Blue Jackets’ Kekalainen has decisions to make after gamble falls short

Tuukka Rask made 39 saves for the shutout and the Boston Bruins eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 6.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In terms of a sales pitch, you couldn’t get much better than this: Fans on their feet chanting "C-B-J!" inside a rocking Nationwide Arena as time ran out on the greatest season in Columbus Blue Jackets history.

Artemi Panarin gave a thumbs up to the crowd after what amounted to the finest year of his own NHL career, and it only seemed natural to wonder if everything that’s happened here left open even the remote possibility they may still have a future together.

"Nobody knows," said Panarin. "I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about we lose game."

It is the unlikeliest of outcomes, of course.

Both Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky have had ample opportunity to talk contract with Columbus dating back to last summer, and demurred. Barring a sudden and unexpected change of heart, they now stand to become two of the biggest names on the free-agent market — free to chase riches and whatever living situation they most desire on July 1.

This last couple months in Columbus will at least make the expected departure bittersweet.

Through a Russian interpreter, Panarin said he felt "empty" after Boston completed a six-game series win over the Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky, who has much deeper roots here after eight seasons and two Vezina Trophy wins, was feeling a sense of pride.

"I’ve been in this organization when we were in last place and now we’re competing for the Stanley Cup," he said Monday night. "We beat Tampa, a real good team. We compete against Boston, another really good team.

"We made huge steps forward and I’m really proud of the way we were."

It would not have been possible without Jarmo Kekalainen’s calculated gamble. Rather than deal away Panarin and Bobrovsky for future assets at the trade deadline, the general manager went for it by expending some of his own draft picks to bring in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid.

That helped pave the way for a shocking four-game sweep of the Lightning — the 128-point Presidents’ Trophy winners — and ignited a long-suffering fanbase. Even though the Blue Jackets ultimately fell short in a tight series with Boston, it left Kekalainen saying he’d make the same decision again if given an opportunity to redo his trade deadline. He also vowed to demand even more from the type of players he brings here in the future.

"I think it’s important moving forward that we have guys who are proud to be Blue Jackets, proud to be living in Columbus and loving it here," Kekalainen told reporters. "It’s really important that they bleed blue or whatever you want to call it…

"Guys who want to be here are going to be here and the guys who don’t want to be here — good luck."

The organization is going to have a tough time avoiding a step back after seasons of 98, 97 and 108 points. The biggest asset Kekalainen will be loaded with is cap space to fill in the gaps around a core that includes Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Pierre-Luc Dubois and veterans Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno.

They’ve got a solid pipeline of emerging prospects in the hopper — including 19-year-old forward Alexandre Texier and 23-year-old defenceman Vladislav Gavrikov, both of whom saw action in these playoffs — even though they only currently own a third- and seventh-round pick in the upcoming June draft.

Kekalainen may attempt to recoup some draft capital by dealing the rights to Bobrovsky and Panarin once they confirm their intentions of moving on. He also has an important decision to make on whether to try and re-sign Duchene, which would require Columbus to send its 2020 first-round pick to Ottawa after already giving up a 2019 first and two prospects to pry him from the Sens originally.

Either way, it may take a couple years to rebuild a team capable of the kind of run the Blue Jackets just finished.

Panarin established new franchise bests for points (87) and assists (59) and remained productive this spring with 11 points in 10 playoff games. Bobrovsky followed an up-and-down regular season by delivering the best post-season performance of his career with a .925 save percentage, although he was outduelled by a superlative Tuukka Rask in Round 2.

Still, he has the second-best save percentage of any NHL goalie with at least 200 appearances over the last eight seasons — tied with John Gibson at .921, just behind Ben Bishop at .922 — and could command a $10-million AAV or more on his next contract.

Bobrovsky was emotional on the ice after Monday’s loss, but said it was "too early" to know if that constituted his goodbye to the fans here. Over these last few months, he learned exactly what it would be like to play on a contending team in this city — seeing this organization and this city at its aspirational best.

"We will remember that all of our life," said Bobrovsky. "It was fun to play, it was loud, it was great support. It doesn’t matter if we were down or up. They were with us."

And now he and Panarin will almost certainly be gone.


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