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Blue Jackets don't have to trade Panarin, Bobrovsky

Must weigh shot at playoff run vs. getting weak return for pending free agent forward, goalie

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

It's easy to say the Columbus Blue Jackets should trade Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin if they won't sign extensions before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET. 

Bobrovsky is a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. Panarin is Columbus' leading scorer with 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists). Each is on an expiring contract and not negotiating.

The Blue Jackets can't afford to let them leave for nothing, right?

Well, no. 


[RELATED: Panarin won't negotiate with Blue Jackets during season]


They shouldn't trade them just to get something, anything, in return. They must weigh what they could get for each player via trade versus how it would affect their chances to make a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen was wisely calm and noncommittal Tuesday after Panarin's agent, Dan Milstein, announced Monday that the 27-year-old forward would be willing to discuss his future after the season. 

Asked what changed for him, Kekalainen said, "Nothing. We've said all along we're going to make hard decisions if we have to. The focus is on making this team better and as competitive as possible for this spring but also for the future, obviously."

Kekalainen reiterated that the Blue Jackets wanted to keep Panarin and said they would pursue him if he reached unrestricted free agency July 1.

Video: Panarin unwilling to sign extension during the season

"We're going to go about our business here and try to win hockey games, make the playoffs and go as deep as possible this spring too," Kekalainen said. "That's what we're going to focus on."

The Blue Jackets are the only team in the NHL that has never won a playoff series, and they are oh so close to breaking through.

The last two seasons, they've lost in the Eastern Conference First Round to the eventual Stanley Cup champions -- the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in 2017, the Washington Capitals in six games in 2018. 

Now, despite the uncertainty surrounding two of their best players, the Blue Jackets (28-17-3) are third in the Metropolitan Division with 59 points entering their game against the Buffalo Sabres at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, MSG-B, NHL.TV).

Coach John Tortorella spoke to the team about the situation Tuesday morning.

"The stuff flying around this club has not affected us," Tortorella said.

Making a playoff run would have value. It would reward the fans who have followed the Blue Jackets since they entered the NHL in 2000 and everyone in the organization who has made a commitment to Columbus. It would excite the city, attract new fans, give the current players experience and show everyone around the NHL -- including Bobrovsky and Panarin and other potential free agents -- that the Blue Jackets can win.

Keeping a pending unrestricted free agent past the trade deadline is like renting your own player, and you don't have to give up an asset to do it. Kekalainen did it with forward Matt Calvert and defenseman Jack Johnson last season, and Calvert signed with the Colorado Avalanche and Johnson with the Penguins on July 1.

"We thought that was the best thing for our team short term, basically because the long-term benefits of trading them weren't good enough," Kekalainen said.

No, Bobrovsky and Panarin are not Calvert and Johnson. But Kekalainen isn't dealing from a position of strength.

Video: CBJ@MIN: Bobrovsky extends pad to rob Zucker

If you're a contender, you probably already have a good goalie. Bobrovsky is 5-14 with a 3.49 goals-against average and .891 save percentage in the playoffs in his NHL career. What are you giving up to rent the 30-year-old goalie? Bobrovsky has a no-move clause, so he can control the market too.

Panarin's agent gave Kekalainen time to maneuver by making that announcement, but he also confirmed for the rest of the NHL that the Blue Jackets are in a tough spot. What will teams offer for a player likely to hit the open market July 1? Kekalainen has to act like he'd be willing to keep Panarin for leverage, but he should mean it. It's going to be hard for the Blue Jackets to receive immediate help in a trade.

"Generally, you can say that the teams that are in the market right now to strengthen their team with something that might be a rental are not usually giving up roster players," Kekalainen said. "That doesn't necessarily apply to Panarin, but in general, that's the rule there. They're giving up futures to get players to add to their team rather than giving a roster player and getting another one back."

Asked if he would hold onto Panarin if all he could get was futures, Kekalainen said. "We'll see what's out there."

If the Blue Jackets can receive a significant return for Bobrovsky or Panarin, they should make the trade. If not, they shouldn't. They should keep doing what they're doing -- seeing if Joonas Korpisalo can take the lead in goal, putting distractions aside -- and try to make a run.

"We're going to have a good team even if they choose to go to the free-agent market," Kekalainen said. "We have some really good players, really good core players. We have more coming that aren't even here yet, and we're going to be OK."

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