BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Blue Jackets were unquestionably the biggest buyers in the days and hours leading up to Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline. And despite their loss to the Penguins a night later in Columbus, the Blue Jackets — by almost any measure — certainly improved their playoff stock in the still undecided Eastern Conference playoff race.
But did the Blue Jackets “win the day,” a phrase that gets bandied about the NHL after every draft, deadline and start of free agency? Well, it kind of depends on how you define “win,” said a few of the Penguins I spoke to this week.
• On Friday, the Blue Jackets acquired the biggest fish in the pond, Matt Duchene, by sending prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, their 2019 first-round pick and a conditional first in 2020 to the Senators for the 28-year-old star center.
• On Saturday, the Blue Jackets then worked out a separate deal with Ottawa for Ryan Dzingel and a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft for the underperforming Anthony Duclair and their second-round pick in 2020 and 2021.
• On Monday, they acquired goaltender Keith Kinkaid for a song, a fifth-round pick to the Devils in 2022. Then, they acquired rugged defenseman Adam McQuaid from the Rangers for prospect Julius Bergman and fourth- and seventh-round picks in this year’s draft.
Despite all the moves the Blue Jackets made, in addition to not trading pending unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, they are hardly a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. After Tuesday night’s loss to the Penguins, the Blue Jackets actually fell out of a playoff spot.
The players I spoke to suspect that will change but the reality is that the Blue Jackets -- like the Penguins -- are among four or five other teams in the Eastern Conference that could realistically upend the Lightning should they meet in the playoffs. The Capitals, Maple Leafs and Bruins are also in that mix.
Tampa Bay is running away with the Presidents Trophy, but it has been unable to get over the hump in recent seasons. After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 only to lose to the Blackhawks, they reached the Conference Final in 2016 and ’18, only to lose in seven games to the eventual Cup champion Penguins and Capitals.
However, that disappointment is nothing compared to the Blue Jackets, who have had a tortured playoff history in their 17 years of existence. The Blue Jackets have reached the playoffs just four times, including the past two seasons, but have been unable to get out of the first round. Last spring they took a 2-0 series lead over the Capitals by winning the first two games in Washington, only to lose the next four games. They are the only NHL team to have not won a single playoff series.
"Think about that?" one team source said.
Even the Golden Knights were able “to get out of bed” and do that last season when Vegas became the first expansion team since the St. Louis Blues (in a season where an expansion team was guaranteed to be in the Final) to reach the championship of a major North American pro sports league.
To better understand why Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen did what he did this week though, you have to understand the Columbus market. Though it has come a long way in establishing itself as a viable hockey market, the Blue Jackets are a distant second team in town behind Ohio State football. Despite their recent regular-season success, the Blue Jackets are still just 24th in the league in attendance, averaging 16,284 (89.81 percent capacity) to Nationwide Arena.
Unlike the NFL, NBA or MLB, the NHL doesn’t have the luxury of lucrative national television deals. By and large, the NHL is a league that generates profits off of ticket sales. The difference between four home playoff dates and 16 is potentially huge. The Blue Jackets needed to gain respect not only in the league but in their own marketplace. And that is why Kekalainen went all in.
Whether they can actually win will depend a lot on Bobrosvky, who has a .921 save percentage in the regular season but just .891 in the postseason. A lot will hinge on whether John Tortorella can keep his volatility in check and play nice with his new players. Because if the Blue Jackets fail this spring, oh boy, it could go south quickly on Columbus.
"I don't get it," another Penguin said.
On top of Panarin and Bobrovsky, their recent additions — Duchene, Dzingel, McQuaid and Kinkaid — are all on expiring contracts. Obviously, Kekalainen will try to re-sign the newcomers this summer but it’s almost certain that Panarin and Bobrovsky will test free agency on July 1. Not only do the Blue Jackets risk losing all of them for nothing, they also mortgaged their future by dealing all those draft picks.
And for what? To win a playoff round, maybe two? Do they throw a parade down High Street for that?
• After acquiring Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from the Panthers for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan on Feb. 1, Jim Rutherford made only two moves at the deadline. The biggest was to send Tanner Pearson to Vancouver for defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Due to injuries, that trade was almost made out of necessity. The Penguins I spoke to said that they viewed Rutherford’s relatively quiet day as a vote of confidence in his team. To a man, they said they felt confident they could make a run with the team as-is. -- Bradford in Buffalo, N.Y.
