Hockey

Well, hope it was all worth it.

GM Jarmo Kekkelainen wasn’t going to let his squad go quietly into that goodnight last spring, and went all in at the trade deadline, bringing aboard Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for the Jackets playoff push. It got them a stunning, historic sweep of the historically good Lightning. And that’s it.

Is that enough? For a fanbase that had seen their team accomplish exactly dick for their entire existence, it may be. Those memories will last a bit. But not that long, and soon they’re going to crave real success, like a division title or conference championship, two things the Jackets haven’t come within a $50 cab ride of. And neither of those look to be coming any time soon, as the squad that brought a playoff victory for the first time to Ohio has been shorn of three big pieces…and Dzingel. It’s not exactly a husk that’s left…but it’s the h-u-s of that.

Let’s run it through.

2018-2019

47-31-4 98 points (5th in Metro)

3.12 GF/G (12th)  2.82 GA/G (11th)

50.0 CF% (12th)  50.3 xGF% (14th)

15.4 PP% (29th)  85.0 PK% (2nd)

Goalies: Jarmo probably should be sued by the season ticket holders for negligence for heading into the season with Joonas Korpisalo as the starter. The story they’ll try and sell is that Korpisalo is 24, and heading into his prime, so there’s always a chance for a big step forward. It’s going to have to be an awfully big step, because Joonas hasn’t shown much in his brief cameos as Sergei Bobrovsky‘s backup. He’s played 90 games, and has a career .907 SV%, which would be just about league-average now. League-average isn’t going to get it done for this Jackets squad.

The wildcard is Elvis Merzlikins, and no he doesn’t have the traditional back-to-school parade here in Chicago. But I will allow for all the Fu-Schnickens jokes you want to make. Merzlikins was great in the Swiss league the past few years, but it’s impossible to know if that means anything. They seem pretty high on him, but he’s going to have to do an awful lot of heavy lifting if this team is going anywhere. That would also mean Korpisalo snuffed it, which is almost certainly doom for the Jackets.

Defense: The one unit that wasn’t scorched by free agent departures. Columbus can still roll out Seth Jones, Zach Werenski (assuming he ever signs), Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivaara for two-thirds of the game, which is a nice place to be. It’s not Carolina’s blue line, but it’s still one of the better ones around. And they’re just running it back, as there’s been no additions to it in the offseason. So the top four will still be supported by David Savard, Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan, and Adam Clendening. Or some combo thereof, to be more precise. There’s a chance that Vladislov Gavrikov is part of the equation as well. The Jackets can at least point to this and know what they’ll get, which is more than you can say for the rest of the team.

Forwards: Ouch. At the moment, the Jackets are maybe one line and a lot of questions and hope. Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are still a formidable tandem, and Atkinson scored before Panarin arrived. They signed Gustav Nyquist possibly to put on that line, but Nyquist is a support-scorer these days, not a main man. Alex Wennberg and and Josh Anderson will probably anchor the second, but that’s where it starts to sound short for the Jackets. Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky are still here to belch and fart and call it leadership, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Boone Jenner are going to have to seriously build on promising seasons from last campaign for the Jackets to score enough, and that’s always a dicey bet. They might need to toss prospect Liam Foudy into the deep end right away to up the amount of skill to even acceptable.

Prediction: The Jackets are in deep. They’re clearly behind the Penguins, Caps, Canes for the automatic spots in the Metro. The Islanders may have fallen farther than they did, which helps, and the Rangers and Devils probably aren’t ready to cycle back up past them just yet. Who ever fucking knows with the Flyers? So that leaves them tangling with the other division for wildcard spots, but there just doesn’t look like there’s enough scoring up front with this lot. And Jarmo already scraped the savings vault to go for it last year.

Hope those Tampa memories keep them warm for a while. It might not be enough to keep Torts from throwing himself off the roof in January.

Everything Else

Well that was quite the party. And like any good party, everyone worth a shit now leaves before they stick around past the point that all the creatures of the night do. You know those people, the ones who a Saturday night turns into a Sunday afternoon with the curtains drawn. They where all black and love to tell you about the weird sex they have. That’s where the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves…amongst the New Order records. No one wants to be the last to leave.

What a historic spring for the Jackets. Causing one of the biggest upsets in first-round history, they’ll join such luminaries like the ’91 North Stars, the ’93 Blues, the ’93 Islanders, and ’09 Ducks in the pantheon of…wait, you don’t remember any of these teams? Of course you fucking don’t, because they’re nothing more than quirky trivia. Something that helps you win the three free rounds at a pub quiz while you pretend you’re having fun. But hey, that’s more memorable than the Jackets have ever been.

