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Free agency questions about to be answered for Blue Jackets

Kekalainen looks at what is next for Columbus come Monday

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Finally, starting Monday, the Blue Jackets will start to get answers.  

As the free agency period in the NHL opens, the finishing pieces of the Columbus roster will be known. A nearly year-long question -- what will become of Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, as well as Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel? -- will come to a close in the coming days.

LIVE BLOG: CBJ Free Agency

With the Blue Jackets entering the season knowing Bobrovsky and Panarin could hit the open market this summer, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen saw an opportunity for playoff success and added Duchene, Dzingel and others at the trade deadline. 

The end result was the first playoff series win in franchise history and a taut second-round loss to Boston. Kekalainen has said he'd do it all again if given the chance, even if none of the above players return, as will be their right as of Monday afternoon. 

"We said all along we assumed the risk and if they're gone by July 1, we're going to have lots of cap space and lots of different other opportunities to move forward," Kekalainen said. "Life goes on. That was part of the risk we were willing to take."  

While the narrative has persisted that the Blue Jackets would be left empty-handed if none of those players re-signed, Columbus would gain one valuable asset: cap space. The Blue Jackets have nearly $30 million to use going into the free agency period, though a certain percentage of that will need to be used to re-sign restricted free agents like Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray. 

The Blue Jackets haven't been major players on the NHL free agent market in past years -- the only two major contributors on last year's roster picked up as veteran FAs were Riley Nash and the since-traded Anthony Duclair -- and it has been a players' market so far with early returns showing the relatively thin number of UFAs available driving up the cost among bidders.

There's also the enduring possibility of the trade market, where the Jackets could take on contracts because of the cap space available. But Columbus won't just spend to spend -- the Jackets will do so if the signing is the right fit, especially with new contracts due to young standouts Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois next offseason. 

"There will be a lot of different options," Kekalainen said after the NHL draft last weekend. "If it's not free agency, it could be a trade. We'll look at all of those. 

"We don't need to use (the cap space)," he added. "We'll use it if we think it's going to be something we feel strongly about and will put us in a good position to compete again. Otherwise, we have a lot of good young players coming, so we're going to make sure they get a proper opportunity as well." 

In some ways, Kekalainen is dealing from a position of strength given what the Blue Jackets have in the organization. All but one of the team's top 13 point-scorers from a season ago are still under team control for 2019-20 as well as 11 of the top 13 goal-scorers -- the young "core" that Kekalainen often references when looking ahead. Nearly the entire defensive corps should return, and Kekalainen has spoken highly of such young forwards as Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy, Trey Fix-Wolansky and Sonny Milano. 

The biggest question would seem to be in net if Bobrovsky doesn't return, as the Russian has been the starter for the past seven years, but Joonas Korpisalo has been the backup for the past four seasons and Elvis Merzlikins comes over from Switzerland as an accomplished goaltender on the world stage.  

"We think our prospects are that level of prospects (who can contribute) and our D is as good as anybody's in the league," Kekalainen said. "If Bobrovksy leaves, we'll see what our goaltending is all about, but we have some talented kids who will have a great opportunity." 

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