• As Monday’s trade deadline unfolded, the big-screen TV inside the locker room at the Lemieux Complex was tuned into the NHL Network. In the middle of the horseshoe-shaped room, Sidney Crosby and Pearson were taking it all in. They were among the last handful of players to take off their gear and the two teammates were seen sharing a laugh about something or someone. That's a daily occurrence in the Penguins’ room. However, not two hours later Pearson was dealt, having played just 44 games with the Penguins after being acquired from the Kings on Nov. 14. Obviously trades are a part of pro sports, but no matter how long I've been in this business or how many times it's happened, whether it was Jamie Oleksiak or Daniel Sprong, guys that I’d talked to the day they were traded, it’s just so surreal when it actually happens. -- Bradford in Buffalo, N.Y.
• Last year at this time, I was hearing the Steelers would consider moving cornerback Cameron Sutton to safety. And they did give Sutton some time at safety during OTAs. But once they selected Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen in the draft and added Morgan Burnett in free agency, they decided Sutton was best suited to stay at cornerback. This year, however, there is a thought within the organization to move cornerback Brian Allen to safety this offseason. That's an interesting proposition given Allen's size. The 2017 fifth-round draft pick is 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, making him very big for a cornerback, but just the right size for a safety. And the former wide receiver at Utah showed good hands in college, intercepting five passes in his final two seasons despite being new to playing corner. With two years under his belt in the Steelers' system, Allen should have a nice understanding of the defense and what's required to play safety. This move could make a lot of sense, especially considering the Steelers will have an opening at safety when Burnett is released. -- Dale Lolley in Indianapolis
• There are actually people surprised that no NFL General Managers or coaches said publicly they are interested in a trade for Antonio Brown. Reporters asked a number of guys the past two days in Indianapolis about their interest in Brown via a trade. But they have to realize that because of NFL tampering rules, those decision makers from other teams can't talk about potential interest in Brown. And they're certainly not going to do it publicly. -- Lolley
• Drew Rosenhaus, the agent for Brown, is here in Indianapolis. In fact, he was spotted in the same hotel in which the Steelers' brass is staying. GM Kevin Colbert said Wednesday the team will continue to keep Rosenhaus up to date on everything that is going on behind the scenes in the efforts to trade his client. It doesn't seem like they'll have to pick up the phone to do so. -- Lolley
• Yes, it is far too early in the exhibition season to get too excited about how anyone is playing. However, outfielder Jason Martin has made a very strong impression in Grapefruit League play. The least-heralded of the four players the Pirates received from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade, the 5-foot-9 Martin has shown power, speed and good defense. Martin will probably go back to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the season, but it seems certain he will reach Pittsburgh at some point in 2019. “He doesn’t get any recognition when it comes to the prospect rankings, but this kid can play,” a scout said. “He is going to have a better career than most people think. He just has that little something extra about him.” – John Perrotto in Bradenton, Fla.
• There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding Elias Diaz, who the Pirates say is week-to-week with a virus. This is my 32nd year covering baseball and I don’t ever recall a situation like this. The Pirates are being tight-lipped about exactly what is wrong, which leaves the impression it could be something very serious. Here’s hoping that’s not the case, but something doesn’t seem right here. -- Perrotto
• The cardinal rule of the sportswriting business – at least it used to be – is there is no cheering in the press box. However, sometimes it’s hard to not to want to see certain people do well, and left-handed reliever prospect Blake Weiman is one of them. Likely to start the season at Double-A Altoona, Weiman might be as nice of a guy as anyone I’ve ever met in baseball. -- Perrotto
• Spring training is about teams getting ready for the season; everyone knows that. However, the early exhibition games have devolved into a farce and it is unfair to the fans. The lowest ticket price is $21 on the day of a game at LECOM Park, which isn’t cheap. Yet fans who bought tickets Monday to watch the Pirates play the Red Sox saw a Boston lineup devoid of any regulars. I totally understand that teams want to ease their players into game action and veterans don’t want to make two-hour bus trips. However, Major League Baseball owes it to the fans to make teams field representative lineups. Otherwise, the ticket prices should be lower. Making people pay a minimum of $21 to watch No. 90 pitch to No. 82 is borderline robbery. -- Perrotto
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