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Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene departures don't worry Blue Jackets

GM expects Columbus to make playoffs again despite losing free agents

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The Columbus Blue Jackets knew this day was coming back on Feb. 25.

That was the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, when the Blue Jackets took a big risk by holding onto forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in addition to adding to forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in trades, knowing each could leave as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

So seeing Panarin (New York Rangers), Bobrovsky (Florida Panthers) and Duchene (Nashville Predators) sign elsewhere Monday -- with Dzingel also expected to leave eventually -- wasn't so much a shock as the start of the moving process for the Blue Jackets.

 

[RELATED: Nyquist signs four-year contract with Blue Jackets | NHL Free Agent Tracker]

 

Perhaps that's why general manager Jarmo Kekalainen was so defiant in stating repeatedly that the Blue Jackets will remain a good team and that he expects them to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs again.

"We made it three years in a row," Kekalainen said. "I'm confident that we're competitive enough to make the playoffs a fourth year in a row. Time will tell whether we can or not, but I don't see a reason why we can't make the playoffs next year again."

Kekalainen's trade deadline gamble didn't pay off with the Blue Jackets winning the Stanley Cup, as he hoped. But Columbus won a postseason series for the first time in its history, sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Presidents' Trophy winners as the NHL's top regular-season team, in the Eastern Conference First Round before giving the Boston Bruins a tough series in a six-game loss in the second round.

As disappointing as that was, Kekalainen remains at peace with the decisions he made prior to the trade deadline.

"We had prepared for it for a long time," he said.

Kekalainen didn't pretend he didn't want to keep Panarin, who led Columbus with an NHL career-high 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) last season. The Blue Jackets made a last-ditch effort Sunday night.

Video: Artemi Panarin signs seven-year deal with Rangers

Kekalainen wouldn't discuss specifics but said the Blue Jackets' offer was different from ones they made to the 27-year-old previously and demonstrated their willingness to do all they could financially. 

"We were all in with the ownership showing we're committed, and it wasn't a financial decision [Panarin] made," Kekalainen said. "Sometimes it is about lifestyle more than anything and that's their right to choose."

Panarin wanted to play for the Rangers in New York and accepted their seven-year, $81.5 million offer. The Blue Jackets proceeded with their business and signed forward Gustav Nyquist to a four-year contract.

The 29-year-old had 60 points (22 goals, 38 assists) in 81 games last season with the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks and will replace some of the offensive skill they lost with Panarin's departure. Duchene's decision to accept a seven-year, $56 million contract from Nashville pushes Pierre-Luc Dubois back into the top-line center job he held before Duchene was acquired in a trade from the Ottawa Senators.

Columbus will look internally to replace Bobrovsky, a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie who agreed to a seven-year contract with Florida. That will give Joonas Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky's backup, and rookie Elvis Merzlikins an opportunity to prove they can handle the No. 1 goalie job or share it.

Kekalainen conceded that goaltending will be a question mark, but otherwise feels good about what the Blue Jackets have with the possibility of adding to the roster before the season begins.

Video: Panthers add Bobrovsky, Stralman, Acciari, Connolly

This offseason has already demonstrated how teams with NHL salary cap space, like Columbus, can utilize it to acquire good players from teams who are in cap trouble. The New Jersey Devils did that in their trade for defenseman P.K. Subban on June 22. New Jersey gave Nashville defensemen Steven Santini and Jeremy Davies, a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

"We have a great, great situation with flexibility right now with our cap room and depth chart," Kekalainen said. "So we're going to look at every opportunity, every option we have. Free agency is one of them, but just one of them."

Regardless, Kekalainen feels good about the Blue Jackets core, which includes forwards Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Josh Anderson, Dubois and Nyquist, and defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

"We have a good team. We have good players," Kekalainen said. "So I don't know why I shouldn't be confident."

Kekalainen points to the New York Islanders as the perfect example. Although the Islanders lost captain John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent last July 1, they proved their doubters wrong by qualifying for the playoffs last season and sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

"It doesn't always work as you think an individual will leave a hole and that's the hole one guy will have to fill," Kekalainen said. "There's going to be an opportunity for several players to take a piece of that opportunity and the team can be stronger in different ways. … You don't think that our group of guys are going to say within themselves, 'Hey, those guys left. We're going to show everybody we're going to be just as good'?"

That seemed to be Gustav's approach to joining the Blue Jackets when others might view them as a team that lost three of its best players on the same day.

"I'm sure the media will talk about that, but I think we want to prove there's going to be opportunity for other guys," Nyquist sad. "I'm one of the guys here that are going to try to come in and fill some of those holes and I'm sure everyone will be excited to keep building on what they've done here the last few years. I have no doubt in my mind that we're going to be a really good team."

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