The Blue Jackets Enter an Important, Potentially-Transformative Time With More Questions Than Answers

By Rob Mixer on June 28, 2019 at 9:15 am
Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin could be one of several free agents leaving town this week, but the club has sights on competing in 2019-20.
Aaron Doster – USA TODAY Sports

This is, to put it lightly, a challenging time.

You can say it for Blue Jackets fans, who finally got a taste of postseason success.

You can also say it for Blue Jackets management, staring down a list of difficult decisions as this offseason kicks into high gear. Everyone seems to be waiting for what GM Jarmo Kekalainen has up his sleeve, but there's also a possibility that "something" turns out to be "nothing."

Though, knowing Kekalainen and his history, it's not likely he stands pat.

The Blue Jackets have been one of the NHL's most consistently successful teams over the last three years. Only three teams have won more regular-season games than Columbus over that span, and the Blue Jackets (at long last) took a big step forward with a four-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round. That's a big "something." 

But after all the good, the energy, and the foothold they seemed to grab in the market, there will be adversity on the horizon. It's no longer a secret or a surprise that Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene will be playing elsewhere next season – leaving the Blue Jackets in an awkward-yet-also-somewhat-enviable spot.

The awkward part: You, the Blue Jackets, have your best season in franchise history backed up by your first-ever playoff series win (against the league's best team, too). You're a good team and everyone knows it, but your best players don't feel like sticking around. Gulp.

The enviable part: You're blessed with a ton of salary cap operating room (somewhere around $30 million) to plug those holes, retain key RFAs like Zach Werenski, and continue building your team. Kekalainen knew then – and knows now – that acquiring pending UFAs at the deadline and retaining his own UFAs would be a massive risk. But it was one worth taking, and now he has to fill those gaps.

There's also the element of their prospects, the next wave coming through the organization. Kekalainen has said all the right things when talking about Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom and others – players who will, in all likelihood, figure into the NHL team's plans this fall, but may need some time to get their feet under them. No matter how bright and talented this next group of prospects is, the Blue Jackets need some help from the outside this summer...or else there's a real risk of being left behind in the Metropolitan Division.

Do the Blue Jackets have a strong core of players, particularly on defense? Yes.

But can we acknowledge, too, that it took those three superstars (Panarin, Bobrovsky and Duchene) to help the Blue Jackets scrape into the playoffs this spring? We should.

It's an indication and a forewarning that despite the promise of the players and those who are coming, the Blue Jackets are going to need reinforcements. They're going to need to be somewhat-active on the free agent market to address some needs, though they'll never be able to replace what's departing. Granted, it's not the deepest or most promising free agent market we've seen in recent years, but there are quality players available (unfortunately, the two best forwards are soon-to-be-former Blue Jackets) and guys who can help.

Mats Zuccarello? Quality player. Joe Pavelski? You bet. Gustav Nyquist? Probably a small step below some other options, but he's a guy who can score goals and the Blue Jackets are going to need some of those in 2019-20. And let's not forget about the trades; some of Columbus' most impactful players (Panarin, Duchene, Bobrovsky, Seth Jones) have been acquired in trades, and Kekalainen has proven that he's pretty good at making them.

What we're trying to say here is that, right now, things might seem...unstable. They might seem problematic in some respects. But the Blue Jackets' young core and emerging prospects, coupled with the armament of salary cap room and flexibility, give them the opportunity to do some significant, quality retooling this summer – putting them in position to keep this snowball rolling, rather than mopping up its melted mess.


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