Package deal? Panarin makes switch to Bobrovsky’s agent

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We have 17 days until the 2019 NHL trade deadline and the future of Artemi Panarin in Columbus remains cloudy.

Will the Blue Jackets trade him and/or goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, thereby allowing the team to get assets in return as opposed to watching them walk for nothing when they become unrestricted free agents on July 1?

Will general manager Jarmo Kekalainen keep one or both and value winning a playoff series for the first time in franchise history over whatever unknown futures he’d receive back in a trade?

Plenty of questions left to be answered, but for now the only news is that Panarin has decided to switch agents, as first reported by NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes, from Dan Milstein of Gold Star Hockey to Paul Theofanous of TMI, LLC. Panarin switched to Milstein in Jan. 2017 citing a need to have representation that can communicate in Russian.

The interesting wrinkle here is that Theofanous also represents Bobrovsky, so those rumors that the two Russians could be a package deal either at the trade deadline (Bob does have a no-mov clause) or come free agency will only intensify. It’s already out there that some believe the Florida Panthers could pursue both as many expect them to be aggressive in the off-season in order to become a playoff team next season. That’s just one option.

Even with the offer of free vodka, earlier this month Milstein, on behalf of Panarin, announced that his client wouldn’t be discussing his future in-season and any negotiations would have to take place in the summer. That put his immediate future in Columbus in doubt and left questions as to what the Blue Jackets will do going forward, especially as they hold the third spot in the Metropolitan Division and are in striking distance of the division lead.

“If we have to make a hard decision, we will,” Kekalainen said the day after the Panarin announcement. “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.”

It will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds leading into the trade deadline and then once we get to free agency in July as it’s clear both players will test the market.

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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.

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.

Blue Jackets winning despite drama surrounding biggest stars

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By Mitch Stacy (AP Sports Writer)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Drama stemming from the uncertain future of two of the team’s biggest stars has simmered in the background for half a season, but the Columbus Blue Jackets don’t seem all that bothered.

With a bye week bumping up against the All-Star weekend, most of the Blue Jackets enjoyed a long midseason break, knowing changes could soon be coming that will alter the team’s lineup and identity.

Two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin will be unrestricted free agents after the season and thus far have refused to sign extensions. At least one of Russian stars could be dealt by the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

Despite the inner tumult and an anemic power play, the Blue Jackets are winning. They entered the break 28-17-3, on track for a 100-point season and elbowing for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with the New York Islanders, Washington and Pittsburgh. After dropping a back-to-back before the bye week, Columbus won five of its last eight and put together separate winning streaks of four and five games since mid-December.

”They can handle a lot of things,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com. ”They can handle things internally, they can handle things face to face, and they take the message the right way and move along. That speaks well for the leadership inside the locker room and also the character of the players in the room.”

Columbus returns to action at home Tuesday against Buffalo.

The 30-year-old Bobrovsky, a fan favorite in his seventh season in Columbus , wants more money than the team is willing to pay for a multiyear deal. His contract has a no-move clause he would have to waive to be traded and he’s declined to say whether he would be willing to do so.

”Bob,” who will make $7.4 million this year, has been inconsistent (19-14) and not played to the level that earned him honors as the NHL’s top goalie after the 2012-13 and 2016-17 seasons. He received a high-profile rebuke from the team and was suspended for a game for an unspecified incident after coach John Tortorella pulled him in the third period of a 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay on Jan. 8. Although Bobrovsky apologized to the team, it’s not likely the situation helped him want to stay.

Tortorella has acknowledged that he’s given Bobrovsky’s backup, Joonas Korpisalo, more playing time this season because of the uncertainty over Bob’s future. The 24-year-old Finn has responded with a 9-3 record and a goals-against average of 2.95, not much worse than Bobrovsky’s 2.91. ”Korpi” already has played in more games than in all of last season.

”I was prepared for that,” Bobrovsky said of the additional starts for his backup. ”Every season brings some challenges, it doesn’t matter what kind of situation. There will be tough times, there will be fun times. It’s a long season.”

