Photo Credit: NHL.com
After Monday’s NHL trade deadline came and went, the team making perhaps the biggest overhaul was the Columbus Blue Jackets. The series of moves came as a bit of a surprise to fans and analysts alike as many suspected they would be “sellers”, and settle for pennies on the dollar for their top stars, Winger Artemi Panarin (25 G, 46 A) and Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (27 W, 2.78 GAA), who happen to be unrestricted free agents in the upcoming summer. Dating all the way back to July, Panarin and Bobrovsky have been mute on the possibility of signing contract extensions with Columbus, seemingly giving the front office the infamous saying of, “it’s not you, it’s me” with the looks of setting up as peaceful of an exit strategy as they could. But, instead of trading the two superstars for lesser assets in return, GM Jarmo Kekalainen doubled down on his “all in” mentality and acquired Center Matt Duchene (28 G, 33 A) and Winger Ryan Dzingel (22 G, 24 A) from the Ottawa Senators, who will both be unrestricted free agents at the season’s end. Both Duchene and Dzingel will play a big time role for a Columbus team fighting their way, in a stacked Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference, to make the postseason, leaving the following the summer to be a potential turning point for the Columbus franchise for years to come.
For a hockey club that has not won a playoff series since entering the NHL in 2000, the success in the 2019 playoffs could dictate the decisions of the free agents and whether they want to sign long-term with Columbus. While it seems almost certain, barring a Stanley Cup victory, Bobrovsky will walk at season’s end, the fate of Panarin, Duchene, and Dzingel seem up in the air. While I don’t see Columbus re-signing all three if the club can win it’s first ever playoff series and show a true championship potential with the league’s youngest roster they should have a good chance at locking up two of the three long term. If things turn for the worst in the final 20 games or so and Columbus misses the playoffs, a real possibility, the three could all look elsewhere to continue their careers and leave the trade deadline as a waste of draft picks and prospects. To put it simply, the remainder of the season and playoffs could set the tone for their franchise for the next ten to fifteen years. They can either sign the impending free agents and show the league they are a legit title contender or should the players choose to play elsewhere, the Columbus franchise will yet again be seen as just a pitstop to find fame and fortune elsewhere. I know which scenario Columbus hockey deserves, but what is left is the question of what Columbus hockey will see as their reality come 2020.