We’ll spend the next day or two wading through various love letters and bouquets thrown at Jarmo Kekalainen, a man who has been allowed to be GM for six years with one playoff series win, no division titles, and never actually earning home-ice in a playoff series. What a record! Oh how he went for it! Oh what dash he showed! Why don’t more GMs show such gumption, they’ll cry!

Yes, selling out your future for six playoff wins so that your two most important players tell you to do one a couple weeks later than they were going to truly is foresight. It’s a wonder Jarmo isn’t a goddamn Vulcan. And when Duchene and Dzingel see Panarin and Bobrovsky fuck off, we’re sure they’ll be heavily tempted to commit their futures to a rest stop between known cultural centers of Cleveland and Cincinnati. Wonder how much longer Zach Werenski is going to want to commit to North Louisville after all that as well.

This is what you don’t get, Columbus. Once a college town, always a college town. Just because you’re strangely podunk and the home of an insurance company that keeps foisting Peyton Manning on the nation like a proud mother doesn’t mean you’re a destination. You go to Columbus, you stay for a few years, you get measurably dumber and then you move on to fix that. Those who stay around their college towns after graduation are always desperate and weird. If you’ve seen Buckeyes fans gather in Evanston or whatever Wrigleyville/Lincoln Park Date-Rape Palooza  bar they call home, you know of where we speak. It applies to the Jackets, too.

You needn’t sweat it. Your contemporaries the Minnesota Wild haven’t accomplished anymore than you. You two are what everyone thinks millennials are. Bad clothes, bad decisions, loud noises and few accomplishments. At least the Wild actually got a free agent or two to show up. And no, Nick Foligno wanting to stay doesn’t count. That’s more of a metaphor than you’re prepared to face right now.

Everything will be fine, you say. Cam Atkinson and his recent damn fine impression of Patrick Roy era Gabriel Landeskog  is still here. So’s Pierre-Luc Dubois. Josh Anderson and whatever brains didn’t leap out his ear thanks to McAvoy last night are too. Jones and Werenski. We’ve got a base. You sure do. Those 89 points that base will collect as they stare at whatever punter is in net wondering how that went in will be glorious. We’re sure you’re looking forward to it.

While the press lavish praise on Jarmo, because he gave them so much to write about, one has to ask if the truly brave call wouldn’t have been to cash in on Panarin and Bobrovsky for actual assets that will be around Ohio longer than until the keg goes dry. Perhaps something lasting instead of a cheap thrill and a parlor trick. These same writers will be doing “Was It All Worth It?” articles in March when the Jackets are five points out of a playoff spot. This will of course follow the “No One Believed In Us!” articles that come in November when the Jackets have the same five-game winning streak every team does.

No, the coach will still be a bullhorn, and his boring-ass style and hard-ass ways are going to get a lot more scrutiny when there are more losses than wins. And then one might wonder just how many more coaches Jarmo “Balls To The Walls” Kekalainen gets. And then won’t those make for some fun Athletic posts?

Face it Columbus, no one wants to be there. No matter what any player or team does it’ll be Page 2 behind which OSU running back showed up to spring practice in a Tesla. Oh wait, I think Urban Meyer is bending over again to show just how much this means to him. It doesn’t even matter that he’s not coaching anymore, he cares so damn much he’s killing himself out there!

You’re just a misplaced SEC town with the hillbillies to match, except you didn’t bother to include Nashville’s nightlife or music scene. You’re a jumping off point, and will always be leverage to get somewhere better. Which is just about everywhere. Rick Nash was only the first. He’ll hardly be the last. But hey, you’ve got a cannon, right?

Everything Else

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

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Got a twofer for ya. Alison Lukan (@AlisonL) is the Jackets beat writer for The Athletic. We also dragged up this thing called The Pale Dragon (@PaleDragonCBus) from JacketsCannon.com

Everyone is aware of the Sophie’s choice the Jackets FO faces with Panarin and Bobrovksy. What’s the feeling amongst the fanbase? Are they jaded by having what is probably the best Jackets team ever have this cloud over it? Would they just prefer to see the back of them both and have it over with? Will there be any lingering damage?

Alison: It’s two different tales, really. I don’t think ultimately, that fans want either player to leave, but there’s been far more passion towards keeping Panarin than Bobrovsky. THis is ironic considering how much Bobrovsky has done to make the team what it is, but that longer tenure means that some are keenly aware of how he’s not played his best in the playoffs, and that tempers current worry about him leaving. As for Panarin, he doesn’t speak to the media much at all, and has been able to ride an easy-going persona through all this, making it easier for fans to pull for him to stay. I think there is definitely a segment of the fan base that fears what will be once these two leave, and there are likely some who don’t truly realiize what the impact will be, but that takes us to the ultimate question you asked about lingering damage. If Kekalainen and company can navigate this situation to a deep post-season run and/or a solid return in trade, this may not linger as the biggest story in franchise history.

