What an occasion to gather everyone, right?
Things seem to be going...well...around Nationwide Arena.
Sergei Bobrovsky reportedly hasn't had any substantive talks with the Blue Jackets. The club has added some solid pieces in free agency – Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair among them – but the uncertain future of superstar forward Artemi Panarin looms large. The 26-year-old isn't ready to sign long-term in Columbus, which has thrown his situation into flux.
Trade him, or keep him? Risk it, or play the odds? Our staff has gathered 'round the table to talk about what the Blue Jackets and GM Jarmo Kekalainen should do.
If you’re Jarmo Kekalainen, what would you do? Keep him, trade him or wait it out and see if the situation can swing?
CP: Testing the market is a smart move to at least gauge the possibilities of what they could get in return – even if it’s not until the trade deadline in 2019. This has happened to the Jackets enough times with their stars where honestly, I’d just put all my chips in and go for the Cup this year. Bob and Bread may be gone after this summer, so why not go for it all? If they get to the trade deadline and our chances of making a run aren't looking too hot, deal him. Teams that are also focused on the present will give endless amounts to get Panarin, even if it is halfway through the season.
SB: If I'm Jarmo Kekalainen, I try to see what is available on the market. If you can evaluate that and come to the conclusion that the offers won’t get any better, you have to make the trade. You’re beginning to get into an unenviable scenario; Panarin may be replaceable in the long term, but in the short term you will likely not be able to match his production. He could be bluffing about his free agency possibilities, but unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, it isn’t a risk you can take.
KM: I wouldn’t say there’s a huge amount of urgency to move him right now, but I’d absolutely shop him around and see if retaining salary can help facilitate a deal for multiple high-end young players. A team like Florida or St. Louis would make an excellent trade partner, with elite forward prospects and an open Cup window. If a deal doesn’t happen until the trade deadline, that’s totally fine – and makes it easier for the Jackets to potentially retain salary to drive the price up. What team couldn’t find room for one of the game’s top 10 offensive talents at a $3 million cap hit?
DD: As it stands today, I wait it out. Reports suggest that Kekalainen has received plenty of offers with future assets, but not enough high-end current pieces. Here’s the catch: waiting until the trade deadline would mean a lower return, since the acquiring team doesn’t get Panarin for the full season. Still, if you’re Columbus, you have to try to convince him to stay long-term. If Kekalainen leaves his summer meeting with Panarin convinced that he’ll leave the franchise regardless next summer, this answer switches to trade him now.
Is this a unique situation with a super-talented player, or a larger problem that the Blue Jackets/Columbus face in retaining top players?
CP: It’s definitely a recurring theme, but I don’t think it’s as much about the team as it as about the city. Unfortunately Columbus itself is not the biggest vacation destination for most, let alone living in the city. It’s great, but when you have the option to be in LA, New York or Florida year-round in the prime of your career, it’d make sense to look elsewhere. From 2000-2012, it was definitely a winning problem. Now, it might be a market-size problem. Nothing that winning a playoff series can’t help fix though (please).
SB: It is a problem that the Blue Jackets keep facing and will likely keep facing as long as they are a franchise. Columbus doesn’t have the prestige of other franchises. Even the recent expansion clubs since the turn of the century have some outside appeal in their favor. As a life long Columbus resident I love this town, but it is also evident why some wouldn’t want to spend their life here. Not going to fault anyone, it's just the way it is and they’ll be fighting it until the franchise begins to have a universal draw for players.
KM: I think it’s a good thing that Panarin was up front about his lack of desire to play here long-term. Reports of Sergei Bobrovsky not being long for Columbus (per Kevin Weekes) are a bit more worrying, given that he’s been perhaps the greatest Blue Jacket ever and has won two Vezina Trophies here. As an unabashed fan of the city, I’m certainly upset to see two players (who have, by all accounts, been great teammates and given it their all) clearly longing for greener pastures, but I think the team’s young core of Zach Werenski, Seth Jones and Pierre-Luc Dubois will embrace the city like Cam Atkinson and others have recently. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
DD: Maybe I’m in denial, but all of the top players who have left Columbus in public spats have been such unique cases. Nash is a borderline saint for keeping his mouth shut as long as he did, and I still don’t understand the vitriol some fans send his way. I’ll give you Jeff Carter, but that may say more about him than anything else. What other top players apply? Adam Foote was hardly a top player at that stage of his career. No, I don’t think it’s a larger problem. But here’s the truth: if you win, players will come, and they’ll stay.
