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February Will Be a Franchise-Defining Month for the Columbus Blue Jackets

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Whatever happens will echo for years to come

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This is a big month for the Columbus Blue Jackets. An important month. A franchise-defining month, you might say.

The decisions CBJ management make this month will reverberate throughout the organization for years to come. How general manager Jarmo Kekalainen handles the imminent departure of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky before or on the February 25 deadline will almost certainly make the team less competitive in the short term. What about the long term? One way or another, we’ll find out this month.

Aaron Portzline’s article in The Athletic from Thursday details where and how the Bob and Bread saga might play out. The Jackets, as exhaustively discussed by this point, are firmly between a rock and a hard place. One line in the article stuck out, a point Pierre LeBrun has speculated about as well:

“A top-six forward would be nice, especially a center, but that’s an unlikely return from a club seeking Panarin as a rental player. The Blue Jackets are prepared to accept a trade of top prospect(s) and pick(s), then flipping a portion of that package to acquire offensive help in the wake of Panarin’s departure.”

That’s the best-case scenario that doesn’t involve Panarin signing to play the rest of his prime in Columbus. Last night, some possible stipulations emerged that could make it difficult for another team to swing a blockbuster trade for Panarin:

Kekalainen, as Pale Dragon thoroughly explored a few weeks ago, has a solid track record when it comes to trades. If it’s not a great trade, he’s not afraid to decline from dealing altogether.

If Kekainlaien decides to not make a trade? Then you’ve lost your best goalie and best forward while getting nothing but their services for two more months, possibly three, in return. To quote the greatest Canadian band that ever lived, Rush: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

There’s never been a deadline in franchise history with this much to lose. The biggest trades in CBJ history have gone down during the summer—

There’s never been a deadline in franchise history with this much to lose. This isn’t shipping Ryan Johansen to get a cornerstone player back or jettisoning Jeff Carter. The Blue Jackets stumbled into the All-Star break and have lost five straight, currently three points clear of Carolina for the second wild card spot.

That’s the other part of this important month. The front office drama justifiably receives the majority of attention from media and fans, but the club has a chance to solidify its playoff chances this month on the ice. Last February, the Blue Jackets went 5-7-1, including a five-game losing streak from January 30 to February 9. Must be something about this time of year. That swoon put the team in a precarious position heading into March, something they were able to dig themselves out of with a 10-game winning streak to launch themselves back into a solid playoff spot.

Their playoff chances stand around 68 percent as of today, according to SportsClubStats. A three-game western road trip will see the CBJ play two playoff teams (as of now) before returning home to play Metropolitan Division heavyweights Washington and the New York Islanders. The next seven games? Four come against playoff teams in Tampa Bay, Montreal, San Jose and Pittsburgh (and don’t discount hard-charging Philadelphia after that). Bottom line: This is going to be a tough month and Columbus will have to figure it out sooner rather than later to avoid a precipitous drop in the standings.

Everything focuses on Panarin and Bobrovsky, but who knows who else Jarmo could deal at the deadline. Would another team think they could turn Alexander Wennberg around? What about moving Anthony Duclair out of the doghouse and clear into another city? Pittsburgh made a move on Friday in dealing Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and pics to Florida for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. Seth Jones is untouchable, perhaps Pierre-Luc Dubois. Anyone else?

Columbus looks lost on the ice right now. Last night’s game against St. Louis saw only five shots in the first period and a final total of four high danger scoring chances. Losing ramps up the pressure to do something—anything—to avoid an embarrassing backslide out of playoff contention.

There are lots of ways this February can go, and right now it feels like there are more bad outcomes than good. It’s up to the players and management to avoid a giant setback for a franchise that has suffered more than its fair share. But at least we’ll have some resolution on the Panarin and Bobrovsky drama. Either they’re gone and we can move on, or they’re here and the CBJ are going for broke.

We’ve talked several times about how this year doesn’t feel as fun, until it was for awhile. Having the trade deadline behind us will provide at least some clarity in one of the biggest months for franchise history and perhaps allow some fun to come back as the Jackets make their playoff push. Here’s hoping, anyway.