It would be easy to deride Columbus’s situation, and really their overall existence. God knows I would love to. This is probably the best team the Jackets have ever had, certainly the best era, and they’re going to watch their two most important players traipse to the exit either next week at the deadline, or in the summer. It only further proves that Columbus will have a hard time competing when most players are only ever going to view it as a launch-point. First Rick Nash, now Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky have concluded that Ohio is not a place where they can accomplish what they want, and nor is it an interesting enough place to be to keep one’s mind from wandering to places with something other than buildings that house an insurance company and drunk OSU students/football coaches.
And yet, what if it just isn’t going to be that bad for the Jackets?
Let’s play it out and say that the Jackets decide that yeah, we’ll lose them for nothing, but with Panarin and maybe a resurgent Bob in the playoffs. There’s no reason they can’t come out of a much of a Metro Division. There’s no juggernaut there. They had the eventual champion Caps on the ropes last year, until Bobrovsky turned into Eeyore in net and Panarin basically disappeared. Also the switch of Grubauer to Holtby made a huge difference to the Caps. But the Penguins can’t seem to get right and Evgeni Malkin is having the most stupefying season of his career. The Caps can beat the Sharks in San Jose one night and give up a touchdown the next. The Islanders have two goalies playing out of their minds. They’re also the Islanders.
Even a conference final appearance and a swift kick to the head by the Lightning would be way farther than the Jackets have ever been, and a run and the interest it would spark in the city would lock fans in even for the “Great Russian Spies Departure.” So let’s look at what’s left.
The Jackets would still sport Cam Atkinson, who was a 35-goal scorer before Panarin showed up and everyone in the NHL was a 35-goal scorer, and Pierre-Luc Dubois up front. Boone Jenner, Alex Wennberg, and Josh Anderson probably make for a pretty good third-line in a 3+1 model. At the back, you still have Seth Jones (down-ballot Norris candidate), Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivaara. That’s the envy of a lot of teams, especially in the East. The Penguins and Caps are certainly on the backside of their windows, and who knows if the Islanders can goof this again. You’re ahead of the Rangers, Devils, and Flyers, who can’t unfuck themselves. And maybe one day the Hurricanes figure it all out, but we’ve been saying that for three or four years.
You also suddenly have $35M in cap space, or thereabouts. Sure, Werenski is going to get a big raise in the summer. Murray and Dubois follow the summer after that. But maybe you can finally jettison Brandon Dubinsky and his fake-tough guy act and also perhaps lose David Savard too. That keeps you about even.
You can buy a goalie and a winger and/or center. You still have a top line with Atkinson and Dubois and just about any doofus. You’ve got depth. You’ve got a blue line. It doesn’t have to be that bad.
And maybe you’re adding whatever you salvage for Panarin in the next week. Bob’s trickier, as his so-so season and very spotty playoff record would make a lot of teams nervous about going for this year. Maybe you sacrifice your chances this year while adding to next year’s. And then you get to spend the next few seasons playing that card, ever so annoyingly, about how you’re now a team of players who really want to be here. “Ohio Proud” or some horseshit that they love around those parts. Just a different shade of the “no one believed in us!” card. That only keeps people coming through the gates and that goddamn cannon firing.
It’s funny to think of Columbus as a hockey outpost. And it has been. It feels like this season and summer will make it so again. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Game #59 Preview Suite