With limited success since taking over in 2013 and a pair of stars salivating at the thought of free agency, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen was caught between a rock and a hard place. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky had one foot out the door heading into 2018-19. Watching the best forward in franchise history and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner leave in the summer was both a catastrophic and distinct possibility.
Kekalainen saw no other choice: He had to go for it.
Even though Columbus was sitting on a 34-23-3 record (11th in the NHL) in late February, it still felt like the team wasn’t truly ready to compete with the big dogs in the Eastern Conference.
At 5-on-5, the Jackets controlled 50.2% of the shot attempts (13th), 51.2% of the scoring chances (14th) and 51.2% of the high-danger opportunities (13th) for a 51.5% goal share (12th). Those were strong numbers, but could they push them past Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston or Tampa Bay? While three of those four clubs ultimately fell in the conference quarterfinals, Kekalainen didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. At the time, the Jackets seemed like a good but not great team because their margin of victory was too slim for comfort and they didn’t ice enough difference-makers up front. In other words, it was the same old story.
In fairness, Panarin was doing his best to lead the charge and change that narrative. Following a superb first year in Columbus, the 27-year-old set a career high with 87 points in 79 games and anchored the first line alongside young center Pierre-Luc Dubois (61 points in 82 games) and crafty finisher Cam Atkinson (69 points in 80 games).
Their impact extended far beyond production too, as they generated waves of momentum for their teammates by spending the lion’s share of their shifts in the offensive zone. As a unit, they owned 55.1% of the shot attempts, 57.4% of the scoring chances and 55.8% of the high-danger bids. They exerted constant pressure on their opponents and puck luck had no bearing whatsoever on their results: Their terrific 56.8 GF% was nearly identical to their 56.9 expected GF%. This was simply one of the finest lines in the league.
The problem was the lack of support around it.
Josh Anderson (47 points in 82 games) was the only other forward to reach the 40-point mark last season. While Seth Jones (46 points in 75 games) and Zach Werenski (44 points in 82 games) are wonderful players, they already ranked among the top 25 in scoring from the blue line and shouldered a heavy defensive burden. Asking any more from them was downright unfair.
Columbus’ scoring depth — or lack thereof — would definitely hold it back, so Kekalainen sprung to action.
Right before the trade deadline frenzy, he added pending UFAs Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to his forward corps. Though neither acquisition produced or fit in very well at first, the moves certainly made Columbus a deeper team. Duchene (12 points in 23 games) is a highly skilled center who thrives in space, whether he’s flying through the neutral zone or creating separation with his elusiveness along the boards. That ability to generate something out of nothing brought a dimension that the Jackets sorely lacked. Meanwhile, Dzingel (12 points in 21 games) is a speed merchant who excels at converting on the rush. Prior to the deals, the two had combined for 102 points in 107 games for the Ottawa Senators.
Oddly enough, however, the Jackets’ greatest improvement following the trades occurred on the defensive end. Their GA60 dropped from 2.71 (26th) to 1.95 (6th), as opponents were perhaps more hesitant to attack a Columbus squad that had bolstered its forward depth. The Jackets translated that stinginess to a 13-8-1 record (7th) to close out the year.
The burning question was how this new-look roster would perform under the bright lights. After all, that was the entire reason Kekalainen had swung for the fences.
Columbus wasn’t allowed to ease into the playoffs either. Its first-round opponent was the Tampa Bay Lightning, a juggernaut that had just clinched the Presidents’ Trophy by a massive 21-point margin. Jon Cooper’s squad boasted so much talent and confidence that it could sleepwalk its way to victory. That wouldn’t fly in the postseason, though. The Jackets, who were licking their chops for the chance to prove themselves, rallied back from a 3-0 deficit to steal Game 1 in Amalie Arena. They built off that jaw-dropping comeback by outscoring Tampa Bay 15-5 over the next three contests and sweeping the Stanley Cup favorite in even more stunning fashion.
All of a sudden, the Eastern Conference was up for grabs. The perception surrounding John Tortorella’s team also changed because it had reached the second round for the first time ever. Maybe, just maybe, Columbus was finally the genuine article.
The Bruins were up next after dispatching the Toronto Maple Leafs in a hard-fought seven-game series. Though the hockey world was ready to crown Boston after Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Washington were sent packing in the first round, Columbus put up one hell of a fight. The teams traded overtime wins to open the semifinals, but Tuukka Rask’s elite performances between the pipes fueled the Jackets’ longtime bugaboo: Tortorella’s men mustered just six goals over the final four games. Unsurprisingly, three of those outings resulted in losses.
Panarin (11 points in 10 games), Duchene (10 points in 10 games) and Jones (9 points in 10 games) did their part in the playoffs, but where was the depth? Anderson (3 points in 10 games), who had emerged as a high-end power forward in 2018-19, shrunk when it mattered most. Dubois (5 points in 10 games), who was meant to form a two-headed monster up the middle with Duchene, couldn’t find his game at either end against the Bruins. He put up two points and a minus-five rating in six contests. Then there’s Dzingel. He is the very definition of an anti-Tortorella player: soft, inconsistent, careless. However, even the most stubborn coach can’t argue with production. The 27-year-old floundered in that department as well, registering a single point in nine playoff contests.
Despite marvelous showings from Bobrovsky in net (2.41 GAA, 92.5 SV%), the club’s offense once again dried up at the worst possible moment.
Adding salt to the wound, every single one of Columbus’ UFAs walked. Panarin took his talents to the Big Apple, Bobrovsky landed in Florida, Duchene opted for an eerily similar situation in Nashville and Dzingel settled for a modest contract with Carolina. Thus far, Kekalainen’s only answer to the mass exodus has been signing winger Gustav Nyquist (60 points in 81 games).
First and foremost, Columbus must address restricted free agent Werenski. The 22-year-old has truly rounded out his game since debuting in the NHL three years ago. He’s become a minute-munching two-way blueliner who can handle stiff competition. As such, he’ll likely command a hefty sum. That shouldn’t be too difficult to sort out, though, because the team has a ton of cap space and its best player (Jones) is on one of the club-friendliest contracts in the world.
The Jackets are solid on the blue line, but they’ve gotten decidedly worse up front. If there’s any solution to the offensive woes, it’ll stem from internal development. Dubois must prove that he can drive a line without Panarin by his side. While that should prove difficult, Atkinson and Nyquist remain quality complementary pieces. Alexander Wennberg (25 points in 75 games), who’s become a shadow of his former self under Tortorella, needs to regain his confidence and make an impact on the scoreboard. He’s a couple of years removed from a 59-point campaign, but the talent is in there somewhere. Beyond those two, maybe Oliver Bjorkstrand (36 points in 77 games) and Alexandre Texier (1 point in 2 games) can tap into their full potential with top-six spots available.
That likely still won’t be enough to move the needle and there are no immediate reinforcements on the way. 2014 first-rounder Sonny Milano is inching closer and closer to bust territory. 2018 first-rounder Liam Foudy probably won’t be ready next year.
In the end, Columbus’ 2018-19 season was an emotional rollercoaster. Sweeping Tampa Bay and getting to the second round at long last was the sweetest moment in Blue Jackets history. On the other hand, the long-term outlook is…grim. While you can question Kekalainen’s acquisition of Dzingel, it’s hard to blame the man for trying. He saw an opportunity to construct the most competitive squad the city had ever seen and seized it. Unfortunately, the Jackets fell short and most of his high-end talent left for greener pastures.
This was the risk of going all in. Columbus took one monumental step forward only to end up right back at square one.