Understanding Columbus’ Quandary with impending Free Agent Stars
How about that title, eh?
Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekäläinen in a tough spot. He has constructed a roster that, on paper, should be an Eastern powerhouse. Anchored by stud American defencemen Zack Werenski and Seth Jones, and possessing a glut of offensive talent in Cam Atkinson, Alex Wennberg and Artemi Panarin, in addition to gritty offensively minded forwards such as Nick Foligno, Josh Andersen, and Pierre Luc- Dubois, they should be one of the most feared teams to face in the playoffs (despite having never won a series). This is all topped off with having two-time Vezina winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in net.
But if you pull any casual hockey fan off the street and told them to pick out the two biggest names on the list, it is a fair bet that they would all choose Panarin and Bobrovsky (the latter in actual name size as well!).
This is where it gets difficult. The two unquestionable superstars of the Blue Jackets are both pending free agents, meaning neither have signed extensions. This fact was complicated by contextual matters that have plagued negotiations this season.
Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets soured their relationship on the 9th of January. Playing the Tampa Bay Lightning and losing handily, coach John Tortorella opted to pull the struggling goaltender and put in back-up Joonas Korpisalo. This was a turning point. It was later reported that Bobrovsky chose to remove his equipment and not return to the bench – something that could have been very dicey for the Blue Jackets. Had Korpisalo gotten hurt, Bobrovsky, because of his actions, would not have been allowed to replace him despite playing earlier in the game. This fact was known by Bobrovsky when he chose to undress. While the two sides reconciled after a short 1-game suspension, there has been some minor changes in Columbus’ crease. Most notably, Korpisalo has begun to get a lion-share of the starts since the incident. Furthermore, he hasn’t been bad at all, showing that he may have what it takes to make the jump to full time starter.
While Panarin has been a consummate professional this season, his preferences, more so than his actions, have been the roadblock in negotiations. Panarin’s agent had described to the Blue Jackets’ front office that he does not want to negotiate an extension as he contemplates whether he sees himself remaining in Columbus long term. He has made it clear that it is not an indictment against his team and teammates, but in fact the actual city and lifestyle. This, nevertheless, is a problem for Kekäläinen.
So what should he do? As it stands (on 29 January 2019), Columbus is sitting third in the Metropolitan Division, and is within striking distance of a division title. It would seem crazy to trade their top two players at the deadline. But thanks to what will soon be dubbed the Tavares Effect (patent pending), it might be even crazier to let them both walk for nothing in free agency. We’ll explore all the main options that face Kekäläinen, signing them or trading them respectively.
Currently signed to a 6 million dollar cap hit, Panarin is due for a significant raise. After signing a modest 2 year deal at the aforementioned cap hit, it seems as though Panarin is interested in lifestyle more than anything. In assessing his production, Columbus could be looking at a monster deal, and, while they may have the space to this summer (especially if they choose not to sign Bobrovsky), this would be among the superstar contracts.
I believe the benchmarks for most upcoming contract negotiations will be that of Nikita Kucherov, who re-signed with the Tampa Bay at a cap hit of 9.5 million. Kucherov was playing at an MVP level, making his deal a complete steal. This is the best work Yzerman did with the Lighting. And he did a lot of great work (including Kucherov’s second contract). For clubs, this is incredible, as it hands them a case for their elite players to make less than 9.5 million.
Panarin and Tyler Seguin is very good career comparable. Across their careers, while Panarin has averaged nearly a point-per-game, Seguin’s playing style, proven history in North American leagues (coming into the league 5 years younger than Panarin), and scoring touch places the two superstars in the same conversation.
Furthermore, Seguin’s first contract out of his Entry-Level Deal had a cap hit of 5.75 million per year, just a hair under that of Panarin’s. From this, it is fair to assume that Panarin can garner a similar third contract to that of Seguin’s, which has a cap hit of 9.85 million. Taking into account the MVP Season that Kucherov is happening, I believe that Panarin will cost the Blue Jackets approximately 9.5 million to keep him.
All that is only if he wants to stay. If he doesn’t, well this whole section was a complete waste of both of our times. If that’s the case, I sincerely apologize and encourage you to contact your local authorities to report this injustice.
If you can’t sign Panarin, odds are Kekäläinen pushes to sign Bobrovsky. Reports from preliminary talks describe his desire to get a contract that is similar to Carey Price’s, who’s 8-year, 10.5 million dollar cap hit kicked in this year. While Bobrovsky has the resume to make a case for this amount of money (two Vezina trophies), his play this year has been uninspiring, and it reflects the potential decline in his play as he ages. While this may just be a down year, not many GMs will be too inclined to hand out this money, and more specifically this term to a goalie in decline – no matter the accolades.
