The Columbus Blue Jackets enter the 2018-19 season with two star players likely to walk next summer. But bench boss John Tortorella says he won’t let the uncertain futures of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky distract him or his team once the players return to the ice.
“It doesn’t. It can’t. It won’t,” Tortorella said in a long-ranging interview with Aaron Portzline of The Athletic. “You guys have to report on it. It’s one of my biggest parts of my job this year, to handle it. Do we want those to be distractions? Are we going to be able to handle it as a room, or does it turn into a distraction? I think I need to coach that.
“But s*** happens. We’re not the only team that has things go on like this.”
Both Panarin, 26, and Bobrovsky, who turns 30 in September, are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Panarin made headlines in June when Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that he wasn’t interested in negotiating an extension with the Blue Jackets “at this time.” Friedman added that the Blue Jackets would begin testing the trade market for their star forward as a result.
In July, Portzline reported that Panarin had set a deadline of Sept. 13 to discuss a contract with the Blue Jackets, suggesting no talks would occur during the season if a deal isn’t reached by training camp.
Last season Panarin, in his first year with the team, led the Blue Jackets with 27 goals and 82 points. Tortorella said he’s “disappointed” about the reports surrounding Panarin because of his work ethic and drive to win.
“I look at Panarin… I really like coaching him. I really like him as a person, and I like him in our room,” Tortorella said. “I think he’s contagious as far as how he comes to work and does his job with enthusiasm.
“I’m disappointed that there’s talk he may be leaving. But I’m not gonna coach him any differently. He’s going to be put in every damn situation I can find to put him in, because he gives us a really good opportunity to win hockey games.”
Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is said to be wanting “Carey Price money” and his agent and the Blue Jackets haven’t negotiated a contract for “some time now,” Portzline reported in August.
Price, 31, is entering the first season of an eight-year $84 million contract in Montreal. With big raises expected in the near future for defenceman Zach Werenski and centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, it’s not unreasonable to see why that much money for a veteran goalie would be a tough pill to swallow for the Blue Jackets.
With a change in net inevitable, Portzline asked Tortorella if backup Joonas Korpisalo will get more starts this season to help ease the transition.
“You have to understand and be honest with the uncertainty with Bob,” he said. “That plays into it. But I still have to make decisions for us to win hockey games. Korpi still has to keep on growing, too. I’m an open book. If he’s gonna take some games, he’s gonna have to earn it. But I’m not sure where it goes with Bob.”
Last season came to a disappointing end for the Blue Jackets, bowing out in the opening round to the Washington Capitals in six games. The Blue Jackets have still not won a playoff series since joining the NHL in the 2000-01 season and with Panarin and Bobrovsky not expected to return, some view this season as a chance for the Blue Jackets to make one final push in the playoffs with their current core.
Tortorella wouldn’t make an exact predication for the upcoming season, but he wants his squad to make the jump from a being a good team to a great one.
“We’re a pretty good team. We’re getting there. We want to be a great team, and start understanding what it is to make the playoffs every year,” he said. “Remember, this is only twice (in a row). I’ve told you, you have to make it again and again and again.
“And when you get there, in the playoffs, you have to get something done.”