no chance of competing, much less winning. Just ask the Philadelphia Flyers, who have spent decades looking for a competent starter (oh, the irony of trading a young Bobrovsky to Columbus). And while the Blue Jackets are almost certainly going to take a step backward in net next season, this post-season should give the organization some room for optimism. Of the final four teams in this year's playoffs, only the Bruins' boast a legitimate star goalie with Tuukka Rask. Martin Jones, Curtis McElhinney, and Petr Mrazek are probably are league-average goalies, maybe worse, and Jordan Binnington is a 25-year-old rookie who had, prior to 2019, spent his career in the AHL.
League-average goalies can get their teams to the promised land if the rest of the team is solid, and there are plenty of goalies that have fit that billing in the past decade. Put another way, an elite goalie is not a requisite for winning the Stanley Cup. Bobrovsky, Carey Price, and Henrik Lundqvist have combined for zero championships. Elvis Merzlikins may not be Bobrovsky (yet), but he could be Binnington and nobody would bat an eye. This summer is also a strong free-agent class for goalies, and looking down the road, the Blue Jackets boast a particularly strong goaltending pipeline and should have an easier time replacing Bobrovsky than most other NHL teams.
Most coaches and managers would agree that top centers are the most sought after position in the sport, with really only a high-end defenseman in the debate. While losing Bobrovsky and Panarin will unquestionably be difficult to replace, the Blue Jackets are at least coming from a position of strength in both instances. And even though Duchene is probably a lesser player than the two of them, his absence as a top-flight center may leave the biggest void for this organization in the years to come.