McKenzie: Kekalainen in ‘really difficult situation’

The Columbus Blue Jackets could be poised for a big season, and yet in some key respects they still find themselves in an extremely unenviable position.

Both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are in their walk years as potential unrestricted free agents, and neither one seems likely to be with the team for the 2019-20 campaign.

“I think they need to do exactly what Jarmo Kekalainen, the general manager, is doing right now,” indicated NHL Insider Bob McKenzie during a Friday morning radio hit on Winnipeg’s TSN 1290. “And that is just taking it one day at a time, not throwing any gas on the fire. He’s got a really difficult situation with Panarin and Bobrovsky, two guys that are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, two guys that in one form or another have kind of indicated that they’re likely moving on but not 100 percent.

“So Jarmo’s calculation right now is, ‘Let’s not fan the flames here.’ He’s obviously got to listen if he gets trade action on any of these guys, and I’m sure he will on Panarin.”

“But you know the Blue Jackets are supposed to be a pretty good team this year, or maybe a very good team this year. But incumbent on being a very good team is Bobrovsky playing Vezina-caliber goaltending and Panarin being an elite offensive player.

“It’s funny, but the worst-case scenario might be for this team to be really, really good with Panarin and Bobrovsky, and those guys playing at the top of their game and the Blue Jackets leading the Metro Division coming up toward the trade deadline, and realizing that, ‘We don’t have either one of these guys under contract. The fact that we don’t have them under contract right now suggests that they’re going to walk in the offseason, and here we are, a Cup contender with them in the lineup.’

“What do you do? How do you make those trades? Because you really don’t want to let these guys walk out the door for nothing.

“As for the injuries, you’re right. I mean, Seth Jones was a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman last year. No reason to expect he wouldn’t continue that upward trajectory. And to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season is tough. Ryan Murray is injured again, I’m not sure what his status is going to be for opening night. Zach Werenski is going to be back, but he’s just getting back after off-season surgery and I think he’s going to play one preseason game. So he’s not exactly coming into the season as a well-oiled machine, and it may take him awhile to get up to speed.

“So there are some concerns there. But from Kekalainen’s point of view, all you can do is let the season play out, keep an Panarin and Bobrovsky and try to chip away at them and see if you can get them signed. And if there comes to be a moment where you recognize, ‘You know what? The writing is on the wall. These guys are leaving,’ then you’ve got to do a real nice job of trying to keep your team competitive right now, and not send the message to the fans that the season is going down the drain.

“But you’ve also got to make hard decisions and try to get good value back for these guys before they walk out the door for nothing.”

Panarin is playing out the back half of the two-year, $12 million contract he signed in December of 2016, and will receive a significant raise on his next deal.

Bobrovsky is in the final season of his four-year, $29.7 million contract, a pact that comes with a no-move clause.

Contract-related info via CapFriendly