The date was June 23rd, 2017. It was the first day of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in Chicago, often a day that marks the beginning of teams making moves in preparation for the next season. And that morning, the ball really started rolling with a blockbuster trade: Chicago reacquired Brandon Saad, a key component in their 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup winning teams, from Columbus in exchange for Artemi Panarin, the 2016 Calder winner for rookie of the year.
I remember waking up, looking on YouTube, and finding a video of some pundits on the NHL Network discussing the deal. I was sad to see Saad go, but was very excited to have an elite goal scorer who could potentially be a “game-breaker” that the Jackets had previously lacked. However, I also remember looking at CapFriendly.com, a website which shows all 31 teams’ rosters and contracts, and saw how Panarin’s contract expired after the 2018-19 season. I then also noticed that two-time Vezina goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract was also set to expire at the same time, and that both would become unrestricted free agents if they did not agree to a new contract with Columbus. And I thought to myself “I am really not looking forward to the 2019 offseason”.
Lo and behold, here we are, a week before the trade deadline on February 25th. Both Panarin and Bobrovsky still with expiring contracts, still set to become UFAs come July 1st. Both indicating they probably do not want to stay long-term in Columbus. And Panarin switching agents just last week to the same agent as Bobrovsky, possibly hinting at them being a package deal. Pretty much everything I feared might happen has occurred.
And yet, so far, the Jackets appear none the worse for wear from this situation. The team has 69 points in 57 games (their second-best record through this point in franchise history), and are well in the mix for the playoffs, currently holding the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. Panarin is well on his way to breaking his personal bests in points and goals, while Bobrovsky has struggled at times, but has won 5 of his last 6 starts. So what do the Jackets and their general manager Jarmo Kekaelaeinen do with these two pending UFAs: sell them off at the deadline and get assets back, or keep them for a playoff run and likely see them both walk in the offseason for nothing in return?
The question becomes even more complicated when you consider the fact that the Blue Jackets have never had any playoff success. In their first 18 years, they made the playoffs only 4 times, winning a grand total of 5 games and never getting past game 6, let alone the first round. Keeping one or both around gives the Jackets a better chance at achieving some success in the playoffs as opposed to trading them away. However, the risk they would be taking is huge: if you keep them and don’t get past the first round yet again, it becomes a massive failure on the part of the Blue Jackets. It’s very similar to the John Tavares situation last season: the Islanders kept Tavares through the deadline in the hopes that they could make the playoffs and win, they didn’t, and Tavares left to play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs while the Isles got nothing back for him. The Jackets fanbase (myself included) really wants to see this team make a deep run in the playoffs, but is it worth it this year considering the risk?
My answer to this whole dilemma: it depends on what teams are offering for them. If a team is willing to give up a king’s ransom to get one or both of them, then take it. However, don’t sell them off for the sake of getting something back for them. I wouldn’t deal either of them, especially Panarin, unless it’s an offer so good you can’t refuse. Otherwise, I would keep them, buy at the deadline to shore up some holes before the playoffs, and take a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. If both do end up leaving, it will be a setback, but the team is young and has some good talent so it shouldn’t be a crippling blow to the organization. With more development and other moves (trades, free agent signings, etc.), this team should be alright regardless of what happens with Panarin and Bobrovsky.
So what will actually happen with Panarin and Bobrovsky come the trade deadline next Monday? Time will tell, but don’t expect a move to be made just for the sake of making a move. If one or both go, I think it will be a very strategic and calculated move by Jarmo; if they stay, then free agency gets a lot more chaotic and interesting.