After two straight postseason appearances, Columbus Blue Jacket fans enter a new season with a relatively-new feeling: A reasonable expectation to make the playoffs.
They also have to confront the possibility of life after their best offensive player and the goalie who’s become the face of the franchise.
Columbus drops the puck on a new season Thursday night in Detroit. Last season brought the first back-to-back playoff appearances in franchise history, but the club still has never won a playoff series. Last season the team finished fourth in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan division and took an early lead in their playoff series with the Washington Capitals, but ultimately lost to the team that went on to win the Stanley Cup Final.
Thursday brings a welcome end to an offseason where much of the attention focused on star winger Artemi Panarin, a 26-year-old Russian who took the league by storm last year. Panarin led the Blue Jackets in goals, points and assists in the 2017-2018 season. But he’s entering the final year of his contract and has made it clear he will not resign with the team because he wants to play in a bigger market.
So could the Jackets trade him midseason before they lose him for nothing in free agency?
“If (the general manager) can’t get a better offer than he’s getting now, I think he holds onto him and carries him into the season, perhaps well into the season, and gets the same return he can,” says Aaron Portzline, who covers the team for The Athletic. “And his thinking is, ‘I get 60 games out of him, why trade him now?’”
The scariest possibility for Columbus fans, Portzline says, is Columbus trading Panarin while they’re in playoff contention.
It’s a different situation for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a perennial all-star who holds every major goaltending record in Jackets history. He’s still considered a top-shelf goalie, but he’s now 30 years old and makes more than $7 million a season.
Maybe most importantly, Portzline says, Bobrovsky has a clause in his contract that lets him veto any trades.
“I think (Blue Jackets’ executives) feel like this is his last year here," Portzline says. "They feel like it’s a different marketplace for a goaltender, whereas the entire league will go after Panarin. There’s only room in the league for 31 goaltenders.”
The Blue Jackets have also already been bitten by the injury bug. All-star defenseman Seth Jones will miss the first several weeks of the season with a knee injury.
While the fate of some key players remains up in the air, there is added security this year with the head coach. John Tortorella signed a contract during the offseason and is now under contract through the 2020-2021 season.
As for this year, Aaron Portzline predicts a return to the playoffs.
“I think this a team that can be as high as second place in the Metro, maybe third place in the Metro," he says. "I think they absolutely make the playoffs. And then the bittersweet could become the bitter if Panarin and Bobrobsky finally get them past that first round and then have to move on. That would be very, very difficult for Blue Jacket fans.”