Are you surprised, disappointed, or neither?
CP: Through the heartbreak I’ve experienced for being a Blue Jackets follower for almost 20 years, I’m sad to say I’ve prepared myself for moments like these. I had high hopes that a good playoff run this year would be enough to solidify his feelings about Columbus, but the way things ended last season definitely made me nervous for what he must be feeling right now. Take it from a guy who was *initially* defending Kevin Durant for going to the Warriors – I’m okay with Panarin doing what is best for his life.
SB: It's his life and he is allowed to do whatever he damn well pleases, and if he wants to be near a body of water that's his choice. If he wants to ignore Buckeye Lake, that is also his choice. Making the best decision for yourself should never be looked down on. Panarin can get a big bang for his buck here in Ohio, but putting it up against the California’s of the world will always be a tough sell. I wouldn’t mind being in southern California for most of my year.
KM: Surprised all-around. The narrative around Panarin in his first year as a Jacket was that he wanted to prove himself as a superstar away from Patrick Kane, and he did just that. Aaron Portzline’s glowing profile of Panarin from early April made it seem like he really enjoyed living in Columbus, and the city certainly embraced him. To find out that he didn’t reciprocate those feelings was a bit of a shock. While this isn’t officially a trade request, it might as well be.
DD: I’m disappointed. Panarin is magic to watch, and he’s in the prime of his career. Columbus has a legitimately good team that can contend with Panarin in the lineup, but without him, there’s a huge void in the lineup.
Can the Blue Jackets recover from the potential loss of Panarin?
CP: Of course. They recovered from losing Nash and made the playoffs a few years later with Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson being part of the new core. It’ll happen, but I know this will be frustrating for the fan base and organization as a whole to go through another setback. At some point a Cup run, or even just a playoff series victory has to occur if the team wants to keep moving ahead. Otherwise, they may be stuck in a Cleveland Browns-esque limbo for who knows how long.
SB: It would need to be a bit more long-term thinking. They only have a couple potential prospects that project as top-six players. None of them project to be close to Panarin. Not many players come along like him, to be frank. The only one that comes close is Rick Nash, and you normally get those players through stout drafting and scouting. The Blue Jackets were able to get Panarin due to cap restrictions. If they’re smart, they continue to exploit those inefficiencies. Cap space is a weapon and should be wielded when given the chance.
KM: Absolutely – but not immediately. I’m not expecting this to be the year that the Blue Jackets finally push through the first round, but if they play their cards right with Panarin (and Bobrovsky), 2019-20 could be a magical year. A name that The Athletic’s Tom Reed brought up that makes sense as a primary piece in a Panarin deal is the Panthers’ Henrik Borgstrom, a dynamic offensive player who can do Panarin-like things with the puck on his stick. Losing Panarin would sting like hell, but having a 1-2-3 punch down the middle of Borgstrom, Dubois and Wennberg would give the Blue Jackets a highly skilled, cost-effective group of centers – and the cap space to go after a big fish to replace Panarin. In my dreams, that’s Blake Wheeler, who’s set to be a free agent next season, but the list of players who actually reach UFA status is never quite as glamorous by season’s end.
DD: Yes, absolutely, but it depends on how they respond. The NHL is designed for quick turnarounds, and this is no different. Consider the worst case scenario of Panarin leaving as a free agent for no return. Even then, Columbus will gain $6 million in cap space that it can use to address other needs, like signing Zach Werenski to a long-term contract, or go after any number of free agents from a strong class. Trading him for a top prospect could also help the franchise in the long run. With a core of Werenski, Jones, Dubois, and a top prospect, the Blue Jackets could take a step backwards in the present for a leap forwards in the future.
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