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Out of the Wreckage, Were the Jackets Reckless?

May 7, 2019, 10:58 AM ET [8 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
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Was it worth it?

Really good question.

It was zero playoff series wins in 17 seasons of the Blue Jackets, more than time enough to feel they had to go for it. When victory finally came, it was grander than anyone could ever have imagined on Marc Denis’ worst day.

They smoked what had appeared to be one of the league’s best all-time teams in four straight, not just climbing over the hump but catapulting it to an explosion of joy engulfing the once and forever college town just the way John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen drew it up.

Now comes the bill. It will be only fair that Artemi Panarin go halvsies with the Blue Jays on that catapult rental, since he can use it to blow town on July 1. Left behind will be a franchise shackled in a debtor’s prison of traded prospects and picks unless Matt Duchene, who cost two first-round choices and two young players, stays. Considering Duchene turned down eight years in Ottawa, his happily-ever after in Columbus doesn’t figure to happen unless Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky take the Jackets’ money, which likely which would have occurred already if they wanted more than anything to live happily ever after in Columbus.

Teams are going to throw max money at Bobrovsky and Panarin and close to that for Duchene, who like the other two, reconfirmed himself as worth it with a strong Tampa Bay series. So now what are the odds the three of them, and free agent Ryan Dzingel too, with make a pact to turn down the big city lights in favor of pastoral, utopian, Columbus, as pleadingly described by GM Kekalainen upon the team’s elimination by Boston on Monday night in six games.

“We have left them alone after they didn’t want to negotiate a contract or talk about the future,” Kekalainen said. “Once we get through the exit meetings, we will have a better idea.

“I think it’s important moving forward that we have guys who are proud to be Blue Jackets, proud to be living in Columbus and loving it here. It’s really important that they bleed blue or whatever you want to call it. … Guys who want to be here are going to be here and the guys who don’t want to be here — good luck.

“We have great ownership. I think that should convince anybody to want to stay. We have a winning team. I think we could really build on something here. It’s never been about money. There’s all kind of speculation about that. It’s about whether you want to be a Blue Jackets’ player and live in the city of Columbus for the foreseeable future, whatever the length of contract would be.”

The dominoes are lined up perfectly disastrously. If one guy leaves, certainly if two guys leave, why would the others stay, particularly because the only reason to remain is the best one of all: The Jackets have a strong team, with an open window to win sometime over the next few seasons. But come July 1, other clubs will offer the same opportunity in a place these players might rather be.

Of course Davidson and Kekalainen, hockey versions of Joe Hardy, signed on the bottom line with Mr. Applegate in the hopes of more than just one good spring. And the rout of Tampa Bay showed the shot they took wasn’t a long one at all. Having eliminated the best team, the Jackets were as good as anybody, just not clearly better than Boston, which having rid the playoffs of Columbus, probably now has the best chance to win.

It got away from the Jackets with that strangely low energy first two periods in Game Five that ultimately couldn’t be saved with a spirited comeback. It got away with four shots off the iron while the Jackets were still scoreless or within a goal in Game Six. It got away when the big guns went cold, the way it gets away from every team eliminated every year. It got away the day Tuukka Rask was born.

The Jackets were not the first good team to get beaten by a hot goalie, and will be far from the last, which makes the most compelling argument of all against the risk the Columbus bosses took. In a league of such balance you load up for a run of three to seven years, the odds being that in one of them things will go right, which it finally did for Washington, which, chances are, they still will for Tampa Bay.

San Jose’s window also is still open, even as Nashville’s appears to be closing, pending some legerdemain by David Poile. But at least the Predators have taken repeated runs, which in a league of soon to be 32 teams is about the best for which you can plan, fate in charge of the rest.

Certainly you don’t trade away so much future for juts one playoff series win, never the Blue Jackets’ intention, just what it now looks like they are left with.

“Don’t even go there,” Coach John Tortorella snapped Monday night when asked to reflect on the step forward the franchise had taken. “I’m not going to listen to that shit about an accomplishment. You go to the second round. I don’t even want to listen to it.”

But the coach will be left behind to deal with it. Part of the rationale for two No. Ones for Duchene, and two Number twos and Anthony Duclair for Ryan Dzingel was more prospects in the Jackets’ closet and opportunities down the road to get some picks back. Fine, but everybody believes they have prospects and only the rarest of them turn out to be Panarins, Bobrovskys or Duchenes. And more and more the cap era has taught teams to hang onto their picks.

The Jackets shot the wad regardless. “I would do it again in a second,” said Kekalainen. Poile still says the same today about his deadline trade in 2007 for Peter Forsberg, even if a big name, big time, player, didn’t get the Predators their first series win before being lost that summer. The trade still demonstrated a commitment by a franchise trying to get on the map.

You have to be in those cities to have a full feel for that. And you had to respect the Jackets’ reasoning and admire their courage. Still, the occasion of the Jackets elimination in the second round is only the first time Kekalainen will be asked whether it was worth it. The final test of the sanity of the GM and his moves will be if he is still saying that in three or four years.
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