It’s difficult to discuss just the 2018-19 season for the Columbus Blue Jackets without acknowledging the elephant in the room. Or, more accurately, dual elephants in the room in the form of the contract status of the best two players on the team. Both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are free agents on July 1, 2019. Neither are interested in signing with Columbus “at this time”, though Panarin’s agent going public this summer with a “we don’t want to negotiate so you might as well trade us before it’s too late” vibe makes it very clear that 2018-19 could be all of nothing for a team finally building towards something.
From humble beginnings to...slight progress
As Penguins fans, we might take certain things for granted sometimes. Like playoff berths. So John Tortorella and Bobrovsky steering CBJ to the playoffs in 2017 and 2018, what’s the big deal, right?
For Columbus, it does represent a tangible step - it’s the first time in the franchise’s history that they’ve gone to the playoffs in back-to-back years. Now, they haven’t yet won a series (or even given up less than three goals against in ANY playoff game) but progress for this franchise has been slow and measured in smaller increments.
The off-season was uneventful, even outside of the fruitless efforts to extend Panarin and Bobrovsky. CBJ bid adieu in free agency to Jack Johnson, Mark Letestu, Matt Calvert and trade deadline pickups Ian Cole and Tomas Vanek. No major losses to the lineup at all. They didn’t add too much either; signed forward Riley Nash (coming off a career-high 41 point season with Boston last year) plus took a cheap flyer on a young player with promise in Anthony Duclair.
Looking just in the spectrum of who is around right now, 2018-19 at surface level is promising for Columbus. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model predicts CBJ to be the league’s likeliest 5th best team with 101 projected points this season, #1 in the Metropolitan Division. Corey Pronman also has Columbus tabbed to the the #1 team in the division this season. Even if those projections are high-end, Kevin Allen from the USA Today has them at 98 points, and pretty much all objective experts are predicting another playoff team.
Young stars everywhere
Zach Werenski, 21, and Seth Jones, soon to turn 24, might be the league’s best pair. Jones is a legitimate Norris Trophy caliber finalist type of player with his strong all-around game. It’s just been announced Jones has suffered a 4-6 week knee injury, which is unfortunate to lose him for any amount of time, but perhaps lucky to not be more serious than that. This injury will take Jones out of the running for the Norris this season, but his caliber of play when he returns will be at that level.
Panarin, 26, left Chicago via a trade last year with questions on how he would fit in as a team’s #1 weapon and all he did was put up a career-high 82 points last year. Panarin’s Corsi For % at 56.5% was best on the team. He’s a dynamic offensive player that gets used 20+ minutes a game and tilts the ice and fills the opposition’s net, certainly one of the premiere weapons in the game right now.
20-year old Pierre-Luc Dubois was a force as a teenaged rookie last season down the middle. Duclair, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alex Wennberg, Josh Andersen, Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner are still on the right side of 25 or younger to form a nice nucleus of players to support the stars.
THE man in net
Most of the franchise’s emergence into more than a total punchline can be tied directly to the 2012 acquisition of Bobrovsky. Prior to finally getting that steady #1 goalie, Columbus floundered as a franchise; only making the playoffs once in their first 11 seasons. Since getting Bobrovsky they’ve played well enough to qualify for the post-season three out of six seasons.
Bobrovsky has won the Vezina trophy twice in his time in Columbus (2013, 2016-17). He seems to fly a bit under the radar but with some recent injuries/inconstencies to Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist lately, it’s pretty easy to say Bobrovsky has been the best goalie in the league since the 2012 lockout.
Consider, Bob has posted a .921 save percentage or higher in four out of six years, which is remarkably excellent play. Perhaps even better, only once in his six seasons as a Blue Jacket has Bobrovksy posted a save percentage UNDER .9187%. In a volatile world of goaltending, Columbus has been basically guaranteed *at least* above-average play, and that’s as an absolute minimum, and at a maximum to have a repeat Vezina winner.
Now, this has all gone out the window once Bob and the Jackets have made the post-season (though it probably doesn’t help that all 17 of his career CBJ playoff games have come against championship caliber Penguin or Capitals teams).
But, the point is that Columbus has maintained a very consistent goaltending advantage for the past six seasons, and enjoyed regular season success. That’s likely to continue into this season.
But, those dark clouds linger
Because while the models like Columbus, and they definitely have a playoff caliber team, the lingering doubt is that league-best goalie and their uniquely skilled top forward have made it clear the clock is ticking. The NHL offers teams no compensation for losing a player to free agency, if both are still on the team by next summer, unless something drastic changes they’re flying the coop and likely setting the franchise back to the dark ages where they were BEFORE Bobrovsky emerged.
Management has to take that into consideration, and obviously has to this point. So far they’re putting on a brave face and wanting to give this season a shot. Considering the alternative like trading your franchise captain for little return (hello Montreal and Ottawa!) perhaps there is no other option at this point, but to see what this group can do and hope for something special to unfold.
Columbus has never won a playoff series, and sit in a division with two very powerful former recent champs. Over on the other side of the East, the top three teams have loaded up and all appear about as strong/stronger than what Columbus can ice, on paper. While a strong, solid team, to pretend this is a group on the verge of a championship is very wishful at best.
The story may end in disappointment and an uncertain future, but in a lot of ways all of the work of management and the players in the last half a dozen years have all built CBJ for this chance in 2018-19 to take another chance.