The NHL, for reasons cultural and historical, is not like the NBA: You don’t see a lot of outright trade demands. That is to say, you do see trade demands, but they’re couched in language that tries to make them sound like anything but. This, if you’re attuned to it, could not possibly be any blunter:
That’s the agent for 27-year-old high-scoring Blue Jackets winger Artemi Panarin, who is a free agent this summer and has previously made it as clear as he can, given the form of propriety that reigns in hockey circles, that he has no interest in staying in Columbus. Blue Jackets brass has been doing its best to re-sign its offensive leader, but Panarin’s camp dismissed its offer out of hand last offseason, and has declined to even negotiate since then. Given that there’s no reason to be any more optimistic about Panarin’s interest in Columbus once he’s officially a free agent, this statement is a polite, firm message: Trade me in the next month or lose me for nothing.
This stinks for the Blue Jackets at any time, because the Panarin is a wizard. He led the team in both goals and assists last year, and is on track to lead them in points again, putting up a 94-point pace. He already holds the record for the most points in a season in franchise history; he is likely to break his own record this year.
This especially stinks for the Blue Jackets now, because they’re pretty decent, but not so decent that they’d still be decent without their best scorer. (Or, uh, their No. 1 goaltender, who is also disgruntled and wants out and is also a candidate to be traded.) Columbus is third in the Metro, and just four points out of first with a game in hand. Not for nothing, they’re also psychically burdened by never having won a playoff series in their history. Without the Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky situations, this is a team that would probably be a buyer at the Feb. 25 trade deadline. With those situations, they’re unwilling sellers, dealing with other GMs who can smell the desperation.
The Blue Jackets have reportedly been listening to trade offers since the summer, but those offers are of the composition you’d usually see for a pending free agent start—prospects, draft picks—when Columbus would ideally prefer players who can contribute right away. This is not a team that wants to or should rebuild, but the trade market for Panarin is not likely to give them much choice but to get younger.
(For what it’s worth, Panarin reportedly “wants to play in a major city, like New York or Los Angeles, or a ‘destination’ city, like Tampa or Miami.” He does not have any no-trade clauses, so that’s not up to him right now—but it could complicate the ability of any potential trade partners to re-sign him long-term, further narrowing down the Blue Jackets’ options.)
So, the Blue Jackets have a little less than one month to figure this out: if they’ll move Panarin or Bobrovsky, or both, or instead choose to stand firm and be a better team come playoff time and a worse team in the near future. The choice seems clear, if painful. And hey, one of the silver linings of the NHL’s tradition of shrouded trade demands is that Panarin’s agent’s statement is not explicitly a “no”—the Blue Jackets and their fans can hold out some illogical sliver of hope that Panarin might actually sit down to the bargaining table this summer. I wouldn’t bet a top prospect on it, though.