COLUMBUS — The Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the NHL this season by doing something few teams do: they went all-in.
Instead of selling off soon-to-be unrestricted free agents like goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin, the Blue Jackets kept both players on the roster as their own “rentals.” They also loaded up, adding center Matt Duchene, defenseman Adam McQuaid, winger Ryan Dzingel and backup goalie Keith Kinkaid at the trade deadline.
It all culminated with the Blue Jackets making it further than they ever had in franchise history — past the first round. But it didn’t end with a Stanley Cup, as Columbus was eliminated by the Bruins in the second round after a 3-0 loss in Game 6. And now the team is wondering, what’s next?
“You never know what’s going to happen this summer, who is going to stay who is going to go,” veteran winger Cam Atkinson said. “We had the group to do it this year, that’s for sure.”
Chief among concerns are Panarin and Bobrovsky, two of the most talented players in franchise history. The club tried to work out extensions with both players; Panarin expressed an interest in testing unrestricted free agency while Bobrovsky and the team were too far away on money and term that talks broke off.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen was characteristically blunt when talking to local reporters.
“Guys that want to be here are going to be here,” Kekalainen said. “Guys that don’t want to be here, it’s, well, ‘Good luck.'”
Bobrovsky, a two time Vezina winner, spent seven seasons in Columbus. He said it was too early to talk about his future because “it’s a big decision, it’s a lifetime decision.”
“I’m definitely thankful for everything I had here,” Bobrovsky said.
Bobrovsky was somber as he spoke and repeatedly thanked fans for their support. Just as the Blue Jackets did, Bobrovsky rewrote his own narrative this postseason. Bobrovsky was always known as a terrific regular-season goaltender who had a tendency to crumble in the playoffs.
Between 2011 and 2018, Bobrovsky went 5-14 in the playoffs, with a 3.49 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bobrovsky allowed at least three goals in 79 percent of his postseason appearances in that span, by far the most of any goalie with at least 10 appearances.
Bobrovsky was spectacular in the first-round sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning, posting a .932 save percentage, and had some strong performances against the Bruins, too.
“We went through some good times, some tough times,” Bobrovsky said. “We’ve been together seven years, so that’s a long time. It was special.”
Panarin was in his second season with the team after being traded from the Chicago Blackhawks. He set a new Columbus franchise record for points and became a fan favorite.
Panarin, who like Bobrovsky is Russian, rarely does media interviews but on Monday night spoke through an interpreter for a large media scrum.
“We just lost the game, that’s all I think,” Panarin said through the interpreter. When asked if he would return to Columbus, Panarin looked at the reporter, laughed, and shrugged a couple times. “Nobody knows,” he said in English.
The Blue Jackets will likely try to re-sign Duchene, a No. 1 center in free agency, though he will have other suitors. Duchene was not made available after the game.
“I think it’s important moving forward that we have the guys that are proud to be Blue Jackets and proud to be living in Columbus and loving it here,” Kekalainen said. “That’s really important, that hey bleed blue or whatever you want to call it.”