The Columbus Blue Jackets were thrust back into the spotlight last night when Artemi Panarin’s agent came out on Twitter to say that his client would not negotiate an extension before the end of the season. That has basically been Panarin’s stance since the beginning of last offseason, but to have it reiterated so close to the trade deadline has put even more pressure on a front office already facing some tough decisions. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen didn’t run away from that speculation though, instead calling a press conference to speak with the media directly about the situation. The Athletic uploaded the entire presser, which starts out with a general explanation from Kekalainen:
We’ve said all along that we’re going to make hard decisions if we have to, but our focus is on getting our team better. Making it as competitive as possible for this spring but also into the future obviously. If we have to make a hard decision we will. We like Artemi and would like to keep him, but it’s his right to go to free agency and if he chooses to do so we’ll be knocking on his door July 1.
Obviously keeping Panarin around for the remainder of this season gives the Blue Jackets the best chance for playoff success, given the forward’s offensive impact every night. Panarin ranks seventh in league scoring since entering the NHL in 2015-16, and has actually performed even better in Columbus than he did in Chicago. His presence makes the Blue Jackets a tough out in any playoff series, but Kekalainen also wasn’t shy in telling reporters that the team is more than just a single player.
I’ve said it before. We love Artemi, but we had 108 points [the season] before he arrived here. We’re going to have a good team even if [Panarin and fellow UFA Sergei Bobrovsky] choose to go to the free agent market. We have some really good core players, we have more coming that aren’t even here yet. We’re going to be okay.
So understanding that Kekalainen believes in the team’s future, it does seem that he would be fine with keeping his free agents through the deadline if the right deal doesn’t present itself. He even mentioned that the team did just that last year, when Jack Johnson and Matt Calvert were both drawing interest. The Blue Jackets kept both and saw them walk in free agency, though neither would have brought back the kind of return that Panarin would if the team decided to sell. It’s just that there might not be a fit for Columbus that helps them this season. Kekalainen understands this, noting that most contenders who are in the market for rental forwards like Panarin are not willing to give up roster players. Instead, they are dealing in futures which isn’t what the Blue Jackets are necessarily interested in.
Columbus has handled the question of whether Panarin or Bobrovsky will re-sign extremely well, not allowing it to affect their on-ice performance so far this season. Even head coach John Tortorella spoke today about how well the two have handled their business, competing hard for the team all season long. Bobrovsky is set to get the start tonight against the Buffalo Sabres, while Panarin will be back on the ice doing what he does best. There’s now fewer than four weeks remaining before the trade deadline and at least the Blue Jackets now know exactly where their star forward stands. Now it’s up to other teams to offer a package that will make it a truly hard decision for Kekalainen.