Dragon: It has definitely been a cloud hanging over the season. Just today one of our readers asked “how can I root for these guys when I know they’ll be gone?” This is a good team – tied for fifth most wins since the start of 2016-17 – and yet we’re poised to lose the two best players on the team, and arguably the two most talented players in franchise history. That doesn’t happen very often. 

I suspect that the fanbase will calm down after the trade deadline. Then the uncertainty will have passed. Either the Russians will be gone then, or we’ll have them as rentals and then they’ll leave. Our readers seem to be split 50/50 on whether Panarin should be traded or kept through the playoffs. The sentiment against Bob is more negative because he’s having a below league average season, and he’s had a poor attitude. He walked out on the team after getting pulled from a game last month. Bread, meanwhile, is playing as well as ever and seems to be enjoying playing with his current linemates.

Does all this drama distract from how great of a season Cam Atkinson is having again?

I was just thinking about this the other day. I don’t know that it “distracts” but i do believe Atkinson should be getting more attention for what he’s doing (and his body of work as a whole). The Panarin / Bobrovsky stuff has certainly sucked up a lot of the media spotlight – especially on the national level.

Thank you for asking about Cam. I wasn’t sure anyone else around the league recognized how good he’s been. As a fellow vertically-challenged man, he’s long been a personal favorite. He’s having a career year and could break Rick Nash’s franchise record for goals in a season (41). In contrast to the Russians, he signed a long term extension last season and has often expressed his love for the city. His wife had their first baby last year, they’ve bought a house in the suburbs, and he has started his own business here (a hockey skills training center).  He was named one of the alternate captains this year, which recognizes that he has long been one of the most popular figures in the locker room. If he plays out his contract here, he should break all of Nash’s franchise records.

We seemingly ask about Ryan Murray every time. But here he is already with a career-high in points, and the metrics are kind as well. Finally finding his place?

I am admittedly, a Murray fan, have always been so. The difference this year is that he’s healthy, quite honestly. He’s always had this level of play in him, and I think it shows in that the coaching staff has recognized that also and given him quite a few minutes alongside Seth Jones.

We’re finally seeing why Murray was the #2 overall pick in 2012. I think the biggest factor is that he’s finally healthy. It hasn’t been one nagging injury, but rather a frustrating inability to make it through the season unscathed, outside of playing all 82 in 2015-16. Combined with some defensive struggles from Zach Werenski, Murray has earned his way into the top pairing with Seth Jones. He’s still no major offensive threat like 8 and 3 are, but he makes up for it by his play in the defensive zone. His best skill is his vision, to find the right place to put an outlet pass. That’s where the assists are coming from.

So we know that come July 1, the Jackets will be without their two Russian stars. But with Dubois and Atkinson up front, a blue line that at least goes two pairs deep, and a lot of cash to spend, is there a reason the Jackets can’t quickly recover?

I answered this somewhat in the above question, but I agree. There is a talented core in this team regardless of if the two free agents leave. The team will have to replace that elite talent in at least one or possibly two bodies – as we know that’s essential to make a run – but this doesn’t have to decimate the franchise by any means.

I’m always an optimist, but I genuinely believe this can still be a good team going forward.  It’s one of the youngest roster in the league, with only three regular players aged 30 or older. Most of the core is 25 or younger. My hope is that GM Jarmo Kekalainen adds another long term piece at the deadline (Stone? Duchene? Huberdeau? DeBrusk?), whether or not he’s able to move the Russians. That will help to fill the hole this summer. I don’t expect to make a flashy free agent signing, but I would expect Jarmo to be active in the summer trade market. Teams like Toronto and Tampa are facing a cap crunch, and Columbus could take an RFA or other team-controlled player in exchange for picks and prospects. Much like how we acquired Brandon Saad from you guys when you couldn’t afford to re-sign him.

The biggest question mark on the roster going into next season would be goalie. I see Joonas Korpisalo as the default starter. For his backup, I’d expect a battle between some veteran free agent signing, and Latvian prospect Elvis Merzlikins.

For the team to compete going forward, it will depend what happens in the rest of the division. Washington and Pittsburgh may start to decline, but the Islanders look to be strong now and Carolina is on the rise.

 

 

 

Game #59 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

It’s hard to think of a GM more in a jam than Jarmo Kekalainen. Sure, we’ve seen GMs and teams play chicken with a free agent to be in the past. But two? And the two best players on a team? That’s rare indeed. And the fortunes of the Blue Jackets for the next few years pretty much hang in the balance.

