The Chicago Blackhawks made their latest intriguing addition this week by signing Russian forward Artemi Panarin to a two-year, entry-level contract. The 23-year-old has spent his entire career playing in his native country, most recently starring in the KHL, and will now try to make the leap to the NHL as he enters his prime.
Panarin has developed into one of the best scorers in Russia over the past few years, but never received much interest from teams in the NHL Draft. The knocks on him are pretty straight forward -- he's undersized (5'11, 170 pounds), stats from the KHL often don't translate, etc. -- but there's also a lot to like about a guy who outscored Ilya Kovalchuk while playing on the same team.
The Hawks won't get a chance to really see what Panarin can do until the offseason, but this is the kind of low-risk move you'll likely see the team continue to make as Stan Bowman figures out how to structure the cap situation. For now, here are three things to know about the Blackhawks' latest signing and his unconventional contract.
At least six teams wanted Panarin
We don't know who else was pursuing Panarin other than the Blackhawks, but ESPN Chicago reports that the forward "got looks from more than half the league and received strong interest from six teams."
The Blackhawks winning the bidding war over several other teams seems interesting given what we know about the situation. Chicago has arguably the best forward depth in the league and several talented players, including Brandon Pirri, have found success elsewhere after failing to crack into Joel Quenneville's rotation.and
So what exactly did general manager Stan Bowman and management tell Panarin and his agent to assuage those concerns? It's hard to say, but there are likely a couple factors to consider here: (a) everyone knows the Hawks will have to trade a forward or two this summer, opening some space for others. (b) Panarin has been given an unusual contract that allows him to leave the organization later this year if he doesn't make the NHL roster.
We know some of our folks around the SBN network wanted Panarin on their respective teams. Over at Pensburgh, they suggested the Penguins try to add Panarin, though they were operating under the assumption he would sign a two-way deal, not one that includes an immediate out-clause.
Other teams may have offered a better chance at making the team, but it's possible Chicago offered the right mixture of opportunity, developmental success and contract terms.
Panarin's contract is unusual
The Blackhawks haven't officially announced Panarin's contract yet, but the reports indicate that it won't be your usual entry-level deal. An out-clause has been included in the deal that allows Panarin to return to Russia immediately next fall if he fails to make the NHL roster, which helps to explain how the team won his services.
Chicago has to get creative to maintain a steady flow of talent with star players eating up salary and keeping the team at the bottom of the draft order. Signing Panarin is a reflection of that. The team had to make a significant concession -- his contract is basically non-guaranteed until he makes the team -- and that leaves Panarin with a lot of options going forward.
If Panarin doesn't make the Hawks, he'll head back to Russia and continue to be a star in his home country. Maybe he takes another shot at making an NHL team later in his career. He wouldn't be stuck shuttling between Rockford and Chicago, however, and for someone who's already accomplished a lot overseas, it's easy to see why that's not especially appealing.
Both sides exercised their leverage in putting this deal together, but it seems like one that fits for both parties. If the Hawks like what they see by October, Panarin is on the team. If the two sides don't mesh, we all move on.
Panarin might be pretty good
This is the most exciting part of the situation by far. Panarin, from all indications, might be one of the few players in the KHL capable of bringing his game over to North America. While he doesn't have the prototypical size you'd like to see, the skill and production offer some hope that he could be productive in Chicago.
During the 2014-15 KHL season, Panarin broke out to finish fourth in the league with 62 points, including 26 goals and 36 assists, in 54 games. He followed that up by finishing third in the KHL playoffs with 20 points in 20 games while leading his team, SKA St. Petersburg, to the Gagarin Cup.
Panarin also played for Russia in the 2011 World Junior Championships, helping lead the team to a gold medal with five points in seven games. The photo above of a young Panarin with his medal is from that event.
We've seen some brief comparisons to Patrick Kane -- which, I mean, no -- but he seems to fit that kind of mold as an undersized but shifty winger who works well with the puck and understands passing angles. There's reasonable concern that he won't be able to deal with the bigger, more physical players of the NHL, but that goes for pretty much anyone who's 5'11, 170 and wants to play hockey. Maybe Panarin will be one of the guys who has the spatial awareness and speed to stay upright and makes plays. Here are a couple videos showing highlights:
And as mentioned above, if Panarin doesn't meet expectations, the risk here is minimal. He'll likely be back in Russia by November if things don't work out, and at that point the Hawks will presumably turn to their other young options, or maybe a late free agent signing a la Daniel Carcillo.
Either way, you'll never find any gems if you're not turning over stones. Panarin might be a bust, or he might be pretty good. We'll find that out soon enough.