Despite agent Dan Milstein announcing Monday that Artemi Panarin will not sign a contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets during this season, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said "nothing" has changed as far as how the team will approach the trade deadline.
"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," Kekalainen said. "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."
The Blue Jackets currently sit third in the Metropolitan Division and are positioned to make the playoffs for the third straight year. However, holding onto Panarin - the team's leading scorer - could mean seeing an elite player leave in July for no return.
Kekalainen noted Tuesday that he faced a similar decision last February.
"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," Kekalainen said. "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, pending unrestricted free agent, 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.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook today… for various different reasons."
Panarin, who has 19 goals and 53 points in 46 games this season, informed the Blue Jackets in June that he wouldn't be ready to sign a contract extension when he became eligible on July 1. Milstein had kept the door open for the winger to be open to signing in-season, up until Monday's statement.
"We have informed the team that we are willing to discuss Artemi’s future after the season," Milstein wrote on Twitter. "Our priority now is to focus on the rest of the season, trying to win a Stanley Cup for the CBJ & their fans”.
Kekalainen called the decision "disappointing."
"Yeah, it's disappointing, but all we can do is do our best, and I think we've done our part and we've done everything we can to make him feel at home," Kekalainen said. "We have a good team here around him. I think that's basically all we can do. We have a great city here, we have great fans, we have a great facility."
The Blue Jackets are now at risk of losing both Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to the open market in July. Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina winner, also informed the Blue Jackets last summer that he would not negotiate an extension with the team and TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun reports he provided Columbus with a list of teams he'd consider moving his no-move clause for.
Bobrovsky, 30, carries a $7.425 million cap hit in the final year of his deal, while Panarin, 27, has a $6 million cap hit with no trade protection.
The Blue Jackets are 28-17-3 this season heading into Tuesday's game against the Buffalo Sabres. The team has never won a playoff round in their franchise history.