COLUMBUS, Ohio — If the Blue Jackets’ two best players leave town as expected, it will ripple through just about every move the team makes this summer.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin are unrestricted free agents and almost certainly are out the door. Retooling the roster to compensate for the loss of the two Russians, and possibly other free agents, will mean a busy and interesting off-season for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
"We want guys that are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys that want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus," Kekalainen said Wednesday. "If that’s the reason why you want to play somewhere else, then go play somewhere else."
Kekalainen knew the elite pair probably would go — their refusal to sign contract extensions caused some strife in the locker room during the season — but held on hoping to make a deep post-season run. "Bob" and "Bread" ended up being a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ march to the playoffs and first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team during the regular season.
Columbus played in a second-round series for the first time in the 19 years the franchise has been in existence but fell to Boston 4-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal.
"We took a step in the right direction," coach John Tortorella said. "I hope we can see how difficult it is to keep on going. There are so many good things going on in our room now and — in talking to Jarmo and the management group — so many good pieces coming here. It’s an exciting time for us."
But there will be retooling.
Forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, both picked up from Ottawa at the February trade deadline for the playoff run, also will be unrestricted free agents. Both were so-so down the stretch, but Duchene caught fire in the playoffs with 10 points in 10 games. Defenceman Adam McQuaid, also a trade-deadline pickup, didn’t contribute much because of an injury and may or may not be re-signed.
"That’s part of the business, unfortunately," said winger Cam Atkinson, who led the team with a career-high 41 goals. "That’s the crappy part about it. But we’re so close as a team and an organization. We took a lot of huge strides forward this year. Ultimately, those guys get the make their own decision, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture."
The Blue Jackets have some goalies in the wings but none of Bobrovsky’s calibre. Backup Joonas Korpisalo will get a good look but may not be an everyday goalie. Columbus likely will try to re-sign 29-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline but didn’t get into a single game with his new team.
The team also likes 24-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, a flashy Latvian goaltender who was a 2014 third-round draft pick. He’s had success in the Swiss National League and is expected to start next season on the Blue Jackets roster.
Columbus hopes forward Alexandre Texier and defencemen Vladislav Gavrikov — rookies who joined after their foreign league commitments finished — can develop into reliable NHL players. Both showed flashes in limited action in the playoffs. Highly touted prospects Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy also could be ready to contribute.
Columbus will have to find a way to replace Panarin’s team-leading 87 points, but will have Atkinson (41 goals, 28 assists) and Pierre Luc-Dubois (27, 34) as well as top blue-liners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
"We’re trying to put a stamp on what this place is, what this organization is, how we run our business here," Tortorella said. "Our community put a stamp on it (in the playoffs), not just for us but for the hockey world."