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Duchene trade shows Blue Jackets 'serious about winning'

Load up for playoff run despite risk of losing center, Panarin, Bobrovsky for nothing on July 1

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

The Columbus Blue Jackets made a statement by acquiring center Matt Duchene on Friday.

"We want to prove to our fan base that we're serious about winning," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "And we're in it to win it."

The Blue Jackets have played in the NHL since 2000-01 and are the only team that has never won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 

[RELATED: Duchene traded to Blue Jackets by Senators for picks, prospects]

 

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin -- two of the best players Columbus has ever had -- are headed toward unrestricted free agency July 1.

For months, everyone has focused on the negative. What if the Blue Jackets lose Bobrovsky and Panarin for nothing? They have to get something in return for them, right?

Well, it's time to change the narrative, not just for now but for the long term. Why can't they win in the playoffs? Why shouldn't players want to commit to them the way Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and Seth Jones have?

"Thirty-one teams in this League are all starting the year thinking that, 'We're going to win the Stanley Cup,' " Kekalainen said. "And that's what we want to do, and that's our goal. This gives us a better chance at it."

You've got to admire the guts.

Video: Matt Duchene's fit on the Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets acquired Duchene and American Hockey League defenseman Julius Bergman from the Ottawa Senators for a top-three protected first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and mid-level forward prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson.

Duchene is a pending UFA. If he signs with Columbus, Ottawa also receives a first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

At the same time, nothing has changed with Bobrovsky or Panarin.

"We're not going to just trade Panarin for draft picks," Kekalainen said. "We're going to keep our eyes and ears open on what the marketplace looks like. That's what we've said right from the start. But it would have to be a deal that we can't refuse. It would have to make sense for now and into the future."

So unless something changes, the Blue Jackets will have three stars who could leave for nothing July 1 instead of two. They will have given up assets instead of acquiring assets or at least standing pat.

"I told Matt the same thing as I'm telling you: We accept the risk of him maybe being just a rental for the springtime," Kekalainen said. "And we'd like to convince him to stay. But that's another day, and we can talk about that until the end of June. We're concentrating on today."

That's not the only risk.

Video: CBJ@OTT: Duchene takes the ice hours after trade

The Blue Jackets entered their game against the Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. They had two games in hand on the Hurricanes, but still …

They could miss the playoffs. They could end up with the second wild card and have to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are running away with the Presidents' Trophy, in the Eastern Conference First Round. They could lose to a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, to whom they lost in five games in the first round two seasons ago, or the Washington Capitals, to whom they lost in six games in the first round last season.

Bobrovsky is still the same goalie who, despite being a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, is 5-14 with a 3.49 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage in the playoffs in his NHL career.

But the Blue Jackets have come a long way and are so close to taking the next step. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, they are sixth in the NHL in wins with 128. They were one shot from taking a 3-0 series lead against the Capitals last season before losing Game 3 in double overtime. Four of the six games in the series went to OT.

It's hard to get elite players, and in Columbus historically, it has been hard to keep them. Right now they have Bobrovsky and Panarin to go with Atkinson, Foligno, Jones, center Pierre-Luc Dubois and defenseman Zach Werenski. And now they have Duchene too. He fills a big hole in the middle and boosts the power play.

Video: NHL Now looks at Columbus' acquisition of Duchene

It's always hard to win in the NHL. If you wait for the perfect time, it might never come. At some point the future has to be now. You shouldn't take reckless risks, but this is isn't reckless. It's calculated. It's on the coaches and the players to reward management's faith.

At best, the Blue Jackets win the Stanley Cup, Columbus goes Cup crazy, all the pending UFAs stay and everyone lives happily ever after. Short of that, maybe they win a round or two, and Columbus gets a taste of playoff success. Maybe one or two of the pending UFAs decide to stay. At worst, they miss the playoffs, and all the UFAs leave.

But even in the worst-case scenario, the Blue Jackets still will have Atkinson, Dubois, Foligno, Jones, Werenski and company, and they still will have space under the NHL salary cap, and they still will have their top prospects, and they still will have to be viewed differently in their market and around the hockey world.

"We have a good team," Kekalainen said. "We want to win this spring. We want to win."

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