Kekäläinen’s answer to this question lies with his current backup goalie Korpisalo. While he has spent his entire career as a backup behind the aforementioned Bobrovsky, he is a young, cheap option that Cap-era GMs long for. That being said, this all hinges on his ability to prove that he can be a capable starting goaltender of a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Since his spectacular rookie season in 2015-16 (31 games, .920 sv% 2.60 GAA), he has been mired in mediocrity, often falling below the .900 mark in save percentage.
This year hasn’t been different in the grand scheme of things. But since the Bobrovsky incident in Tampa Bay, Korpisalo has been getting a longer look in the starting role, and has been performing admirably.
So from this point until the trade deadline, Kekäläinen will be in an extremely tough spot to evaluate his goaltending situation based on Korpisalo’s small sample size. The Columbus brain trust will have to weigh the value of Korpisalo’s short stint as pseudo-starter to identify whether they can afford trading Bobrovsky.
This is what TSN Tradecentre wants – nay, needs. According to recent reports, Kekäläinen will be looking to dish his star winger before the deadline, so as to recoup assets as oppose to likely lose him for nothing if (but we all know when) he hits free agency.
With a modest cap hit of 6 million, there are a fair amount of teams that could acquire him without subtracting from the roster. Furthermore, giving the contending status of the Blue Jackets, they would likely prefer to acquire someone that can help them continue to contend, likely expanding the number of teams who could feasibly fit him under the cap as the competitive player going the other way would make the necessary room. Teams such as Carolina, Boston, Tampa Bay and Nashville would be likely trade partners.
There are important questions with trading Panarin that will ultimately decide his availability during the next month. The first is if they truly believe that they can win the Cup this year. If there is doubt as to if they can win it, then they will likely opt to recoup assets. That being said, the oft-used phrase in the Salary-Cap era has been “Anyone can win it if they make the playoffs”. Under that belief, coupled with the almost certainty that the roster would be worse if they traded the superstar, then they ought to go for it, right?
Another important question will be how the roster looks once Panarin is gone. Departing in free agency, the team would look significantly weaker barring a big free agent signing or trading for a star of his calibre (both unlikely). They would be a projected fringe playoff team, and would have trouble ascending to the level of regular season excellence that they’ve achieved since acquiring Panarin. BUT, with using the hypothetical assets that they would receive in a Panarin trade, they might be able to retool and re-ascend much faster.
So much to consider, with such little time. And this is further complicated by a potential Bobrovsky trade.
Now this is interesting. How often have star goalies been moved at the deadline? In recent memory, there have only been two.
The first, back on deadline day of 2014, was when the St. Louis Blues acquired Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, William Carrier, a 1st Round Pick and a 3rd Round Pick. For Buffalo, this was a pretty good haul. They got a capable starter to replace their departed-star-goalie, got a good prospect in Carrier, and got two mid-to-high draft picks.
This could be a good framework for a deal for Bobrovsky, especially considering Miller was on an expiring deal. The Blue Jackets would likely require a goaltender in return just as the Sabres did, likely to mitigate the risk they’d take by only having Korpisalo.
While the Sabres were rebuilding at the time, the jackets would likely be eager to acquire assets of the same value. Looking to add to their roster would be key to take the pressure off of relying on only their top line to produce.
The other star goalie that was moved at a deadline was in 2017, when the Los Angeles Kings decided to shore up goaltending (as Jonathan Quick was coming off a 5-month injury) and acquired Ben Bishop and a 5th Round Pick from Tampa Bay for Peter Budaj, defensive prospect Eric Cernak, a 7th Round Pick and a conditional pick. Tampa also retained 20% of Bishop’s expiring contract.
This is not exactly a gangbusters deal for Tampa Bay. They received a mid-level prospect, low draft pick and career back up for a consistent Vezina candidate. But they were in an interesting spot. With the emergence of Andrei Vasilevskiy as a star goalie and Bishop due to be a UFA that summer, they opted to ensure they got something for him, which was likely the better move long term.
Is Korpisalo the new Vasilevskiy? Probably not. The type and amount of assets that Tampa was able to recover from the pending UFA goaltender won't quite mimic what Bobrovsky could get, or what Columbus may need.
With very little history of star goaltenders getting traded, it is difficult to determine what Columbus could receive in a potential deal. Kekäläinen will certainly do his due diligence with exploring the market for his goaltender, and Bobrovsky’s deadline outcome will likely depend on the quality of offers and the play of Korpisalo.
What Does This Mean
Columbus, an undeniable deep playoff threat, is in a significant bind with their top stars. With both of Panarin and Bobrovsky looking more and more likely that they are going to hit the free market, Kekäläinen and his brain trust will have to decide if increasing their Cup hopes today is more important than recouping assets for the future.
Not an enviable position no doubt, but for those hoping for active Trade Deadline days, buckle up. Columbus might be the star of the show.
Contract Information from capfriendly.com
Stats from hockey-reference.com
Trade Information from nhltradetracker.com