In another timeline, maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators roles have been reversed. Yet, here we are, with the budding Blue Jackets the biggest beneficiaries of the unsensational Sens’ latest fire sale, acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in separate trades.
Blue Jackets Aiming for Another Playoff Berth
It was just two seasons ago that the Senators were gearing up for a three-round playoff run, only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. That spring, the Blue Jackets had actually been the Penguins’ first victims, with the Washington Capitals sandwiched in between (and the Nashville Predators losing to the Pens in the Final).
Obviously since then, the two teams’ fortunes have changed somewhat. The Senators have nose-dived in the standings relative to where they were. They’re on the verge of securing a second straight lottery pick (which will be going to the Colorado Avalanche). The Blue Jackets meanwhile made the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Coincidentally, they also ended up losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the first round for a second consecutive season, too (Capitals). Still, it was the first time in their history they were able to accomplish that small feat. And here they are, toying with a potential third straight berth, as they sit third in the Metropolitan Division, two points out of second place (albeit one point out of ninth overall).
Kekalainen Goes for It
The three berths would be one more than they earned in franchise history prior to this streak, which began in 2016-17. So, it’s a big deal, especially seeing as they have yet to win a single round. This could be the year. You’ll have to excuse general manager Jarmo Kekalainen for hoping this is the year they go all the way instead. He really has no other option but to try.
That’s due in large part to the franchise’s lack of playoff success up to now and the circumstances before him with regard to free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Panarin has all but explicitly said he’ll move on. Following an incident that saw Bobrovsky suspended internally for one game, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner seems guaranteed to follow him out the door.
Panarin’s been money since joining the Blue Jackets in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks in June 2017. Bobrovsky’s performance has meanwhile waned this season, but he’s still 26-18-1 and his .908 save percentage is in line with the lowered NHL average this season. Backup Joonas Korpisalo’s performace has effectively dwindled every season since his stellar debut in 2015-16, so he may very well not be ready or ever capable of taking over.
Rebuild or Reload with Duchene and Dzingel?
So, if you’re Kekalainen, this is your only real choice. You’re about to conceivably lose both a No. 1 goaltender and your leading scorer to free agency and undergo yet another rebuilding effort. Trading away both Panarin and Bobrovsky (who has a no-movement clause) would of course help a great deal towards rebuilding, but at what cost? How much interest on the part of a fan base that fills only 89.3% of Nationwide Arena can you realistically lose until the team is a viable playoff team again?
So, yes, heading into this trade deadline, it was possible the Blue Jackets would end up being sellers like the Senators… possible but not a reasonable assumption. Kekalainen has to give the fans a postseason to remember… and if it resonates with both Panarin and Bobrovsky to the point that both end up staying, that would be gravy, but it’s not what realistically happens here.
Realistically, the Blue Jackets will end up losing both to free agency, including Duchene and Dzingel. They arguably would have lost a great deal more had they not acquired them in the first place, though. In the end, the only roster player they gave up was Anthony Duclair, a depth player they didn’t want anyway, for the services of two legitimate top-six forwards… maybe even a superstar in Duchene’s case.
Granted, there were several high draft picks going the other way and, much like the Senators, it could end up biting the Blue Jackets in the behind. Those could undeniably transform into top-end players in their own right. That would be in a few years at least, though.
For Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets and their fans there’s only the here and now. And hopefully a long playoff run to come. That too is realistic, but only as a direct result of the two trades with the Senators. The Blue Jackets just had to make them.