Nobody took it on the chin harder than the Columbus Blue Jackets during the NHL’s free agency frenzy this summer. The Jackets basically lost every significant unrestricted free agent on their roster as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky hit the road along with high-scoring forwards Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.
And let’s not forget club president John Davidson also hightailed it to take up the same position with the New York Rangers and free agent depth goaltender Keith Kinkaid signed with the Montreal Canadiens.
This obviously leaves a huge hole in the club’s roster but to make matters worse, Panarin, Dzingel and Bobrovsky all remained in the Eastern Conference with Columbus’ rivals. Panarin wound up in the Big Apple with the Davidson and the Rangers while Bobrovsky headed south to the sea and sand in Florida while Dzingel decided to give the Carolina Hurricanes a go. Luckily for the Blue Jackets, Duchene left the conference for the Nashville Predators in the West.
While most hockey fans already know the Blue Jackets’ story when last season’s trade deadline came around we’ll just quickly recap it.
The club had a good idea that Panarin and Bobrovsky weren’t interested in re-signing as free agents but decided to keep them instead of deal them away to contenders for players, prospects and draft picks. They also traded for Duchene and Dzingel from Ottawa around the same time in an all-in attempt to take a run at the Stanley Cup.
At first, things didn’t look too bad as Columbus swept the league’s top team the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round for the franchise’s first ever postseason win. Things derailed after that though when they were eliminated in six games by the Boston Bruins.
So not only did the Blue Jackets miss an opportunity to load up at the trade deadline they lost all of their free agent assets to boot. The squad is now much weaker than last season while other Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division teams have gotten stronger at the same time.
Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen did manage to save a little face by signing 30-year-old unrestricted free agent forward Gustav Nyquist from the San Jose Sharks for four years at $22 million. But unless he lights up the lamp like there’s no tomorrow it’s doubtful he’ll be able to lead the team into the playoffs.
While Columbus is likely to slide down the standings teams such as the Rangers and New Jersey Devils have improved enough to possibly overtake them in the Metropolitan Division. As mentioned, the Rangers landed Panarin and his 87 points and also acquired solid blue liner Jacob Trouba in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets and drafted Finnish stud Kaapo Kakko with the second overall pick.
The Devils hit the draft lottery jackpot and took forward Jack Hughes with the top pick and also brought over former Norris Trophy-winner PK Subban in a trade with Nashville.
But while the Rangers and Devils certainly added some offensive and defensive stars they may still struggle to leapfrog the Blue Jackets into the playoffs because of questionable goaltending. The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist is starting to look his age and the Devils’ Cory Schneider struggled mightily last year.
And what about the Philadelphia Flyers? They signed free agent forward Kevin Hayes in the summer and goaltender Carter Hart has won the starting job while forward James van Riemsdyk will presumably be healthy for the entire season. They also have a chance of finishing ahead of Columbus in 2019/20.
For the Blue Jackets to hold on to their playoff spot they’re going to need huge campaigns from the likes of Nyquist, Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, and Josh Anderson along with prospects Alexander Texier, and Emil Bemstrom. There’s also going to be a ton of pressure on goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo, Veini Vehvilainen and Elvis Merzlikins from the beginning of training camp all the way through the 82-game schedule as whoever makes the team are going to have to stand on their heads.
Even with Duchene, Panarin and Dzingel in the lineup, Columbus finished the 2018/19 season with the league’s 12th-best offense and who knows how low that could sink next year.
The Blue Jackets have enough salary cap space remaining for 2019/20, approximately $15.7 million, to still improve the roster before the puck drops in October. Unrestricted free agent defenseman Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs has yet to sign with anybody and his teammate Mitch Marner can’t agree to terms with the club either.
While the chances are low, Columbus could put together an offer sheet for Marner if they’re willing to give up draft picks as compensation. The addition of Marner and his 94 points from last season could quickly make the fans forget about losing Panarin.
Ironically, if Panarin and/or Bobrovsky had been traded at the deadline or Duchene wasn’t acquired, the Blue Jackets could have stockpiled some draft picks to help compensate the Leafs if they landed Marner with an offer sheet. As it stands, Columbus doesn’t possess a second or third round pick in next year’s draft.
There’s no question the Blue Jackets’ lineup contains some fine players in all positions. They also have some youngsters who could win a job or two in training camp. But the stars will all need to align perfectly for the club to recover from a disastrous summer and reach the playoffs again in 2019/20.
Fans can’t help but wonder if the franchise regrets last season’s moves and non-moves at the trade deadline.