TORONTO – “We’ll see.”
Those two tiny words spoke volumes in the plot-twisting mystery anthology that is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2018-19 season.
Uttered by Sergei Bobrovsky — easily one of the greatest goaltenders of his era — at training camp when asked if this will be his last year in Columbus, that little “We’ll see” has kept those inside and outside the organization on notice.
The future is always uncertain, but it feels especially so in Columbus, holder of the expiring UFA contracts of both the best goalie and the most dynamic forward, Artemi Panarin, eligible to hit the open market on July 1.
Neither star, integral cogs in the Jackets’ early rise to the summit of the Metropolitan Division, wishes to negotiate an extension in-season, despite GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s openness to do so.
“I don’t like to do any games, any mind games,” Bobrovsky, who holds two Vezina Trophies and a full no-move clause, said at the outset of camp. “After last season, I told the situation to the management of the Blue Jackets so they know everything. They know my plans for the season. They know my plans for the future. They know everything.”
They know that the Blue Jackets’ greatest chance to take advantage of a bling-heavy but suddenly softening division — Pittsburgh sits last; Washington has lost more often than it’s won — is for Goalie Bob to be elite.
Asked about the challenge a rugged, heavy-cycle squad like Columbus presents Toronto as the sides face off twice this week, Leafs coach Mike Babcock mentions Bobrovsky first and the Jackets’ “elite D” second.
“Bob’s game — that’s how you win in the league. Let’s face it: If your goaltending’s really good, you have a good chance to win games. Bob’s game has certainly gone to another level,” said Jackets coach John Tortorella ahead of Monday’s goaltending duel with Frederik Andersen.
“We had some very honest meetings about that situation early on in the season. That’s going to be around us all year long. We’ve got to be able to handle that stuff. The two guys we’re talking about have handled themselves very well too, as far as being the best they can be and not getting involved in all the noise around it.”
Splitting more time than usual with likely incumbent Joonas Kopisalo, Bobrovsky got off to an atypically poor start, going 2-5 with an .882 save percentage. He hardly resembled the $7.425-million goalie he’s getting paid to be.
But something flipped in November, and it goes beyond the new purple “Hockey Fights Cancer” mask he’s donned for the month. He’s successfully survived the potential of a goalie controversy that has already infected Edmonton, Calgary and Pittsburgh.
Bobrovsky, 30, has won five of his past six starts and allowed just a single goal in six of his past seven outings. His save percentage this month: a resurgent .954.
“You have to be at your best to beat a guy like him,” said John Tavares, a former Metropolitan. “He’s got a great track record over the past number of years [with] how hard he competes in the net and the way he plays.”
Tortorella suggests that it takes goaltenders a few games to reacquaint themselves to real-game action (“they need to see traffic”). The coach also mentioned some pointed small-group meetings the team held during its California trip at the top of the month.
“I think it aired out a lot of things. I think we’ve found a bit of stability here,” said Tortorella.
“There was a lot of things running around Bob, which is going to be all year long. At first, there was a lot of stuff there. I think he’s just handled it better. He is just a guy that prepares so hard. One of the best I’ve seen. It was just a matter of time. I think it’s kinda propelled us to try to find a way to get some wins.”
That Korpisalo, 24, hasn’t made a strong push to swipe the job the way Andrei Vasilevskiy once did in Tampa probably helped too.
Captain Nick Foligno argued that Bobrovsky needs to be in rhythm, in sync. He thrives on workload and responsibility and winning.
“I think he just wants to chase the big one,” said Foligno. “He’s such a pro and focused on just the things that mater, I think his mentality and the type of person he is, [the unsettled contract] doesn’t really affect him too much. Or he does a great job of hiding it.
“You can see it in him — just the confidence he has right now…. When he plays like that, he gives us a ton of confidence.”
That may end with the fun-loving Russian’s infectious smile, which he flashed often during Monday’s morning skate, but it starts in the gym.
Defenceman Zach Werenski calls Bobrovsky “our hardest-working player every day”: first in the weight room stretching in the morning, first on the ice for practice, last to leave at the end of the night.
That Bobrovsky and Panarin have been able to earmuff the noise and turn their contract seasons into showcases is of no surprise to their teammates.
“No one really thinks about the future too much. We just want to go out there and win. That’s how they are, too,” Werenski explained. “They’re such good guys in the locker room and good friends to all of us. It’s easy to come to the rink and work with them and go to battle with them.”
Even if it’s for the final hurrah. Even if you need two hands to count the number of NHL teams that would gladly shell out for the type of dependable netminding Bobrovsky has delivered through the duration of his four-year contract.
That the Blue Jackets are still searching for the first playoff series victory in franchise history lends credence to the theory that, as long as they’re in the running, Panarin and Bobrovsky won’t be dealt away for rebuilding blocks. But the pressure, and opportunity, for this well-balanced core to win now feels weightier than ever.
“The team’s always bigger than the individual,” Kekalainen reminded on Hockey Central at Noon Monday.
Foligno said “as long as they dawn the sweater,” the team will have Bobrovsky’s and Panarin’s backs. The room is behind them. The business side? Well, that’s their business.
So, we’ll see.
“Those guys have a decision to make, and we’ve done everything we can to make it an attractive place to play,” said Foligno. “We love those guys as teammates, and they’ve helped us a lot this year.
“I don’t think any of us take it personally. They’re great players, but we want to win too. And if they don’t feel that that’s the case, then we want people who want to win.”