Jarmo Kekalainen continues to listen.
“I’m still just taking phone calls from teams that are interested,” the Columbus Blue Jackets general manager said Wednesday.
Everyone knows what he’s talking about.
Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender, and Artemi Panarin, Columbus’ leading scorer with 64 points (22 goals, 42 assists), can become unrestricted free agents July 1. They aren’t negotiating extensions, and the trade deadline is less than two weeks away.
Further complicating matters, Bobrovsky has a no-movement clause in his contract.
Kekalainen said he does not have a price in mind for Panarin or Bobrovsky.
“No,” he said. “Make an offer if you’re interested.”
He said the next few games won’t factor much into his decision whether to keep them or trade them, either.
“Not really,” he said.
The Blue Jackets (32-20-3) are third in the Metropolitan Division with 67 points, five behind the first-place New York Islanders with a game in hand but also only three ahead of the fifth-place Carolina Hurricanes with two games in hand.
They play the Islanders at Nationwide Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, MSG+, NHL.TV), then the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks before the deadline.
“It’s more about the outcome of the whole deal — for now, the near future and into the little more distant future,” Kekalainen said. “That’s the deciding factor, not where we are in the standings. …
“We’re going to have to look at all our options, and once we have them in front of us, we’ll make a decision.”
Columbus is the only team in the NHL that has not won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But Kekalainen is thinking bigger than that.
“People try to make a big deal about making it to the second round of the playoffs,” he said. “I’d like to make it to the fourth round of the playoffs and win. That’s the goal here.”
Kekalainen went in depth about the state of the Blue Jackets in an interview with NHL.com.
On how close the Blue Jackets are to making a run the way they are now:
“Well, I believe in our group. I think that we have a really good group of guys. We have a tight group of guys. We have a team that is close together. I think we have good depth. We have a lot of ingredients that you need to make a run and compete for the Stanley Cup.
“We have a good goaltending tandem. We have good defense. We have defensemen that are, I think, close to the top of the League. Seth Jones. [Ryan] Murray has played excellent this year. Zach Werenski. Those guys, I could compare against any of the best defensemen in the League with the way they’ve played. I think again Seth Jones should be in the running for Norris Trophy.
“We have some young forwards that are really taking big strides and getting better and better. Pierre-Luc Dubois is almost a point per game this year, and he’s only 20 years old. Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s getting going right now. Cam Atkinson‘s having a career year.
“Our core is strong with Nick Foligno as the leader of the group. Boone Jenner has been excellent at center, and that line with Josh Anderson and Nick Foligno has been a line that’s really hard to play against and can play any matchup and play physical and have skill and speed.
“So, I think we have a good team. We believe in our team. That’s why we’d like to make our team stronger now too to compete in the springtime, but we also have to keep the future in mind, because we have a lot of young players that are only going to keep getting better. We have some players that are coming next year that we think can have a good chance of making the team and making our team stronger in the near future.
“All those things said, we have to make hard decisions, as I’ve said all along.”
On balancing the present and the future:
“That’s what you’ve got to look at. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t mortgage the future too much by putting all the eggs in one basket for the spring, but at the time you want to give that group of guys that have worked extremely hard all year to make the playoffs and then make a run in the playoffs the best possible chance to do it.”
On Boone Jenner moving from wing to center this season, and the center position as a whole, which coach John Tortorella called a work in progress as far as consistency on Tuesday:
“I don’t think Jenner is more of a winger. I actually think right now he’s more of a center. He played center all his life, all through junior, and then he came into the NHL and played as wing. He’s been playing center all year long, and I think he’s looking great at center. I don’t think he’s going anywhere from center, to be honest with you.
“I think Pierre-Luc Dubois is having a great year. I think [Tortorella] with his message was challenging our center ice position a little bit. [Alexander] Wennberg hasn’t had his best season, but he’s starting to get going again. Probably had one of his best games (in a 3-0 win against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday).”
On the next wave of young players:
“We’ve got [Vladislav] Gavrikov playing defense in Russia, in KHL, for St. Petersburg and the Russian national team. He was an Olympic gold medalist last year and played in the world championships. I think that had he chosen to come here earlier, I think he could play in the NHL right now. We’re hoping that he will come over next year.
“Alexandre Texier in the Finnish League is having an unbelievable year. Now that he’s fully healthy and got going, he’s over a point a game in the last 25 games, and he’s not even 20 years old yet. We’ve got [Emil] Bemstrom, who played in the world juniors (for Sweden) and then made the men’s national team for the February tournament and was chosen the MVP of the tournament with three goals and one assist in three games, and he’s 19 years old.
“And then Liam Foudy is on an unbelievable pace now (for London) in the OHL. After a little bit of a slow start point-wise, he has got 30 goals now in 46 games and 55 points. He’s doing really well.
“They’re all the modern style — fast, quick, explosive players with skill. We’re excited about those guys. And obviously we have some good players in the American League too.”
On focusing on the ultimate goal:
“I don’t think it’s going to feel any better after you win one round or two rounds until you reach the real goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup someday. Obviously, you’ve got to take steps, and it’s one step at a time, two steps, three steps, and then the final step. But until that happens, I don’t think that the one round or two rounds is going to make us any happier, really.
“We’re growing. We’re taking steps into the right direction. I’m confident that we’ll be a good team for many years to come here.”
“Look at all the disappointments Washington had. They were always labeled as a team that chokes in the playoffs or can’t win in the playoffs. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, once they went all the way, nobody’s saying a thing. That’s what it takes.
“Same thing about individuals, and I’ve talked to our team about it too. Until you win, they’re going to doubt you, say that you can’t do it in the postseason, you’re a regular-season this and that but you choke in the postseason.
“That’s what they say about players in every sport until you win it. In golf or tennis, they have the same stories about certain players that haven’t taken the final step. They get labeled as this and that, as (Capitals forward Alex) Ovechkin got labeled before in hockey. And then you when you’ve won, nobody’s saying a thing anymore and never will.”