There is considerable doubt hanging over the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there’s a fair bit of optimism as well. If that sounds like a mixed bag, it is. It’s difficult to project the immediate future of the Blue Jackets, especially as they remain the only NHL club to have not won a playoff series.
Obviously, Columbus would like 2018-2019 to be the year that changes that unfortunate distinction.
And they did make moves to add supplemental depth, with the signing of Riley Nash to a three-year deal the highlight of their summer.
But a few contract situations could emerge next summer to make things more difficult for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
At the top of the list is Artemi Panarin, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is far from cemented in Columbus. There are a million reasons for the 26-year-old to face the open market next summer, especially after he set a team record in points last season. The lack of forward motion seems likely to push the Blue Jackets to trade Panarin but getting satisfactory value could be a problem.
Panarin is, when examining things like shot metrics and scoring, one of the NHL’s better players. He was third among league forwards in ice time last season and his presence makes the Blue Jackets shoot the puck more, accounting for a plus-341 SAT (shot attempts) in the five-on-five.
The good news is that Columbus does have Cam Atkinson signed for a long time and there are contracts to Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg that nail down the forward core.
But perhaps the biggest deal for next summer is one Sergei Bobrovsky, who will also be an unrestricted free agent come July 1.
While Kekalainen swears up and down that contract situations are never distractions, having two of the club’s best players in the throes of money-related issues may not be the best predicate for on-ice success in 2018-2019.
Losing Panarin to a trade that puts some money back in the pool makes it easier to offer Bobrovsky the cash he’ll want, but there are decisions to make. Term will be a big deal in any imminent offer to the netminder, but a lack of playoff success puts a stain on the resume.
Speaking of contracts, Joonas Korpisalo will be a restricted free agent next summer. The backup netminder could fetch a pretty penny depending on how the Bobrovsky situation pans out, but head coach John Tortorella must start putting him in some more games first. It’s important to remember that the Blue Jackets decided Korpisalo was good enough to protect in the expansion draft.
How this bears out remains to be seen, but there is a silver lining.
Columbus likes the potential of Anthony Duclair, who signed a one-year deal in July and is looking for a renaissance of sorts. And they do have a top defensive pairing in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who put up a combined 183 points over the past two seasons. The problem there? Werenski could be out until November following shoulder surgery.
For the Blue Jackets, a lot of 2018-2019 exists in a holding pattern. There are many questions off the ice and contracts will have to be sorted out. There may or may not be trades. The club won’t want to watch Panarin bolt for nothing and they’ll have to sort out Bobrovsky before year’s end if they want to make the most of a deal. That sets the stage for an interesting if complex season in Columbus.