This offseason, the Devils enter a bit of crossroads with regards to free agency. The past few weeks we have looked at how the Devils should approach July 1st as it relates to their own players as well as other forwards (Gerard featured Mats Zuccarello) and defenders (I featured Jake Gardiner).
We’ve discussed the fact that there are is a lot of forward talent in the UFA pool this year. Specifically, despite accounting for only 3.5% of the available skaters, the Blue Jackets single-handedly account for over 10% of the scored goals available — 3 of the 6 available 25+ goal-scorers are on Columbus (Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel). That’s not even mentioning the two-time Vezina winner, and likely the best goalie in the NHL over the past three seasons, Sergei Bobrovsky.
There’s a lot of talent to be had there and I thought it would be helpful to hear from someone who is familiar with the team and the players in order to give a substantive and unique perspective on the quality and availability of these players. To do this, I’ve asked Alison Lukan, the Columbus beat writer for The Athletic to answer a few questions for us here at All About the Jersey.
CJ Turtoro: Hey Alison. First of all, I’d just like to say thanks for doing this. I’ve been a big fan of yours ever since you started writing at The Athletic. Warm up question here -- how did you feel about this season for Columbus. How did you feel about the Jarmo’s all-in move and the results it produced. Was upsetting the best regular season team since the turn of the millenium enough of a payoff?
Alison Lukan: As time goes on, I’m sure perspective will change but at least right now, I think the team should not be satisfied, but they can be pleased with this season. It really is miraculous how effective they were in managing the issue of “where will Bob and Bread go?” all year from a team perspective, and I applaud the “all-in” move purely from a strategy stand point because it makes the game more interesting. Looking back, this was a forced window of opportunity and rather than let it slip away, Kekalainen said “go for it.” I’m a fan of that. Now of course, if management can’t restock the development pipeline through whatever means, this perspective may fade.
In terms of what actually happened in the playoffs, I think the Tampa Bay sweep will always be special. I don’t know of a single person who thought the Jackets would win that series (myself included) let alone sweep, and to cover those games - and for the team and the fans to finish it off at home is a landmark moment. I think what will stick more, however, is that because of that, and because of how tight the Boston series was (and how Boston has progressed since) is that this year will be frustrating and viewed as “opportunity missed” because if Columbus had gotten past Boston, I think many believe they would have had quite the path to make it to the Final. “It could have been us” is more real than ever has been for the Blue Jackets and I think that will linger.
CJ: For anyone who doesn’t know why I’ve decided to bring a Columbus beat writer on the blog, the Blue Jackets are flush with UFA talent this offseason. As I said in the intro, the Blue Jackets are providing a disproportionate amount of the UFA forward talent in addition to goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. So just generally, how do you view this offseason from the perspective of someone who covers the team? Do the fans expect an exodus, or for Jarmo to retool and compete again next year?
AL: To the first question, one of the benefits of Jarmo going all in and the team going further than ever before in the post-season, is that I think it bought a lot of good will and faith from the fan base. Right now, there is quite a bit of “it was worth it,” in the fan community, as well as a lot of optimism even in the players who will stay (Atkinson, Bjorkstrand, Texier, etc.) Additionally, I think the team has some (not a ton but some) breathing room in that right now, Elvis Merzlikins is expected to be an NHL goaltender. He has yet to play on North American ice, but I think that optimism will allow for a grace period as he adapts in net. Also, I think that the defensive corps is quite strong and doesn’t need much - if any - tweaking.
What the team is going to need to do is find a way to stay as close to the same offensive level as what they were this year. Re-signing Duchene would be huge in that. If they can’t bring back any of the free agents that they want, the silver lining is that the team is now flush with cap space and can make a run at additional FA talent - it won’t be a one-for-one replacement of course, but do a few players come in to try to fill the void(s)?
CJ: Okay, now let’s get into specifics. On the big 4 (Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel, Bobrovsky), could you gives us a number on the percent likelihood that they are re-signing with Columbus.
AL: Panarin: 25%, Duchene: 40%, Dzingel: 30%, Bobrovsky 10%
CJ: How much weight do you give to the rumors of Panarin and/or Bobrovsky going to Florida?
AL: I think more so for Bobrovsky than Panarin. Bobrovsky is an elite goaltender, but that isn’t the kind of player that any team will make room for, so I feel the suitors for him make up a shorter list, and it has to be a place he wants to go as well. My colleague George Richards has reported there’s a likelihood of this match for Bob for some time and I respect his work. Does Panarin go as well? Possibly, but his free agent experience may include more options. Ultimately, I think he comes down to Florida or a New York team.
CJ: Speaking about Panarin, your colleague over at The Athletic, Craig Custance, said just a week ago “it would be a bit surprising if he actually made it to July 1.” Do you agree with that, and if so what would you expect in return?
AL: Selfishly for the Blue Jackets, that is the ideal scenario because it means they were able to get something back in terms of negotiating rights or sign and trade. Obviously the latter provides the better return, a first rounder perhaps?
CJ: Just following up here because the armchair GMs of the blogosphere will want to know ... would it surprise you if Panarin made it to July 1st?
AL: Would it surprise me? No. I think the Blue Jackets would like (Custance’s point), and it’s fair to think the player had an idea where he wants to go. But if we are to believe the Tavares story from last season, decisions can come down to the last minute and if Panarin is trying to find the very best deal for himself, that may mean the Jackets are on the outside when it comes to benefiting.
CJ: Briefly now, just on the quality of the forwards available: How do you feel about the narratives surrounding the players? Do you think the fanfare around Panarin is overstated? How much better is he than Duchene? Is Dzingel not getting enough love? Is there anything we should know about the big guys that you think people might not be aware of?
AL: I’ve said for the two years Panarin was a Blue Jacket that he is elite - for me one of the top ten - if not five - forwards in the league. He drives play so effectively, is a huge part of transitional play, and he also commands such attention that his linemates get more opportunity as well. What’s surprising about him is not just his offensive talent, but how strong he can be on the puck - in the truest sense, he’s a possession machine who is very creative and highly skilled. Duchene is a top talent, perhaps one step below Panarin, but of course, the demands are different on a center versus a winger. I really like Duchene’s vision and he too makes his teammates better not just on the ice, but Duchene is a noted student of the game who will talk with his teammates on everything from sticks to specific plays.
Dzingel is a tougher case. He has excellent numbers, but never really seemed to settle into a role with Columbus. His offensive dried up (he was also off the power play and playing a third-line role) and John Tortorella made mention that adjusting to be being traded for the first time in his career may have had a bit of an impact (that was not a dig by the coach - rather, a discussion on how difficult being traded can be and the resulting change in a player’s game). The trick with Dzingel now is to figure out who is he? Is he the point monster we saw in Ottawa or is there more to understand? And then, at a time of year when teams usually end up over-paying - does who he is justify the contract he’ll want. I’m not so sure that Dzingel’s future lies in Columbus.
CJ: Thanks again for your time Alison, I really appreciate it. Have a great Summer, and best of luck to you guys in the offseason.
Thank you, CJ. A pleasure to be included - your work is some of the best out there and it gives so much back to the hockey community - you are appreciated!
For anyone who wants to see more of Alison’s stuff, check out her Twitter and her author page at The Athletic. In particular, this piece about how Columbus’s forecheck stifled Tampa’s offense was excellent. There’s a paywall, but odds are there’s a promotion of some kind going on right now for anyone who’d like to subscribe.
What do you guys think about what Alison’s said? Which, if any, of the Columbus free agents would you like to go for? Given the percentages that she provided, who do you think the Devils are most likely to be able to get?
Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below!