Panarin, 27, was traded to Columbus before last season and added critical scoring punch, setting career and franchise highs in points (27) and assists (55). “Bread” is playing his best hockey lately and is on track for a 100-point season. Linemates Cam Atkinson and Pierre Luc-Dubois have been terrific, too.

Panarin gives few interviews in English but seems unfazed by all the noise over his contract situation. He is not sure he wants to be in Columbus for the long haul.

”Every guy is different,” Atkinson said. ”Every guy goes through different personal experiences. He’s playing really well for us.”

A couple of billboards have gone up in Columbus in hopes of persuading Panarin to stay, including one from a distillery offering him free vodka for life if he re-signs with the Blue Jackets. He has had some fun with the offers on social media but hasn’t tipped his hand on which way he is leaning.

”I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do,” Tortorella said. ”But we can’t do anything about that. We’ve just got to keep going about our business.”

Captain Nick Foligno, who missed four games recently when his 5-year-old daughter had heart surgery, said the players’ approach to each game has not been affected by all the other stuff swirling around.

”It hasn’t been that strange for us,” he said. ”For us, it really hasn’t been any different. We have a job to do. Whoever is in the lineup doesn’t change that.”

For power play help, Columbus is looking to newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, who has been hired as a special teams consultant. St. Louis will be reunited with Tortorella, who coached him as part of the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

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Blue Jackets are red-hot, mostly with Bob on the bench

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Sometimes, when locker room drama spills out into the mainstream, the star in question will silence murmurs with great play. Other times, things will fall apart altogether.

In the case of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets have been prospering ever since Bob dealt with that unofficial suspension, but it really hasn’t had much to do with Bobrovsky.

[Blue Jackets sit Bobrovsky; Bob addresses the incident, his future]

Instead, the Blue Jackets have largely feasted on the improving play of Joonas Korpisalo, and dynamite work from the top line (maybe “The Bread Line?”) of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Cam Atkinson.

Consider the last week-plus for Korpisalo, with some overlap from the “incident,” which was Bob not returning to the Blue Jackets’ bench after being pulled last week against Tampa:

Jan. 4: 14 saves in relief appearance against Carolina, no goals allowed
Jan. 8: The night of the “incident,” Korpisalo stops all eight shots against Tampa Bay.
Jan. 10: Makes 35 saves as Columbus beats Nashville in OT, with Bob fever at a high pitch.
Jan. 12: Korpisalo only allows one goal as Columbus beats Washington 2-1 in OT
Jan. 13: Bob’s lone appearance since the kerfuffle. Columbus wins, but the score was 7-5, so it’s tough to give Bobrovsky overwhelming credit.
Jan. 15: Korpisalo and the Blue Jackets cruise to a 4-1 win against the Devils.

This strong play hasn’t gone unnoticed by John Tortorella, as he discussed when asked about what he’s seen in Korpisalo:

“It’s what I don’t see in him,” Tortorella said. “Just no extra movement. He just looks confident …”

On one level, it’s a little awkward that the Blue Jackets are on a hot streak, mostly with Bobrovsky on the bench. It’s sort of a twisted take on “living well is the best revenge.”

But the delightful thing is just how fun certain elements are turning out to be.

Take, for instance, a post-win ritual. For a while, Nick Foligno and Korpisalo would exchange ill-advised, but very “hockey” headbutts when the backup would get a W:

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline has been chronicling this development (sub required), including this amusing quote from Foligno earlier in 2018-19.

“I don’t really know where that came from,” Foligno said. “But I kinda like it. It’s good to rough Korpi up a little bit.”

Yet, with Korpisalo winning three of the four games on the Blue Jackets’ current four-game winning streak, even reckless hockey players took a step back on thought of the conkies.

In case you’re not fluent in Hockeylish, “conkies” are apparently concussions, and the two finally put a stop to it after Tuesday’s win against New Jersey. Their new celebration might need some more time in the oven, which is something even Korpisalo admitted.

Yeah, that wasn’t too great, unless Korpisalo and Foligno were actually doing a high-level impression of that “Step Brothers” scene where Will Ferrell and Adam Scott clearly don’t know how to hug each other.

