Panarin took one game to spotlight his importance to Blue Jackets

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What’s tougher: stopping Artemi Panarin or figuring out what the Columbus Blue Jackets should do with him?

Such a question came to mind during the team’s season-opener, as the pending unrestricted free agent scored the overtime game-winner, assisted on the team’s first goal of 2018-19, and greedily hogged the puck as few forwards could do.

(In a good way.)

Say what you will about John Tortorella, but he’s smart enough to know when he should just stay out of the way, and that’s what he did with Panarin, allowing him to stay on the ice long enough to win the game.

In a team sport like hockey, you cannot assign all the credit to one player. Even a team-carrying goalie needs overmatched defenders to block shots every now and then. In the case of last night’s Panarin-propelled 3-2 OT win against the Red Wings, people hand credit to other Blue Jackets, like a lunch-pail trio featuring Brandon Dubinsky.

Let’s be honest, though. Just about every team has those muckers and grinders. The Blue Jackets aren’t that far removed, after all, from being a team with a rat-like mentality.

Such a hard-driving style suits Tortorella’s tendencies, and it’s likely helped Columbus rise to a more respectable level, but stars are what win you games … and hopefully, playoff series.

For all the progress the Blue Jackets have made, they still haven’t advanced to the second round or beyond in their franchise history.

That thought makes losing Panarin – who, at best, is leaning toward leaving – that much more painful. Trading him would mean avoiding losing Panarin for nothing except a roster spot and cap space, yet it could also pull this seemingly rising franchise that much closer to the pit of misery that is being regularly booed in your own building.

What does GM Jarmo Kekalainen do, really?

Theoretically, the best trade return for Panarin would probably come from landing a bunch of futures from a contender, much like the Montreal Canadiens received for Max Pacioretty. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that has reasonable aspirations to win their division and make a deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though.

Do you instead demand present-day assets, knowing that you’re just about assured a meager return?

Or do you just ride things out, hoping that Panarin will change his mind while playing for an – ideally – very competitive team where he’s the man? Because, with all due respect to very good players such as Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and even Sergei Bobrovsky, Panarin reminded the hockey world last night that he’s exactly that for Columbus, at least for as long as he’s wearing a Blue Jackets sweater.

This is a story to watch all season – particularly before the trade deadline expires – and if opening night was any indication, the questions will only burn deeper as 2018-19 progresses.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.