To review: both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are going to be unrestricted free agents when this season ends. Panarin has made it quite clear that he’s not coming back, as it seems his destiny to be an overpaid Ranger or Panther. Bobrovsky has at least talked to the Jackets about an extension, but those talks have gone nowhere.

We’ll take the case of Bobrovsky first. He’a two-time Vezina winner, and no goalie with that kind of track record has hit the open market in recent memory. As of right now, the highest paid goalie in the league is Carey Price at $10.5 million. Price only has one Vezina, and has only done slightly better than Bobrovsky in the playoffs. Price has appeared in one conference final, never a Stanley Cup Final, and the Habs have basically been early-round chum for anyone they’ve run across. Bobrovsky’s agent could look at that $10.5 figure and go from there, and we mean go up.

Complicating matters even more for the Jackets is while they will gain the space of Panarin’s $6 million salary on the cap, they also have to pay Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray. That’s certainly going to be more than $6 million. The Jackets only have $5 million in space now as it is. It’s hard to identify what they can jettison to create more space. Nick Foligno? He’s the captain. Cam Atkinson might be the only top line forward they have after Panarin’s saunter to the door.

Which makes you wonder if they can afford to lose Bobrovsky at all. Goalies are almost certainly criminally underpaid considering their worth, and the Jackets offense may need some serious propping up once Panarin has bid adieu.

The other problem is that Bobrovsky’s appearances in the playoffs haven’t exactly been gleaming. The Jackets have never seen the second round. Bob’s playoff record in Columbus is a .898 SV% and 3.37 GAA. Now, to be sure, in two of those series the Jackets were far overmatched by the Penguins. You could argue they were by the Capitals last year, but they took the first two games in DC. And then Bob spent the next four games chucking up a toad. But a goalie is a playoff dog until he isn’t, and then what?

You don’t find another Bobrovsky on the market or in the system. And you don’t go anywhere without a goalie. Yes, he’s 30, but the aging curve for goalies is longer than skaters. He’s probably got four or five good years left. If this is the Jackets’ window, aren’t you closing it by losing him?

Panarin’s case is different. He’s gone. There’s almost no indication he’ll ever consider staying in Ohio. So logic would dictate that you ship him out for what you can get at the deadline. But it’s not that simple. The Jackets aren’t rebuilding, and you never see player-for-player deals at the deadline. They’re at least quite rare. Things will change, but there are contending teams who could use a dynamic scoring winger. Maybe more will develop. But what do those teams have to give up off the roster? The Jackets are set at top pairing with Werenski and Seth Jones. They like Nutivaara and Ryan Murray beyond that. Could they find another goalie in return for Panarin? Nearly impossible you’d think.

Overriding both of these is that the Jackets have to win, and soon. This is a fanbase aching for success, and if it sees its two most accomplished players blast noogies for nothing and without so much as a playoff series win, you’d have a tough time convincing all of them the Jackets can build a long-term winner.

It may come down to how likely  Jarmo thinks it is for  the Jackets to get out of the division. The Penguins could be had if Matt Murray never finds the form of his first two years. The Capitals have gotten a touch older and are still the squad that needed just about everything to go right last spring. The Rangers and Islanders aren’t a concern. The Devils and Flyers really could be anything. The Metro is open.

Maybe you take your run at a conference final and reset in the summer. But the Jackets don’t have a ton of cap space to do so.

We don’t have any answers. Jarmo might not either.

 

Game #7 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

It would seem that in this age of the NHL, the biggest skills a GM can have is the ability to scout his own players, judge them fairly, and also have a really great math guy. Because as we know, it only takes a couple of mistakes with your salary cap, or evaluating your own guys, before you’ve fornicated over all the good work you’ve done.

This is Jarmo Kekalainen’s fourth full season as GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets (he took over in the middle of the shortened 2013 season). They have made one playoff appearance in that time, in 2014 where they threw a brief scare into the Penguins before fading into the background. They haven’t really come close since. And the patience in Columbus is starting to run a bit thin, especially when Jarmo’s hire as a coach was the personification of a bullhorn.

Let’s try and pull in the whole scope of Jarmo’s work.

Everything Else

Follow him on Twitter @bzarcher. You can read his work at JacketsCannon.com.

So as fans of a team that is coached by John Tortorella, how horrifying was the World Cup?

-Terrifying, but I think it’s worth considering that Torts was given a roster that I’d consider schizophrenic at best. Still, it was a very dramatic demonstration of how NOT to win against international competition, and Torts seems to be applying some of what he learned with the increased emphasis on speed and generating chances in Columbus.