Blue Jackets GM on trade deadline: ‘If we have to make a hard decision, we will’

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The morning after Artemi Panarin’s agent announced that his client wants to focus on this season and will deal with his future in the summer, it was status quo for Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday morning, the GM said that Panarin’s decision changes “nothing” about the organization’s decision-making process regarding the star forward’s future.

“We’ve said all along we’re going to make hard decisions if we have to, but our focus is on getting our team better and making it as competitive as possible for this spring but also into the future obviously,” said Kekalainen. “If we have to make a hard decision, we will. We like Artemi and would like to keep him, and it’s his right to go into free agency. If he chooses to do so, we’ll be knocking on his door July 1, but we’re going to go about our business here and try to win hockey games and make the playoffs and go as deep as possible this spring, too.”

Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein, Tweeted out a statement Monday night saying the team had been notified of the decision.

Now the ball is in Kekalainen’s court.

It’d almost be easier for the Blue Jackets’ GM if the team was far out of the playoff picture. Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky can both become unrestricted free agents this summer and there’s been no indication that either player will re-sign in Columbus. If the playoffs weren’t a possibility, then no doubt both would be gone by the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline.

The Blue Jackets currently sit third in the Metropolitan Division, four points behind the New York Islanders. Head coach John Tortorella said Tuesday there was a discussion about this topic with the players and he’s been proud of his team the way they’ve performed with all this hanging above the organization.

“We just go about our business,” Tortorella said. “As I’ve said all along, this has been around us all year long. We get ready to play Buffalo tonight. I know he’s going to be ready to play.”

So how does Kekalainen resolve this? That will depend on who’s calling and what they’re offering. Since both players would be possible rentals for an inquiring team, the return for Columbus likely wouldn’t include any players that could help them now as they chase a playoff spot and eye a deep run in the spring.

It will be a delicate balance for Kekalainen as his phone, which he said was ringing “off the hook” Tuesday, will keep him busy for the next four weeks.

“I think we’re going to have to weigh the decisions in front of us as far as what is out there in the marketplace,” said Kekalainen. “That’s the only answer that I’m going to be able to give you. I’ve made the example from last year when we had offers for Jack Johnson, a pending UFA, and Matt Calvert. We decided to keep them because we thought that was the best thing for our team in the short term, and the long-term benefits to trading them weren’t good enough. It’s the same way in these situations.”

MORE: Panarin won’t discuss future with Blue Jackets until after season

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.