Last summer, there was plenty fo reason to enter the season a little skeptical of Columbus.
The Blue Jackets had ripped down the fourth-highest point total in the NHL almost out of nowhere, posting a 31-point improvement from the previous season. There were reasons, of course, with the club adding high-end offensive talent, finally getting a full season from its elite goaltender, and absolutely dining out on the power play thanks to an unsustainably high shooting percentage.
But Columbus had improved, swapping Brandon Saad (good player) for Artemi Panarin (extremely good player), seeing some young players take steps forward, and seemingly figuring out how to more effectively deploy its defense. The 108 points was unlikely to happen again, but a good season and return to the playoffs were certainly in the cards.
And here we are now, with the team having won 97 points — hampered this time by a weirdly low shooting percentage — been eliminated in the first round by the eventual champions, and more problematically, facing some significant existential questions.
There is little doubt the Blue Jackets have the juice to improve on last year’s point total if things go right, and there’s little doubt the player that they added this summer (Riley Nash) patches up some of the lingering depth issues they needed to address. Neither of those guys move the needle in any significant way, but Nash showed last season he can be a very useful No. 3 center and literally whichever defenseman they use to replace Jack Johnson long-term is, if nothing else, sure to be an improvement over Jack Johnson. Hell, the loss of Johnson is even more of a net positive because John Tortorella won’t be able to overuse him in every conceivable situation anymore.
So if things seem to be generally positive in Columbus overall, why aren’t people talking about this being a high-end team in the Metro Division once again this season? Because the team’s two best players — Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — are heading for unrestricted free agency next summer and there seems to be little inclination from either to get a deal done before the season starts, or perhaps even during it.
The value both bring to the table basically cannot be understated. Bobrovsky has played 60-plus games each of the last two seasons and gone .931 and .921, world-class numbers, the best in the league over that stretch. Meanwhile, Panarin was a little better than point-a-game in his first season with the Blue Jackets, continuing the kind of high-end production he’s posted since coming into the league. He’s seventh in points per game over the last three seasons, and actually improved on his previous pace last year even after moving away from an MVP-type player like Patrick Kane. Maybe, then, he’s an MVP-type player.
The problem with the NHL, which isn’t really a thing in other sports, is that if you have one good player as a pending UFA for a full season, you will be required to answer questions about that situation at least every other night all season long.
“Any update on negotiations?” “How are you handling expectations?”
They say it’s distracting for a team and while it’s a little hard to believe that to the extent that guys are thinking about it on the bench between shifts, it probably gets annoying and sucks to deal with. And that’s with one player, even if they’re, like, on your second line. If your two best players are in the situation, and it’s known that at least one of them is, as they say in the soccer world, “unsettled” all year? No thanks.
So the question becomes how much it affects the team on the ice. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, assuredly, won’t be thinking about what happens if one of both of those guys need to be traded at the deadline because the team knows it needs to recoup something for them, rather than let them walk for free.
And let’s say both Bobrovsky and Panarin don’t want to stay in Columbus long-term. That’s life. The question quickly becomes how much wanting out will affect their on-ice play. The answer, one assumes, is “not much.” If anything, because they are two elite players in contract years, they could drag Columbus kicking and screaming to a better season just because when you have two ultra-motivated guys who have the potential to be the best at their position in the world on any given night, well, that leads to a lot of wins. Especially because one of those players is a goaltender.
We don’t have a lot of data on elite players in this league even getting to contract years, that’s how rare it is. But let’s take last year’s Islanders and John Tavares as an example. The team stunk, for sure, but Tavares was north of a point a game — as was Mat Barzal, and Tavares only had a hand in 17 of his points — and 80 points for the year was probably north of what most people saw the Islanders being able to do, with that depth and that goaltending situation.
They were, of course, gutted to lose a player of Tavares’s quality and while you might not put Panarin in that same class among left wings (you’d be wrong, but people are unpredictable), you’d certainly give Bobrovsky every ounce of that kind of credit.
So while yeah, you can see where this is going to be a capital-D distraction for the club all season, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see these guys rip off another 100-plus-point season just because the two best players on the team might be playing to get the hell out and maximize their next contracts.
Then it becomes something of a Vegas question: Yeah you’re winning a lot, but do you trade those guys despite the concern over losing them for nothing, or chase a Cup? These guys aren’t James Neal or anything, obviously, and they’re basically impossible to replace, but a Cup is forever.
Seems like that’s all stuff to worry about in February, but in the meantime there might be a lot more winning than distractions.
What We Learned: August roundup edition
That Noah Hanifin extension? I dunno. The amount of cash savings they got over Dougie Hamilton in the short term is basically not worth the hassle, especially because Hanifin really doesn’t play tough opponents all that often and also isn’t as good when he does. I’m still baffled by that trade, man. … Hey that Max Pacioretty situation is going real well in Montreal, huh? When Allan Walsh starts tweeting, that’s tantamount to a trade demand. If only this could have been sorted out, say, I don’t know, uhhh, maybe like, at the draft maybe? I dunno!!!!! … Not trying to tell anyone how to do their jobs here but all these good young RFAs without contracts probably need to be signed in the next two weeks. Something to think about. … Hey, Wayne Simmonds doesn’t have a contract for 2019-20 yet either. Everyone go bother him about it constantly for the next nine months.
Gold Star Award
If you’re at all smart, you’ll put down max bets on a bunch of Bovada’s team point total over-unders this week. The Blues at 96.5? Take the over. That’s free money.
Minus of the Weekend
The football man thinks he could be a hockey man??????? I’M FURIOUS!!!!!!!!
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “cl19” HYPERLINK knows when he’s beat.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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