Kekalainen said he never came close to trading Panarin, who leads the Blue Jackets with 68 points (24 goals, 44 assists), or Bobrovsky, a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the NHL.
"I never wanted to trade Artemi Panarin or Sergei Bobrovsky," Kekalainen said. "They're great players. I love them both."
[RELATED: Blue Jackets acquire Kinkaid | 2018-19 NHL Trade Tracker]
Still, Kekalainen never ruled out trading them either because each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and neither is willing to discuss signing a new contract. So Kekalainen listened whenever another team called but received no offers that made it worth trading either, not when the Blue Jackets are thinking they have their best chance to win a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in their 18-season history and go on a long run.
"There was no offer that would have made sense of us now and into the future, and it was an easy decision," Kekalainen said. "You don't get the luxury of having a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in your lineup very often, and as long as we can enjoy his services it's a great luxury to have. And we have a superstar in Artemi Panarin and now we added some important pieces into our lineup and we're stronger because of that."
Those important pieces include center Matt Duchene, who was acquired from the Ottawa Senators on Friday, and forward Ryan Dzingel, who was acquired from the Senators on Saturday.
Video: Duchene on being traded to the Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets didn't make as big of a splash Monday but solidified their depth on defense by acquiring Adam McQuaid from the New York Rangers (for defenseman Julius Bergman, a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and a seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft) and added experience in net by acquiring goalie Keith Kinkaid from the New Jersey Devils (for a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft).
But acquiring Duchene, who has 60 points (28 goals, 32 assists) and Dzingel, who has 44 points (22 goals, 22 assist) were their biggest moves.
The Blue Jackets will get their first look at how this all fits together when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, FS-O, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV).
"The challenge is on us now," Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. "So, we're really looking forward to just becoming that team that we envision, and they've given us every opportunity to do that."
There is some risk involved.
The combined price for Duchene, Dzingel, McQuaid and Kinkaid was a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, a conditional first-round pick in the 2020 draft, a second-round pick in the 2020 draft, a second-round pick in the 2021 draft, a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft, a seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft, a fifth-round pick in the 2022 draft, forward prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, and 23-year-old forward Anthony Duclair.
Video: Breaking down the Blue Jackets' deadline acquisitions
That leaves Columbus with only a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick (acquired in the trade for Dzingel) in the 2019 draft, and potentially no picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft.
On top of that, Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, Dzingel, McQuaid and Kinkaid might all leave as unrestricted free agents this summer.
Kekalainen is sticking his neck out to try to win this season.
"He got put in a difficult situation with two of his real high-end players that weren't willing to commit to re-sign," Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. "I think you've got to give him a lot of credit for going all in on it and seeing what happens."
Kekalainen downplayed the all-in perception. He said the Blue Jackets kept their top three forward prospects in Liam Foudy, the 18th pick in the 2018 draft, Alexandre Texier, a second-round pick (No. 45) in the 2017 draft, and Emil Bemstrom, a fourth-round pick (No. 117) in the 2016 draft.
And he believes there will be time to restock some of the draft pick they traded.
"This is definitely not a spring or a deadline saying that, 'OK, we're all in for this spring,' and then it's like we're just going to start a rebuild," Kekalainen said. "That's definitely not what we're doing here. We have our core in place and it's going to be in place no matter what happens with the UFAs. We have Seth Jones, we have Zach Werenski, we have Nick Foligno, we have Pierre-Luc Dubois.
"We have lots of good players. We're going to have a good team next year no matter what happens with the UFAs."
The most immediate concern is qualifying for the playoffs. With 21 games remaining, Columbus (35-23-3) is third in the Metropolitan Division with 73 points: four behind second-place Washington and one ahead the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins, who are tied in points for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
If the Blue Jackets can take care of that business, they believe they'll have an opportunity to do something many of them haven't previously. McQuaid, Dzingel and forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Riley Nash are their only players who have won a playoff series in the NHL.
But to Kekalainen, this isn't about winning one series.
"I'd be happy if we go four rounds and win," he said. "That's the goal. That's the only reason why any of the 31 teams are in this League and I don't think anybody is going to be lifting their arms up to win one round of playoffs and be happy about it. And I don't think we should be either."