When the Blackhawks and Artemi Panarin agreed to a contract last year, it included a key provision. If Panarin finished among the top 10 NHL forwards in points, assists, goals or points per game -- or won one of several prominent awards -- he would be receive a $1.725 million Schedule B bonus.
For Chicago, the idea was simple. Panarin would get rewarded handsomely, but only if he became one of the absolute best scorers in the NHL. If he was merely very good, he would make less than $1 million. The bonuses tied to Panarin's performance more than tripled his base salary for the 2015-16 season.
But Panarin didn't simply choose Chicago because he received favorable contract conditions similar to those of a high first-round draft pick. He recognized the opportunity with the Blackhawks. There would be no point in having all those bonuses included in his deal unless he went somewhere with a chance to reach them. Chicago, over other suitors like Toronto, Calgary and Montreal, was the choice.
Now it's easy to see why Panarin and the Blackhawks were lured to each other. The player, already in his mid-20s, needed a place where he could thrive from Day 1. The team, desperate after a cap-induced mass exodus over the summer, needed a winger who could play a pivotal role from the start. It was a match so perfect that we should've guessed what would come next.
Panarin finished his season with 77 points. He's tied for 8th among all forwards in scoring, effectively a lock to finish among the top 10 once the final regular-season games are played Sunday. He's also reached the top 10 in points per game, doubling down on parameters that many had figured were out of reach. Even a couple weeks ago, it seemed like Panarin would likely fall short of his bonuses and continue rolling on a six-figure salary.
Naturally, the 24-year-old proceeded to torch the league over the final days of the season. If you want to know what it looks like when an amazing talent is playing with millions on the line, take a look at what Panarin did over the final five games of the season:
vs. Winnipeg: two goals, two assists
vs. Boston: one goal, three assists
vs. Arizona: two assists
vs. St. Louis: nada
vs. Columbus: two goals, one assist
That's five goals and eight assists in his final five games. The numbers dwarf his totals from a March slump in which he recorded three goals and four assists over 13 games. I don't know whether to chalk this up to luck, divine intervention, softer competition or Panarin's drive to succeed, but few players in the NHL are capable of putting together a stretch as productive as the one he just laid down.
And that's why no complaints are to be found. Panarin has undeniably earned his bonuses, which total over $2.5 million and will leave the Hawks with a significant cap overage next season. To the team, it's a fair price earned by an irreplaceable player. "I like when players are successful and they meet their goals," Quenneville said Saturday. "We’ll do everything we can to help them be the best they can. That’s our motivation here."
There's one other hope from this: Panarin and the Hawks' relationship will continue blossoming into a long-term partnership. The two sides will be meeting for discussions on a long-term contract this summer before Panarin is set to become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017. After the way the Brandon Saad situation played out last year, Chicago will be surely be hoping to avoid a similar outcome with Panarin. Maybe having some extra cash already in pocket will make those decisions easier for him.
That's why the team was always going to do right by him with this contract. Whatever it costs to pay Panarin on his current deal, which is no more than about $3.3 million annually, it will be worth it. And building a relationship that makes him want to sign with the team long-term will be worth more than a cap overage. As we saw with Saad, players at the top are the hardest ones to replace. There's no intention to go through that again now that the team has Panarin.
And that's why it's encouraging to see everyone happy. We still have no idea how the playoffs will go, or how negotiations between the Hawks and Panarin will proceed, but the groundwork is being laid for a future that's undeniably exciting. We've seen what Panarin could do as a "rookie" making his NHL debut. If losing a secondary player like Andrew Shaw is the price for having a top-10 scorer on the books, so be it.
Panarin earned his bonuses by being every bit the player we hoped he would be. He's going to earn a lot more money in the future, too.