For months now the Columbus Blue Jackets have been the focus of many around the NHL as they prepare to deal with pending unrestricted free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. Neither player seems likely to consider an extension with the Blue Jackets, meaning the team has a decision to make on whether to trade them before the upcoming deadline or keep them for a potential Stanley Cup run. Recently the Florida Panthers cleared out cap space by trading away Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, immediately leading many to speculate that they were gearing up for a run at both free agents in the summer.
That wait until summer may not be necessary though, as Larry Brooks of the New York Post tweets that the Panthers are interested in trading for Bobrovsky before the deadline in order to get him under contract. Remember players can only sign eight-year extensions with the team they spend the most recent trade deadline with, meaning the Panthers would be able to offer Bobrovsky an extra year of contract security. Brooks notes that the Panthers could potentially use newly acquired forward Derick Brassard as part of the package to get Bobrovsky to Sunrise.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen has made it clear that he is willing to make a tough decision on both free agents, but will trade them only if they get the desired return. After losing five consecutive games and falling to fourth in the Metropolitan Division, perhaps it is getting easier to stomach the idea of moving their star players even if it will weaken their group for a playoff run.
Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic (subscription required) today pondered in his latest column whether the Blue Jackets would have interest in Jimmy Howard as a potential Bobrovsky replacement, but also touches on the idea that the Panthers will not be so quick to move on from Brassard. The Florida front office is hoping a late-season push can get them into the playoffs and wants to see how the former Pittsburgh Penguins forward fits in.
The other thing to consider when it comes to Bobrovsky’s potential fit in Florida is how it would affect the current goaltenders. The team already has Roberto Luongo and James Reimer under contract for a combined cap hit of nearly $8MM, with three and two years remaining on their respective contracts. An early retirement would mean cap recapture penalties (for both Vancouver and Florida at the moment) in the case of Luongo, but his health has also been a concern in recent years. There would obviously have to be a corresponding transaction of some sort if Bobrovsky was given an extension. One has to wonder if that would be another option for the Blue Jackets—taking on one of the current Panthers goaltenders.
There are now just three weeks before the NHL trade deadline and Columbus still has time to turn things around and establish themselves as contenders once again. If they do it will be extremely difficult to move on from two of the team’s best players, but it might be the right thing for the long-term health of the franchise.