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Inside the NHL: Jackets in a brutal spot when it comes to Panarin deal

When the Sabres arrived in Columbus to open their post-break schedule, they were the sidelight story to the NHL's biggest ongoing drama.

Pity the poor Blue Jackets. They've never won a playoff series since they were born in 2000, topped by the ungodly collapse that changed history last spring. Columbus, remember, won the first two games of its opening-round series in Washington and then went into double overtime in Game 3 at home. The Jackets even hit a couple of posts before losing that game and then watching in horror as the Capitals won the next three games to send them home early again.

Imagine if Columbus wins that third game, which would likely mean it would have taken the series. Alex Ovechkin & Co. would have been drowning their sorrows rather than drowning themselves in triumph across DC. Their loser label would have grown to the point the team would have had to endure a big breakup. Barry Trotz would have been fired in disgrace rather than being able to go to Long Island as a champion on a big-money deal.

Now you wonder if the Jackets can even make the playoffs. They're facing a tough run to get there, with the backdrop of two key players potentially going out the door for nothing.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been in and out of the doghouse all season and the team isn't going to give him any sort of Carey Price long-term deal. Winger Artemi Panarin, on the other hand, is a guy the Jackets want to keep but the Ohio capital is apparently too sleepy a burb for him.

Just as the Sabres hit town, Panarin agent Dan Milstein tweeted a bombshell that there would be no negotiations on a new deal and "our priority now is to focus on the rest of the season, trying to win a Stanley Cup for the CBJ & their fans."

Panarin has no intention of staying in Columbus. He wants some bright lights in New York, perhaps a return to Chicago to go back on Patrick Kane's wing. Maybe he'd be interested in a lot of money and fun in the sun down in Florida, where the Panthers are preparing to retool.

The Blue Jackets are in a terrible spot here. Are they good enough to make a Stanley Cup run, to the point where they would keep both players and play things out? They sure don't look like it. And when their two bedrocks walk out the door for nothing come July, it will be shades of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, circa 2007.

If you trade them by the Feb. 25 deadline, how much of a bidding war will there actually be for Panarin. He's just a rental and everyone knows that for sure now. How many playoff-bound teams really need a goalie? Especially one such as Bobrovsky who has come up small every spring.

The worst job in hockey right now is not owned by Jason Botterill and his collapsing Sabres. It's poor Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen. Rock, meet hard place.

“We’ve said all along we’re going to make hard decisions if we have to,” Kekalainen told reporters in C-Bus. “But our focus is on getting our team better, making it as competitive as possible for this spring, but also into the future. If we have to make a hard decision, we will. We like Artemi and would like to keep him. It’s his right to go to free agency, and if he chooses to do so, we’ll be knocking on his door July 1.”

That door is shut and the Jackets look like a team that knows the end is near. They were downright dopey at times in their loss to the Sabres, with Bobrovsky's five-goal night not engendering much confidence.

Coach John Tortorella was still fuming about the loss to the Sabres when he got to Winnipeg on Thursday, ripping his team after the morning skate while relating to reporters that they had spent the morning in a very one-sided video session.

"It was a god-awful team I coached the other night ... It was a team that threw their uniforms out to play, played with absolutely no (guts) at all," Tortorella said.

Then Tortorella mic-dropped a final blast in what could have been a reference to the club's upcoming decisions when he said, "The team needs to be reset pretty quickly.”

Sure does. There's a lot of interesting guys to watch at the deadline, such as Philly's Wayne Simmonds, the Ottawa duo of Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, and Carolina's Michael Ferland. But nothing tops what's going on in Columbus.

Hawks have to ponder Keith move

The Blackhawks left town after Friday's dismantling of the Sabres in quite a quandary. After the 7-3 win, they were only five points out of the playoffs. They were also just four points out of the Western Conference basement.

At age 30, Patrick Kane is playing the best hockey of his career and that alone would make the Hawks dangerous if they snuck into the postseason. But they don't have nearly enough depth in their lineup or in goal to make any noise.

They fired Joel Quenneville in November and need to retool, but their big contracts make that tough. Kane and Jonathan Toews obviously aren't going anywhere and no one will touch the contact of over-the-hill Brent Seabrook, who has a $6.875 million cap through the 2023-24 season. The only big name who could move is Duncan Keith, but he has a full no-trade clause.

Keith is 35 and his deal runs through 2022-23 at a decent cap hit of roughly $5.5 million. But a lot of his actual money has already been paid out and he's owed less than $10 million in salary. And he's still pretty serviceable on the back end, as the Sabres found out Friday.

TSN reported Thursday the Hawks are likely to broach a deal with Keith, or to find out if he's all-in for a rebuild.

“I haven’t really thought too much about anything," Keith said here Friday. "You get reports out there, I don’t know where that stuff kind of comes from. I just take one day at a time.”

Keith said the Hawks haven't approached him yet about waiving his no-movement clause and wouldn't say what he would do if they did. And while pointing out how New Jersey went from last to the playoffs last season in the East (and Colorado did likewise in the West), Keith seemed to indicate he doesn't think the Hawks are that far away.

"I’m not going to start getting into all that and create a bunch of stories here about what I would think I would do, speculate on how I would feel,” Keith said. “What’s a rebuild or a retool? Who knows what that is? I don't. The league’s different now. One year you’re good, the next year you’re not."

Benn's mouth a Star, too

Dallas standout Jamie Benn was under the Sabres' skin during the teams' meeting Wednesday night. He drilled Jack Eichel into the boards in the third period (no penalty there?), and the Stars' web site had classic pictures of backup goalie Anton Khudobin smirking while Sabres winger Jeff Skinner and Benn were chirping at each other from the benches. The team's Twitter page is using the priceless photo as its banner

Said Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark on the running conversation between him and Benn during the game: "He just runs his mouth all the time. I asked him if he would stop talking anytime soon."

"I saw that. He said I don't shut up," a laughing Benn told the team's website Thursday. "Can you believe that?"

Around the boards

* Kane on his four-point night here Friday: "When you come back, you have that little nervousness, anxiousness type of feeling. It's fun to come back. ... A lot of friends and families watching the game and enjoying it once a year."

Kane left town second in the league in scoring with 75 points, four behind Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov, and with a stunning 25 points in his last 10 games.

* Ben Bishop's shutout of the Sabres for Dallas improved his career record against the Sabres to 11-0-1 and was his 11th consecutive win against Buffalo while with the Stars, Tampa Bay and Ottawa. It's the second-longest active win streak by a goaltender against a single opponent. Washington's Braden Holtby is the leader with 12 in a row over Boston.

* Three teams (Toronto, Ottawa and Dallas) have yet to play in a shootout this season. The New York Rangers have a league-leading five shootout wins while Tampa Bay has four. The Sabres are one of five teams with three.

* Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr isn't a fan of advanced stats, as he pointed out recently on Twitter by saying, "Analytics only get you so far, you still have to play the game."

A fan replied to Fuhr, "Are you afraid of analytics because they prove how awful you were?"

Fuhr's response: "Hi Alex, I think the initials HHOF explain how bad I was."

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