Forget getting caught between a rock and a hard place. Anyone wanting to experience a truly difficult situation should spend a few minutes in Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s shoes.
On Monday, with less than one month to go before the trade deadline, Dan Milstein, the agent for Blue Jackets star winger Artemi Panarin, delivered the news no one in Columbus — particularly Kekalainen — wanted to hear: the 27-year-old pending unrestricted free agent will not be inking a new deal with the Blue Jackets before the deadline and won’t be negotiating a new contract until the season is through. The announcement comes after the all-star break, during which Panarin discussed his future with Milstein and it would appear came to the decision to play out his pact with an opportunity to test the open market this summer.
To be sure, this is no out-of-left-field announcement. The first rumblings of Panarin’s desire to play out this last season of his two-year pact came ahead of last summer’s draft, and it wasn’t until recently that there was a glimmer of hope for an in-season signing that could save the Blue Jackets from this whole mess. But that has been snuffed out, and now Kekalainen and Co. face the toughest decision of any front office, one of whether to keep their star winger with no certainty he’ll stay or move Panarin along at or ahead of the deadline in order to recoup some assets instead of losing him for nothing.
If it seems like an open-and-shut case, rest assured that it isn’t. And if you were of the belief that there would be some definite insight into which route the Blue Jackets were leaning towards taking when Kekalainen spoke with media Tuesday, you were mistaken.
“We’ve said all along that we’re going to make hard decisions if we have to,” Kekalainen said. “But our focus is on getting our team better and making it as competitive as possible for this spring, but also for the future, obviously. If we have to make a hard decision, we will. We like Artemi and we’d like to keep him. 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. We’re going to go about our business here, try to win hockey games, make the playoffs and go as deep as possible this spring, too.”
Depending on how one chooses to read his comments, it’s either Kekalainen saying Panarin will be deadline fodder who is sent to the highest bidder or an indication from the Blue Jackets that they’re willing to ride this thing out with the Stanley Cup in mind. It really can go either way. But it should be made clear that there are only two ways in which keeping Panarin pays dividends for the Blue Jackets: if the team wins the Stanley Cup this season and/or he re-signs with the organization once the campaign comes to an end. Otherwise, there’s no other tangible or long-lasting victory for Columbus. Sure, they might win a playoff round for the first time in franchise history, but they don’t hand out hardware for that and the glory of that will fade fast if or when Panarin departs.
Kekalainen pointed out, of course, that he has been in this situation before. Just last season Jack Johnson and Matt Calvert were pending UFAs whose services were retained through the deadline before eventually jetting as free agents in the summer without Columbus receiving any compensation. Said Kekalainen, it was a case at that time of the short-term benefits outweighing the potential for the trade returns to have meaningful long-term impact. That may very well be true, too. But with all due respect to Johnson and Calvert, it is in no way an apt comparison. Johnson and Calvert were bit players. Panarin is on the top of the playbill, and he can’t be lost for nothing.
Getting a suitable return is going to be the tricky part, however. As Kekalainen told reporters Tuesday, any playoff-bound team wanting to acquire Panarin as a rental likely won’t be all too willing to pay a high price that includes roster players that can help the Blue Jackets in the immediate. But what Columbus can receive is picks and prospects that offer them more options than the wait-and-see approach that is keeping Panarin through the deadline. The initial return for Panarin can either be flipped elsewhere for additional offensive help in the short-term or help them continue to build the kind of prospect depth that has become so incredibly important to the clubs in consistent championship contention.
Consider this, too: the Blue Jackets haven’t been a marquee destination for free agents. Panarin is a prime example of a player seeking a future elsewhere once UFA status roles around — as is Sergei Bobrovsky, the pending UFA keeper who likewise appears to be headed out of town either by the deadline or come the off-season. If Panarin is lost for nothing, what are the odds he’s replaced in the immediate by a top talent inked by way of free agency? History would suggest they’re not high. By getting a return that includes picks and prospects, the Blue Jackets get team-controlled assets that they can build around. And right now it might be safe to suggest that there’s a greater chance of Columbus finding a stud with a late first-round pick than there is of Panarin sticking around beyond this season.
There are plenty of ways this can shake out in the coming weeks. And absolutely, there is still a possibility the Blue Jackets retain Panarin through the deadline and come out on the winning end, looking all the more brilliant for the decision. If Columbus wants to avoid a heartbreaking lose-lose situation, though, there may only be one option: move Panarin and get what you can, as difficult as that may be to stomach.