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Blue Jackets not worried about prospect of losing pending free agents

GM Kekalainen says plenty of cap space to use if Panarin, other UFAs leave

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

VANCOUVER -- Jarmo Kekalainen ended the 2019 NHL Draft with a smile and a joke.

"We added 50 percent picks," the Columbus Blue Jackets general manager said before leaving Rogers Arena on Saturday. "We went from two to three."

The Blue Jackets, who acquired two fourth-round picks for their third-round pick to go along with their seventh-round selection, were short picks at the draft because of trades they made, including giving up their first-round pick to try to make a run at the Stanley Cup this season.

 

[RELATED: Three trades on second day of Draft propel NHL toward free agency]

 

Now they're dealing with the fallout of the run that never materialized, including the likelihood that pending unrestricted free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forwards Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel will not return.

"I'm sure we'll get some answers shortly," Kekalainen said. 

The window to speak to pending UFAs opened Sunday, and the signing period begins July 1. Although Kekalainen wasn't willing to close the door on any of them returning to Columbus, he didn't sound optimistic.

The GM didn't sound concerned either.

"We've said all along that 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 and life goes on," Kekalainen said. "That was part of the risk we were willing to take.

"We've thought this could happen so if it happens we're not going to be shocked. We thought at the deadline that this could be the case and if it is the case we'll just move forward and start building other ways to fill those holes."

Kekalainen wants to start with in-house replacements, most notably forwards Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom. 

"We think those guys are going to be impact players in the NHL," Kekalainen said. "Whether it's right now we don't know, but in the near future we believe in that."

Texier, 19, showed his potential as a late-season call-up who played for the Blue Jackets. He played the final two games of the regular season and scored a goal, and he had three points (two goals, one assist) in eight playoff games.

Bemstrom, 20, became the youngest player in history to lead the Swedish Hockey League in goals, scoring 23 goals for Djurgardens IF. Columbus selected him in the fourth round (No. 117) of the 2017 NHL Draft. He signed his three-year entry level contract on May 14.

"He's ready to take on a challenge," Kekelainen said of Bemstrom. "He's big enough. He's strong enough. We've had him in Columbus now for a couple weeks. He's a man. He's not a boy. He played in a men's league with great results. He's as good of a power play player as you can get. We were looking for a guy on the power play this year that can shoot the puck like he can so he's going to get an opportunity to show what he can do at the NHL level." 

The Blue Jackets could be active in the trade and free-agent market because they likely will be flush with salary cap space, but Kekalainen warned that he doesn't feel pressure to use it to just keep the momentum Columbus gained from its first playoff series win this season (a sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round) going into next season.

"We'll use it if we feel it's going to be something that we feel strongly about and will put us in a good position to compete again," he said. "Otherwise, we have lots of good young players coming so we're going to make sure they get a proper opportunity."

It'll be interesting to see if that is also the case in goal if they can't re-sign Bobrovsky.

The Blue Jackets have Joonas Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky's backup the past two seasons, and rookie Elvis Merzlikins. 

Korpisalo went 10-7-3 with a 2.95 goals-against average and .897 save percentage in 27 games, including 20 starts, this season. He's a pending restricted free agent. 

Merzlikins signed a one-year entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets on May 15. He went 22-18-0 with a 2.44 GAA, .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 43 games with Lugano of the Swiss National League this season.

If Bobrovsky leaves, the UFA goalie market could feature Robin Lehner (New York Islanders), Petr Mrazek (Carolina Hurricanes), Mike Smith (Calgary Flames), Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), Cam Talbot (Philadelphia Flyers), Brian Elliott (Flyers) and Michal Neuvirth (Flyers). 

"You've seen how young the League is now, how guys can come into the League as 20-year-olds and make an impact on the team," Kekalainen said. "We think our prospects are that level of prospects and our 'D' is as good as anybody's in the League. If Bobrovsky leaves we'll see what our goaltending is all about, but we have some talented kids that will get a great opportunity."

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