As long as you’re not a fan of a team in direct competition with them for a playoff spot, you’re probably rooting for the Columbus Blue Jackets to at least get into the post-season dance.
And that’s not because of any individual player or the team’s style, it’s because of their aggressiveness at the trade deadline. Staring down the likelihood (nay, inevitability) that pending UFAs Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin would both walk at the end of the season, and with a playoff spot anything but a certainty, GM Jarmo Kekalainen pushed most of his chips into the middle.
With arguably the best lineup the Blue Jackets have ever iced, and an organization that has yet to win a playoff series, Kekalainen doubled down on this team rather than peel out and pivot towards the hope of greater sustainable success in a future season. Not only did he keep his two UFAs, he added four more: Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid.
“Yeah, from a lot of them,” Kekalainen told NHL.com, when asked if he had gotten feedback from other NHL general managers. “But my response is always and will be, ‘Time will tell. Time will tell.’ But I don’t have any second-guessing. After we do our due diligence and we talk about it, we make our decisions. Then we move forward, and we live with it. And I’d do it again.”
The result so far has been disappointing, with Columbus going 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, including an ugly 4-0 loss at home to Edmonton. Ryan Dzingel leads all the trade pickups with two assists, one of which was a primary helper. Duchene has one secondary assist, while McQuaid is a minus-4 and will be made a healthy scratch Tuesday for the second consecutive game.
And now? The Blue Jackets are two points behind the two wild card teams (Pittsburgh and Montreal) and three back of the surging Carolina Hurricanes. This week is huge on the schedule, with a road game against beatable New Jersey on Tuesday and a home-and-home against the Penguins Thursday and Saturday night.
Part of the reason for this lull could be due to the fact the assortment of new faces needs a bit of time to get used to their new surroundings and linemates. For the two forwards coming from Ottawa, where defensive demands were more lax than usual as they tried to get fans in the door with a little flair, rebooting into a playoff-team mindset maybe isn’t like flipping a switch.
Remember when Duchene came to the Senators from the Avalanche in November 2017, he went pointless in his first seven games and was a minus-10, then slowly started to get going with five points in the following nine games. The issue, of course, is that Columbus doesn’t have the luxury of time. There are just 17 games left in the regular season and the playoff race is in full swing.
“Yeah, it probably takes a little bit of time for each player to come to a new team and get familiar with the style of play and all that,” Kekalainen told NHL.com. “But these guys are all pros. They know how hockey’s being played. It’s just minor differences between the coaches and how they want the game to be played and the systems and all that, getting used to new teammates. That kind of stuff is definitely not an excuse for any of our performances as of late. I think we can play a lot better.”
Duchene has got the best seat in the house alongside Panarin and Cam Atkinson on the top unit, while Dzingel (often Duchene’s linemate in Ottawa) has been playing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand.
If Columbus does miss the playoffs after 82 games, it would be a devastating result, though the GM doesn’t seem to believe it’s something neither he nor the franchise could recover from. Kekalainen will head into the June draft with just two picks (a third and a seventh) and could hit July 1 with every one of his big UFAs choosing to look elsewhere for work.
It’s at that point where the prospects Kekalainen kept will be key to keeping the franchise pushing in the right direction.[sidebar]
“Futures are important, yes, but we have a lot of prospects left,” Kekalainen said. “Our best prospects are still left. We have time to get some of the draft picks back that we used, and draft picks are still draft picks. If you’re getting two (NHL players) out of seven (picks) in a draft, you’re doing a heck of a job drafting, so you can count the percentages on what it is even if you have seven picks. Just have to do a better job with the fewer picks now.”
Though Kekalainen had said before the trade deadline that just trying to win Columbus’ first playoff round couldn’t be a driving factor, he suggested here that stepping back at this point in time would have been hard on the fans. Over the past three seasons, Columbus’ combined record of 131-80-18 ranks ninth in the NHL. That has led to some momentum that has ground to a halt come playoff time.
Pushing hard for more success and selling that hope, rather than being cautious at the deadline, is something the GM believes could pay off for Columbus as a hockey market.
“The franchise has been around for a long time, and it’s been challenging at times, and you’ve got to earn the trust of the fans,” he said. “And you earn it by being consistent in winning. That’s what we have to do. We have to earn that trust.”