When the Columbus Blue Jackets were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in Game 6 of the second round of the playoffs, it marked the furthest the franchise had ever advanced in the postseason. It also marked the end of the Blue Jackets as we had come to know them.
There was some muted optimism that the band could be kept together. “You never know what’s going to happen this summer. Who’s going to stay? Who’s going to go?” said winger Cam Atkinson.
Here’s who decided to go: Winger Artemi Panarin, one of the league’s top point producers, who signed with the New York Rangers; goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, who signed with the Florida Panthers; center Matt Duchene, a trade-deadline acquisition who signed with the Nashville Predators; and Ryan Dzingel, another trade-deadline acquisition who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes.
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All four of these players were involved in one of the boldest decisions by an NHL franchise in recent memory, as the Blue Jackets went “all-in” by holding on to Panarin and Bobrovsky — despite many signs pointing to their imminent departures in unrestricted free agency this summer — while acquiring rentals in Duchene, Dzingel, goalie Keith Kinkaid and defenseman Adam McQuaid, none of whom are under contract with the team for next season, and all of whom cost the team a bevy of picks and prospects.
So now what? Have the Blue Jackets swung for the fences only to end up face down in the batter’s box? Or do they still have another swing in them?
We spoke with Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen about the team’s deadline gamble, his efforts to keep Panarin and Duchene, and whether those who are forecasting a step back for the team are underestimating them.
ESPN: With the benefit of hindsight, do you have any regrets in going for it like you did at the trade deadline?
Jarmo Kekalainen: Not at all. It was a decision that we made as an organization, from the ownership all the way down to the management. Let’s have this group together, for the last time, and let’s see what we can do. It was a calculated risk. It had a price that we felt we could endure with the depth of our prospects. We beat Tampa Bay, one of the all-time best teams in the regular season. We gave Boston a hell of a run. It was a close series. The better team wins the series, and we lost, but we were right there with them. I think we showed everybody that we did have a chance to go all the way and win the Cup. That was our goal.
We weighed the risks. It wasn’t just us swinging [at] something because we felt it at the time. We talked about it. We weren’t going to trade Panarin and Bobrovsky for just picks and prospects. Now, if someone came along and gave us a package that was just too good to pass up, we might have made a different decision. But it wasn’t there. So we decided to go all-in. There are no regrets.
Kekalainen: I’m not the guy to answer that. It was his personal decision. He was fine with us. Did what was expected, and was that guy we needed in our top six.
But it was a bit of a two-way street [in the offseason]. We felt where our team was at, to give up another first-round pick [to Ottawa, per conditions of the trade if Duchene re-signed] and then go into the term of that new contract with the dollar amounts that were involved … it was a tough decision for us, too.
I’m sure he had a lot of options. Everyone talked about Nashville. Everyone seemed to think that’s where he was going all along. And that’s where he did go. It is what it is. Panarin was the guy we did everything to keep.
ESPN: Before Panarin signed with the Rangers, you made a last-ditch offer to keep him, an offer that the Rangers have told me had them worried in the 11th hour that he might still head back to Columbus. Did you think that last pitch was enough to retain him?
Kekalainen: We just wanted to make sure that we showed him we did everything we possibly could to keep him. That it wasn’t going to be a matter of not giving him a fair contract. We’re going to do everything we could to make him feel appreciated. And he decided to move on. That’s his decision. We have to respect that.
ESPN: When I spoke with him after taking over as Rangers president, John Davidson told me that people writing off the Blue Jackets are short-sighted. That this team can still contend.
Kekalainen: Yeah, I like that. Let’s have all the people write us off. That’s perfect motivation for our group.
We made the playoffs three years in a row. In the last three years, there are four teams with more wins in the regular season than we had. The year before Panarin arrived, we had 108 points. We didn’t have Pierre Luc-Dubois then, for example. And we didn’t have Duchene or Dzingel until the deadline, and we were in the playoffs. Our core group — the guys that wanted to be here, the guys that wanted to win with the Blue Jackets — they’re all here.
There’s not a player that can replace Panarin one-for-one. Not too many around the league can. We’re going to have to do it by committee. And there’s going to be a lot of players hungry for that ice time that he’s going to leave open. A lot of guys hungry for that power-play time that he leaves open. We have some young guys that are ready to take that next step — [Oliver] Bjorkstrand, who scored at a 40-goal pace that last 40 games of the year. And Dubois, who is only 20 years old. Josh Anderson is just scratching the surface. Cam Atkinson will be motivated to show that he scored before Panarin and can score after Panarin.
We have one of the best D corps in the league with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski hopping over the boards for 26 and 27 minutes a game. You feel pretty safe that the puck is coming out of our end. And I think we go eight or nine deep when you start counting them up on our end.
