Where do we even begin trying to describe what all happened to the 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets? It started with drama from the opening of training camp. It ended in heartache in front of their home fans. But in-between, every emotion imaginable was experienced.
Although the ending was not what the team had hoped for, there was still lots to celebrate within the walls of Nationwide Arena that will make this season memorable for a long time to come.
Welcome to our Blue Jackets’ end of season column. We will start out by sharing five takeaways learned from this season. We will then shift towards the future and take our first look at what this offseason could bring. In addition, I’ll share thoughts on many topics. Let’s first talk about the real lesson in the Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin drama.
Bobrovsky & Panarin: True Pros
You can think whatever you want about how Bobrovsky and Panarin handled their situations. The one thing you cannot question is their professionalism and how much they gave to the Blue Jackets despite their unwillingness to sign a contract extension.
Both players handled an extremely difficult situation with the utmost professionalism. They said they would handle things after the season. Bobrovky shed the playoff narrative by turning in a good performance. Panarin set a Blue Jackets’ record for points in a season. They handled their business and gave everything they had to Columbus.
What’s the lesson here? Both players should be remembered for what they each accomplished in their time. Bobrovsky won two Vezinas and is one of the biggest reasons the Blue Jackets have made three straight trips to the playoffs. Panarin brought the team to the next level and gave them a legitimate threat to score every time he took the ice.
It’s pretty clear both want to test free agency and that is their right. While some may hate the decision or boo them if they leave, you can’t deny the impact they’ve had on making the Blue Jackets what they are today. They are in this position thanks in large part to Bobrovsky and Panarin.
They are true professionals and Columbus is fortunate to have had both of them. When they return to Nationwide Arena someday, each should be welcomed warmly considering everything they gave to the franchise.
John Tortorella’s Best Coaching Job
Some love him. Some despise him. But no matter where you stand on John Tortorella, the 2018-19 season was his best coaching performance of his career. Why? That’s because he managed to get a team filled with drama and issues to come together at the right time to make the playoffs.
This season could have easily fell off the rails early because of Bobrovsky and Panarin. Tortorella saw this and decided he needed to do something about it. What did he do? He called team meetings. He had one thing in mind when doing this. He wanted the team together to put everything out there in the open. Thanks to the honesty that came from these meetings, instead of splitting the team apart, it brought them closer together.
Sometimes a little conflict is just the thing needed to bring team together. These Blue Jackets had no shortage of conflict. Tortorella managed it all season and kept everything together even in the stormiest of times.
Although he’s upset at the way the season ended, that should take nothing away from what he did accomplish. Without Tortorella, I’m not sure the Blue Jackets make the playoffs and make history. This was his best season given the challenges that faced him.
The Trade Deadline
The Blue Jackets managed just 10 playoff games this spring. Is that enough to justify the all-in moves they made?
While many in the hockey world say no, this story is incomplete and we won’t know for a while if it truly was the right move. Why? There are still too many unknowns. Will Matt Duchene re-sign? Will the success on the national stage of sweeping Tampa Bay help make Columbus a preferred destination for free agents? What all will GM Jarmo Kekalainen do this offseason to keep the momentum going?
We don’t have those answers yet. There’s no question it’s risky but at the same time you get bigger rewards. The Blue Jackets won their first ever playoff series thanks to the trade deadline. So it is clear that there were positives. But they now face having just two draft picks in the 2019 NHL Draft plus the uncertainty of how free agency will play out.
Kekalainen says he’d do the same thing again in a second if he had the chance. That implies he has a plan and is willing to execute it no matter what others say. I’ll say this much. He better be right. To lose all of those free agents if they leave would be crushing. He’s depending on young prospects who might be ready to make the jump while losing a multiple Vezina winner and a potential top-10 player in the league. It’s risky and there will be many questions.
Many will say the Blue Jackets take a major step back given the potential losses. While teams like the Devils and Rangers are set to land Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko at the draft, the Blue Jackets have questions in goal and up front with no top picks at the draft. Maybe Liam Foudy is ready for the next level. Maybe Emil Bemstrom can make an impact right away. No matter what, Kekalainen better be right about all this. Otherwise, this could take some time to recover from.
What will the front office look like come opening night? John Davidson is rumored to be going to the Rangers. Bill Zito has had several interviews for GM positions including Seattle. It will only be a matter of time for him.
Brad Shaw is apparently interested in Ottawa. There is a cloud of uncertainty surrounding these Blue Jackets. How will that impact the immediate future?
Kekalainen doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. If anything, he might get a bump to Davidson’s position if he leaves. That could open the door for Bill Zito to become the Blue Jackets’ GM. It’s too early to say for sure what could happen. They might not hire a President of Hockey Operations.
