Where in the world are the Columbus Blue Jackets headed?
Ever since the final horn sounded in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Bruins, there's been a timidness amongst Blue Jacket fans.
The organization went "all in", didn't win the Stanley Cup, and now may lose its (arguably) three best and most valuable players for nothing in return.
Was it worth it? Can they still keep them? Who is going to answer these questions?
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has entered the chat.
“I've said it all along: Whatever happens with our pending UFAs, we're going to have a really good team after July 1," said Kekalainen in his exit day interview on Wednesday. "We have a really strong core and they're all going to be in place here for a long time."
Kekalainen is obviously hinting at the worst-case scenario – the potential departures of Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Seeing Ryan Dzingel walk would just be salt in the wound at this point.
Even if this worst-case scenario happens, Kekalainen is communicating the message that he won't be losing any sleep over it. There's plenty of work to be done.
"There are a lot of exciting things going on with our team and I'm not worried about the UFAs. I'm not.”
Here's the challenge, though.
Now that the Blue Jackets have hit the second round, that's the new standard. God forbid they miss the playoffs next season altogether, because the new expectation is that they get to the second round again and make a deeper run.
Until the club decides to officially rebuild, the standard of success will keep rising. Kekalainen knows this new reality and is certainly not afraid of it.
“The expectations always go up when you're having success," he said. "The expectations are higher. We've struggled with them along the way a little when maybe the expectations were there and we weren't ready for them. Now, we're going to be ready to have the higher expectations for our team and for our organization, for the franchise."
Can these expectations be met? Well, we have a whole offseason to talk about it, but Kekalainen also said that the core of the club is still intact, and free agency decisions aside, he's encouraged by what is here to build around.
“Our leaders are Nicky (Foligno) and Boone (Jenner), and they're not old," Kekalainen said. "Cam is still improving every year. The Texiers, the Bemstroms, those guys are going to get a great opportunity to play a key role on our forward group next year.
"Josh Anderson, what a beast. And he's just going to keep getting better. He's a force."
Yes, Kekalainen has reason to froth at the mouth when he looks at his young talent on the rise. Will they be immediate replacements of Panarin or Duchene? Not even close. But they don't need to be (the 2016-2017 Blue Jackets had 108 points without Panarin, mind you).
The bottom line for Kekalainen is that the club is not planning on taking any steps back, so don't pack your bags for a rebuild or a "tank" just yet. Columbus is still one of the youngest teams in the NHL, and if these stars do leave town, the Blue Jackets will certainly have money to bring in replacements.
Oh, and Kekalainen wants those guys to want to be here. No Jeff Carters. No Adam Footes.
"We want guys who want to be Blue Jackets. Who want to live in Columbus. Who want to raise their families in Columbus. Proud to be Blue Jackets and living in Columbus, Ohio. And if that's the reason you want to play somewhere else, go play somewhere else."
If the Blue Jackets regress this fall, it will be incidental, and not because the organization framed it to be that way. Don't worry...you only have five more months to wait and see how the team looks on opening night.