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Sergei Bobrovsky is most crucial player around NHL’s trade deadline

Maybe this is a bias from being around Henrik Lundqvist for just about a decade, but it’s very difficult to understand how a NHL team can keep plodding along without a clear-cut No. 1 goalie. With the exception of the NFL quarterback, there is not another single player on a major pro sports team that is more influential in the outcomes of games than the goalie.

Which is why Sergei Bobrovsky’s blowup in Columbus is now casting a shadow over the rest of the league as the Feb. 26 trade deadline is seemingly racing towards us. Already set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the 30-year-old Bobrovsky had some sort of “incident” that the team said “failed to meet expectations and values.” Management kept him away from the club for Thursday’s home game against the Predators, but was expected to meet with him before Friday’s practice and he could rejoin the team soon.

The plan had seemed to be to let him play out the contract and hope to win the franchise’s first postseason round, but now you can see that Bobrovsky has one foot out the door. Assuming there is no problem with him waiving his full no-trade clause, there are countless suitors that will be lining up for him — although the trade return might be lessened somewhat by an issue of attitude.

Maybe more dissuading is Bobrovsky’s postseason performance in a small sample size, putting up a .898 save percentage and 3.37 goals-against average in 17 playoff games (11 starts) with the Blue Jackets. After losing a six-game, first-round series to the Capitals this past spring, it was suggested that maybe he see a sports psychologist. Bobrovsky balked.

“I completely disagree if anybody will say that I need a psychologist,” he said.

So maybe he’s not a perfect No. 1, but nobody is. (Well, except Pekka Rinne.) It’s hard to think of a goaltender as a deadline rental, but there are teams out there that surely think they can make a playoff push with an uptick in nets. The only question is if a deal can be done in time. If not, it’s going to be a very awkward few months in Ohio, and even more so if the Blue Jackets have another unceremonious postseason exit.

It might come down to general manager Jarmo Kekalainen waiting until this summer, when the market opens up for teams that are not currently in the playoff hunt. Yet if other teams know that Kekalainen can’t re-sign Bobrovsky, why not just wait until July 1 when he becomes a free agent rather than give up assets? If you’re a team like the Hurricanes, Canucks, Sabres, Panthers, Blues — or, for that matter, the Islanders and Devils — why not be ultra-aggressive in this pursuit? For all the talk of the league getting faster and more skilled, the backbone remains good goaltending.

In the end, this might be the most critical time in the 18-year history of the Columbus franchise. It has made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons (and just four of the Blue Jackets’ 17) and has established a lively atmosphere and revitalized businesses around downtown Nationwide Arena. The All-Star Game there in 2015 was a smashing success.

But a couple of bad moves here from Kekalainen — overseen by team president John Davidson — could undercut a lot of work to get to this point. In addition to the Bobrovsky situation, they have to deal with impending UFA Artemi Panarin, who gives the impression that he likes it fine in Columbus, but not so much that it’s a slam-dunk re-signing — that is, if the team is willing to match market value for the 27-year-old Russian dynamo. (And this is a reminder that Kekalainen fleeced his Chicago counterpart, Stan Bowman, when trading Brandon Saad brought back Panarin in the summer of 2017.)

If both of those players go, the return better be immediate or it’s a big step back for the organization. Sure, John Tortorella has proven time and again what a good coach he can be — and becoming the first American-born coach to 600 wins is a feat that should be recognized more than any of his emotional transgressions. But he’ll be the first one to tell you that you still need goaltending.

There’s a saying in football that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you actually have none. Same can be said for goaltenders, which is why the league should be drooling over Bobrovsky’s availability and why the Blue Jackets should act. Fast.

Kucherov cruising

What an amazing season the Lightning are having, led by Nikita Kucherov. The terrific winger breached the 70-point plateau in his 43rd game of the season, the fastest to get to that mark since Jaromir Jagr with the Penguins in 1999-2000.

It’s close to becoming a two-horse race for the Hart Trophy between Kucherov and Connor McDavid, who has contributed on 53-percent of the Oilers’ goals this season.

Labor discussions begin

In what is a long and arduous process, the discussions between the NHL and the Players Association have begun with a meeting in Vegas this week. The hope is that they can solidify a schedule for the 2020-21 season that includes another World Cup of Hockey. Of course, the league wants that to supplant the Olympics, which the players desperately want to participate in and will be a huge point of contention for a possible lockout of the 2021-22 season.

Well, at least they’re already at the table talking.

Legends

These are the moments you’ll look back on fondly in 10-15 years, when both Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara are retired and their careers are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Stay tuned . . . (to the Sabres?)

We’re getting wary on this long journey chronicling our northern brethren. Their week brought a 2-1 loss in Boston and a 5-1 win in Newark, bringing Buffalo to 4-5-1 in its previous 10. The excitement that was there during the 10-game winning streak has diminished. The Sabres have slid to 23-14-6, and are now tied in points with the Islanders for the two wild-card spots (the Isles have a game in hand).

After Friday night’s game in Carolina, they’re back home for the Lightning on Saturday and then head out on a three-game trip out to Western Canada before the bye week. Need something good to happen for them to keep this space on the other side of the bye.

Parting shot

Ah, the sweet art of chirping. The Bruins exalt with this compilation.

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