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Duchene to test free agency; Bobrovsky undecided on Blue Jackets future

GM Kekalainen wants to retain center, goalie, forward Panarin

by Craig Merz / Correspondent

COLUMBUS -- Matt Duchene plans to test the market when the Columbus Blue Jackets center becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"My intent as this point is to explore everything that could be out there," the 28-year-old said Wednesday, two days after the Blue Jackets were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's a big moment in my life, probably the biggest decision I'll ever have to make, definitely the biggest I made to this point. I'm definitely going to take my time and talk to my family and my representation and figure out what's best."

Duchene was acquired from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 22 in a trade for forward prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a conditional first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. The Blue Jackets have five other UFAs: goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Keith Kinkaid, forwards Artemi Panarin and Ryan Dzingel, and defenseman Adam McQuaid.

Kekalainen said Columbus wants to keep Duchene, Bobrovsky and Panarin. Those players and, to a lesser extent, the 27-year-old Dzingel, who was acquired in a trade with the Senators on Feb. 23, are the focus for him.

"None of the decisions will be a question (of) whether we want to spend the money to make our team better or not," Kekalainen said. "[Ownership has] always been willing to do that, supporting our plan whether it meant spending more money.

"We're competitive enough and we have enough in our budget to pay anybody whatever their worth in the marketplace. It's never been about money. Our ownership has been great."

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Like Duchene, neither Bobrovsky nor Panarin has discussed a contract with the Blue Jackets.

Panarin, who was not available to the media Wednesday, said in February he wants to become a free agent and that he could re-sign with Columbus, but that he wanted to see if there were better options. The 27-year-old had 11 points (five goals, six assists) after leading Columbus with 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) this season, his second with the Blue Jackets.

In January, Bobrovsky declined to comment on a report that he would to waive his no-move clause ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline. He said Wednesday his mind isn't made up to leave.

"It's too early to answer still," he said. "I will think. I will weigh in all the opportunities what we have on the table and then we'll decide."

Bobrovsky was 37-24-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .913 save percentage this season, his seventh with the Blue Jackets. He was 6-4 with a 3.14 GAA and .925 save percentage in the playoffs.

Bobrovsky, who will be 31 at the start of next season, said reports of a fractured relationship with management are not true.

"No, I don't feel that way," he said. "There were some ups and downs as always in that process, but we say thank you to each other and it's good."

Duchene had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 23 regular-season games with Columbus and was second to Panarin on the Blue Jackets in the playoffs with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 10 games.

"I've really enjoyed my time here and we will definitely be talking to Jarmo and the Blue Jackets and seeing what's in store," Duchene said. "I'm so happy to be a Blue Jacket. I'm very grateful to be here. Obviously, it will be a great thing if it can continue. We'll see what happens."

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Duchene helped the Blue Jackets sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round for their first playoff series win. They lost in the second round to the Boston Bruins in six games.

"The culture here is great," Duchene said. "It's a winning culture top to bottom. There's not one aspect that you go, 'OK, this needs to change, this needs to be better.' I was blown away by it.

"As far as the city and the fans, just wow, I did not expect that. Amazing city. Great fan base. Simple as that."

Kekalainen hopes those feelings factor into whether Duchene decides to stay, but said, "I believe whatever happens with our pending UFAs we're going to have a really good team after July 1 here too. We want guys who are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys who want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus, (are) proud to be Blue Jackets, proud to live in Columbus, Ohio.

"… I happen to love it, and I hope the guys in the room do too, and if they don't, and they have a choice to go someplace else, good luck and no hard feelings. Go play somewhere else then."

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