The Columbus Blue Jackets will look to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight season, but they enter 2018-19 as the only team in the NHL that hasn't won a playoff series and with the uncertain status of forward Artemi Panarin hanging over them.
The Blue Jackets fortified their depth at forward by signing Riley Nash (three years, $8.25 million) and Anthony Duclair (one year, $650,000) following disappointing seasons from centers Alexander Wennberg(35 points; eight goals, 27 assists) and Brandon Dubinsky (16 points; six goals, 10 assists). The additions could result in Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno returning to their natural wing positions.
"There's quality there, guys there that can take up ice time anywhere from first line to fourth line," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "In which order? Their performance will decide."
Duclair, 22, had 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 56 games with the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes last season, when Nash, 29, had NHL career highs in goals (15), assists (26) and points (41) for the Boston Bruins. Nash said seeing the Blue Jackets make the playoffs the past two seasons was important.
"At this point in my career, after being in the playoffs for a couple of years, you're not getting any younger, so you want to go to a team that's in contention and trending in the right direction," Nash said.
The Blue Jackets expect to have a top line of Panarin, Cam Atkinson and center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who set Columbus rookie records for goals (20) and points (48) last season, but how long Panarin will remain is unclear.
The 26-year-old, who scored 27 goals and set Blue Jackets records for assists (55) and points (82) in 2017-18, his first in Columbus, can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Panarin, though, will not negotiate an extension once training camp begins Sept. 13, his agent told The Athletic on July 19, and he has been unclear about whether he wants to play in Columbus beyond this season, making it possible he'll be traded.
"We want to keep him," Jenner said. "He's tremendously skilled and brings a different dynamic to our team that we all love."
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky could also become an unrestricted free agent July 1, but Kekalainen said neither player's situation should impact on the on-ice performance.
"We had players in that contract situation two years ago," he said. "We had 108 points. We had players in those situations last year, we had 97 points. They were never distractions."
Columbus will have to retool its defense a bit, especially since Zach Werenski had shoulder surgery May 3 and could be out until November. Seth Jones, who played in the NHL All-Star Game the past two seasons, will take on more responsibility. Gabriel Carlsson, Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan will be among those given opportunities to play bigger roles after Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Ian Cole (Colorado Avalanche) left as free agents.
Columbus (45-30-7) earned the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, but for the second straight season was eliminated in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion. The Blue Jackets fell in five games to the Penguins in 2017 and lost to the Washington Capitals in six games last season after winning the first two.
Though making the playoffs in consecutive seasons was a first for the Blue Jackets, coach John Tortorella said the bar must be raised.
"I like our personnel, but the biggest thing to me is, we need to change our mindset here to where … that we feel we belong in the playoffs, not just be [in]," he said after the Washington series. "We're six games and we're done. That's what I want to get away from."