That jovial atmosphere extends to the little things in life, like the team being overjoyed by the prospect of no practice, like conky-fearing Allen Iversons:

It’s remarkable that Korpisalo’s hot streak has merely pushed him to a .902 save percentage on the season, and Bobrovsky hasn’t been nailing his contract year either, with just a .903 save percentage in 2018-19.

Such a kerfuffle underscores an interesting thought: this team is jockeying with the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division crown even with subpar, and sometimes distracting goaltending.

A blazing-hot top line is a big reason why.

While a heating up Korpisalo makes a Bobrovsky trade seem only more inevitable, Panarin’s been proving his value all season long. He’s generated a four-game point and goal streak, generating five goals and two assists for seven points during that span. Panarin’s up to 52 points in 44 games, Dubois has 42 points in 46 contests, and Atkinson has 27 goals (among 48 points), closing in on his career-high of 35.

Imagine what that line (not to mention stellar defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski) could accomplish if that goaltending rises to the occasion?

It’s pretty strange to see the Blue Jackets prosper so much without Bobrovsky in net, but the organization obviously must hope that this is a sign of good things to come.

If not, at least it’s been a fun, unexpected ride for the last week or so.

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.

‘Bread’ is the man in playoff surge for the Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Artemi Panarin turned out to be everything the Columbus Blue Jackets were looking for when they traded for him last summer: A dead-eye sniper and deft puck distributor who can get game-breaking goals and make everyone around him better.

And, the Blue Jackets hope, a guy who can get them deeper into the playoffs.

So far, so good. Columbus heads home to Nationwide Arena after taking a 2-0 lead over Washington in their first-round series on Sunday night, a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win in which Panarin contributed a pair of key assists.

That came three nights after Panarin won the series opener in overtime. With two assists already in regulation, he drove down the left side, slipped past Capitals defenseman Dimitry Orlov and snapped a shot over goalie Philipp Grubauer‘s shoulder.

”There’s very few people who can make that shot,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said.

”He can make a play from nothing,” Orlov said. ”He’s so smooth.”

The Blue Jackets probably wouldn’t be playing in the postseason without the 26-year-old Russian they call the ”Bread Man.” He was a steady presence and consistent scorer through a bumpy season of slumps and injuries to other key players.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Panarin led Columbus with 27 goals and 55 assists, and his 82 points were the most in a single season in franchise history. His plus/minus of 23 and average of just over 20 minutes on the ice per game were career highs.

Panarin – sounds like Panera Bread, hence the hockey nickname of ”Bread Man” or just ”Bread” – has embraced being a featured star after playing in the large shadow of Patrick Kane in Chicago in his first two years in the league.

”In Chicago, I played with Kane and got a lot of assists from him,” Panarin said. ”But I always wanted something more, to put more of the game on myself and be more accountable for the result. Here, I got that, what I wanted.”

Panarin, who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL in 2015-16, was acquired from the Black Hawks last June along with forward Tyler Motte for forward Brandon Saad and goalie Anton Forsberg. Saad was a reliable player for Columbus for two seasons.

”Bread is a different type player because he can make a special play to win a game,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. ”I just think for you to get through and find your way and try to be a better playoff team, you have to have some players that are dynamic. You’re not coaching it, they just see something, they seize a moment and they win you a game. Or they make a huge play to get you back in the game in another way.”

With the Blue Jackets on a power play and down 3-2 in the second period on Sunday, Panarin dribbled the puck and patiently waited for a lane to open up before delivering a pinpoint circle-to-circle pass to Cam Atkinson , who scored the tying goal.

Panarin’s line mates, veteran winger Atkinson and 19-year-old rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, have benefited from his skills. Atkinson – who had two goals on Sunday – has come on strong after missing time with injuries, finishing the regular season with 14 goals and 14 assists in February and March. Dubois had 20 goals and 28 assists in the regular season, making him the most productive rookie in Blue Jackets history.

Panarin makes $6 million a year on a contract that runs through next season. He’ll be due a sizeable salary bump if the Blue Jackets decide to keep him around after that.

So far, he’s been an ideal fit.

”When they first traded me, of course for a couple days, I worried,” he said. ”But then I calmed down and understood that this is all good for me. I understood that here I would progress as a player first and foremost. What’s most important to me isn’t money, but the whole game.”

Associated Press Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.

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