There’s a lot of those [veterans] in our lineup, and a lot of young guys coming in. It’s a great opportunity, and it’s going to be a hell of a battle for that ice time. We’re in pretty good shape, in our opinion.
ESPN: And then there’s the goaltending.
Kekalainen: The goaltending’s going to be a bit of a question mark. We’ll see. We have two talented young goalies that wanted to take the opportunity and make the most of it.
ESPN: Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have potential. But is this a situation where you’re looking at a certain time period for this to work out before you explore other options? Was there any thought in doing that before the season?
Kekalainen: We’re going to have an open mind. We’re going to give the guys a proper chance to show that they belong. They’re going to have that opportunity and we’re not going to be in any rush. We’re going to be patient.
The philosophy that we have here is that we have these two talented young goalies. Korpi was a No. 2. Elvis has been patiently waiting in Europe to become the best goalie over there at age 25. There are lots of examples of goalies who waited and waited and they then come over and step right in: Niklas Backstrom I had in Helsinki as a kid; it wasn’t until he was 28 years old when he made it to the NHL. Jonas Hiller in Anaheim was about the same age as Elvis is right now. Elvis is a SWISs league superstar and a world championship superstar. That doesn’t mean he’s going to step right into the NHL and play great. But I think there’s potential there.
If you look around the league, almost every goalie has been a No. 2 or moved once or twice before they become a No. 1. I’ve been involved in drafting a couple of them. Like Ben Bishop, who we had in St. Louis, and then he went from Ottawa to Tampa to Dallas before he was a Vezina finalist. It’s not too many that become No. 1 right away. You can count on one finger on one hand the number of goalies who stepped into the league as No. 1s. So we’re going to give these guys a chance to prove they can do it.
There’s not a real No. 1 available, so to speak, right now, that you can just go and get. Rather than watching our guys get moved and become No. 1s somewhere else, we’re going to give them the chance to show they can do it with us.
ESPN: I ask this next question with no disrespect to Bobrovsky, but do you think the system that your team plays is beneficial to a goalie, to the point where his numbers are bolstered by it?
Kekalainen: I think time will tell. I don’t want to take anything away from Bob or his accomplishments. But I think with the D that we have playing in front of the goalies, I think goalies can appreciate that. Let’s put it that way.
[Bobrovsky] was a great goalie for us. He decided to move on and he had that right. Now he’s an opponent. So we’re not going to WISh him too much luck.
Kekalainen: It certainly hasn’t gone in the right direction the last couple of years. There’s no physical decline, so I’m still confident that he can bounce back. He has the skill. He has the sense. He has the instincts to play the game. He’s shown us he can do it. He had 59 points the year we signed him to that long-term contract.
He’s disappointed in himself. He needs to change the way he plays a little. He’s a pass-first guy. If you want to score in the NHL, you need to have a more direct line to the net to create more offense. It can’t always be a dish off. He needs to shoot the puck more. Go to the net more.
It’s funny how things work: We sign him to that contract and everyone says how great the contract is. And then we sign Seth Jones, and everyone says we’re paying him too much money. And now it’s the other way around. People say we have a great contract in Seth Jones and the s—tiest contract with Wennberg. But we still believe he can bounce back.
ESPN: Speaking of contracts: As we speak, Zach Werenski doesn’t have a contract as a restricted free agent. You’ve said you expect him in by camp. But how frustrating is it for you, as a general manager, to constantly have to wait for the dominoes to fall in free agency?
Kekalainen: Yeah, but the real frustration for me [is when it] drags on into training camp, because that’s a time for “team.” That’s the time when the boys come here together. They start preparing and jelling and building that chemistry that we need as a team. When it goes to training camp time, it takes away from that preparation. It takes away from the team. That’s what I’m concerned about.
And that’s where we’ve drawn the hard line before: We don’t believe in taking that preparation time away from the team. We think it should be resolved before the team gets together and gets ready for the season.
ESPN: Finally, there was a big name that rejoined the Blue Jackets this offseason: Rick Nash returned to the organization as a front-office executive. Obviously, we all WISh it were under different circumstances — considering he had to retire because of issues with concussions — but he comes back home. How did that come together?
Kekalainen: We talked a lot about him playing for us, if he was going to play. That was the first contact, last summer. But with the concussion symptoms not going away, and his health concerns, he decided to retire.
As soon as he made that decision, I was in contact with him. I said if he ever wanted to have a coffee and talk about his career off the ice, we’d be interested in talking with him. We met, we were impressed with his knowledge of the game and the insights that he had that he could bring into a front office. All things together, we decided to make him a full-time guy, learning the ropes. We’ll see what he wants to do, but I think he’s into it. And he’s willing to put in the hours, go to the games, and do the work.
ESPN: When do you retire his number?
Kekalainen: [Laughs] That’s for another conversation, in the future.