But it is something worth watching. There will be interest in those who had a hand in this Blue Jackets’ run. If anything, it demonstrates the good people the team had in place. They’ll have to be replaced.
The theme in Columbus is how will they keep this momentum going in future seasons? These decisions if they come to pass will be big ones. Davidson brought long needed stability to the Blue Jackets. Who can maintain what he started?
There Is a Core in Columbus
I know there’s a lot of uncertainty with the Blue Jackets at this time. But there are some things we do know.
Seth Jones will be here. Zach Werenski will more than likely be here with a new contract in hand. Markus Nutivaara will be back. David Savard will be back. Vladislav Gavirkov made a good early impression in his limited time.
While there are many questions in Columbus, the defensive core is not one of them. This appears to be the clear strength of the team and is one of the best young cores in the league. That’s a good start.
Cam Atkinson will be back. Pierre-Luc Dubois will be back. So will Josh Anderson, Nick Foligno and Oliver Bjorkstrand. There are pieces in place. The cupboard isn’t empty by any means. While they need to address the forwards in some capacity, there’s still reason to be excited.
There is a core in Columbus. If they are able to get Duchene re-signed, that will help tremendously not only for this season but for future seasons too. Free agents deciding where to go will look at Columbus as a desired destination if they see these kind of players on the roster.
The main takeaway here? The Blue Jackets have an established core and the team will look to bring in players that want to be Blue Jackets. Duchene recently said that they have a winning culture “from top to bottom.” That resonates throughout the league when someone says that. And, don’t sleep on the impact Rick Nash could have in the future. Want a good spokesman for how good Columbus is? Look no further. They will address those concerns with players and show them how great the market already is. Did you see those TV ratings produced in Columbus?
Now What Would I Do?
You have questions. I don’t have all the answers but let’s try digging into what could happen. These are my way too early predictions for the Blue Jackets offseason.
- Offer Duchene a max eight-year deal at $9 million per season. Look, you need to make a bold statement. You have the cap room. You need a player like Duchene. Just do it, even if it is a little overpaid. Give him a reason to re-sign. His favorite number is 9. The Blue Jackets are the only team that can offer him eight years. It’s a win-win for both sides. Don’t even worry about the back-end of that kind of deal. You worry about that stuff later.
- The Blue Jackets will have a say at the 2019 NHL Draft. Say what? Even with just a third and a seventh in their pocket? Yep. A quick look at the roster suggests there are ways to acquire picks. If they don’t do that, draft-day trades could easily happen as well.
- I think Sonny Milano will be traded. I know the team is on record as being excited about him. But he was not even close to a call-up to Columbus for the playoffs. I think a fresh start is needed here. I would think a team like Vancouver would be very interested especially if the price is lower.
- If Duchene does sign, that makes an Alex Wennberg trade more likely. But if Duchene moves on, I think the team will try to work with Wennberg to get him going. They are going to need center depth if the latter scenario happens. Plus who wants a $4.9 million/season contract for something who had that offensive output? It’s a tough situation and all options are on the table, but in my mind, Wennberg’s future depends on Duchene.
- I think Ryan Dzingel is moving on. I wouldn’t have said this a month ago. But being a healthy scratch in the playoffs was a major eye-opener. Plus when asked about it on exit day, he said he hadn’t thought about it. Just seems to me like he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Tortorella. Remember Tortorella said he was surprised at how some players reacted to different things. I can’t help but think Dzingel was one of those players. We’ll see if they can agree to a new contract.
- The Blue Jackets have cap space. They have business to attend to (Werenski, goalies, others) but I think they’ll either make a major trade or make a major signing in free agency. Example: William Nylander for David Savard+. Not saying anything close to this happens but the optics make sense. Leafs need a righty defenseman with friendly cap hit. Blue Jackets need an impact forward. I’ve seen stranger things happen. How would a Nylander-Duchene-Atkinson line look?
- I’m still of the belief Elvis Merzlikins starts Game 1 next season. But if he’s not ready, I wouldn’t be shocked if they bring in a veteran goalie as a stop gap. Would Joonas Korpisalo be a Game 1 option? Maybe. I’m not sure he’s ready yet, so it’ll be curious to see how the team views this. It will certainly be a major question going into the summer and the season.
No matter what happens, the eyes of the hockey world will be watching to see how the Blue Jackets handle the post all-in season. We’ll be there to bring it all to you. Thank you so very much for following along all season. Enjoy your offseason and we’ll talk to you along the way setting the table for an exciting and unpredictable 2019-20 season.