After reaching every performance bonus escalator in his rookie season in the NHL, Artemi Panarin proved to be the player the Blackhawks needed to add to their core and more. Who can argue with an electrifying season where the 24-year-old combined with Patrick Kane to produce most of Chicago's offense?
Discuss his age as a rookie or KHL experience all you want. The fact of the matter is that 30 goals scored to go with 77 points produced overall is special and has Panarin factored into all future Stanley Cup dreams. It was beyond a pleasant surprise to see him excel so much as a genuine star.
However, Panarin leaves Chicago in a precarious cap position, albeit this being a problem they don't mind having. It's no secret the Hawks have had to salary cap purges in this era. That's the price of success and locking down a core most teams would love to have. Just last offseason, the organization was forced to part ways with guys like Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, and, of course, Brandon Saad.
The now Blue Jackets forward's departure from Chicago is what the Panarin situation may eventually be compared to if Chicago can't sign the talented left wing long term.
The former top line winger in Saad famously "bet on himself" in the 2014 offseason when the Hawks couldn't come to an agreement with him of any kind. Saad went on to a 52-point regular season and 11-point, eight-goal playoff performance in 2015. He grew into a top line role with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa that had teams like Columbus chomping at the bit to force the Hawks to match contract offers.
Chicago of course didn't, as they had nowhere near the space for the six-year, $36 million dollar deal Saad eventually received from the Jackets. You may say he priced himself out, but who can blame a two-way 30-goal scorer (as he was this season with Columbus) for not making the most out of his value while he can? That's the nature of the business.
There are a lot of contributing factors into why GM Stan Bowman wasn't able to prevent this situation. The Bryan Bickell deal likely lingered for one as it affected most of the recent transactions by Chicago. It's why a bridge deal was discussed where Saad would've signed a shorter term contract with promise of a long term reward once the Hawks could effectively clear cap room when it expired. That's what happened with Marcus Kruger and might happen again with Andrew Shaw. However, it's clear that Saad didn't want to play into extraneous factors and tempt fate in that fashion and it paid off.
The Blackhawks received a decent enough return in trading Saad with Artem Anisimov, a long term second line center they've been yearning for, and Marko Dano (who they eventually traded for Andrew Ladd), but there's no doubt Saad's absence was felt.
You don't so readily replace a 23-year-old star level player who played both ends of the ice after all. In turn, a carousel of guys were run through on the first line with Toews as the Hawks never quite found the consistent answer that Saad proved to be. We've been lamenting that loss in many ways since.
This leads us back to Panarin, who by all accounts, Bowman was able to snag away from several other valued suitors in the league. We see now that all of that attention and praise was more than worthy and that it wouldn't reflect well on the organization to let him slip away so easily.
He's clearly worth every bit of his $3,387,500 earnings this season. In fact, that might be too little for a playmaker and potential star of his caliber. If the Blackhawks lose another young star like this, we might be kissing the Cup window for the Toews and Kane era goodbye.
It's one thing to lose replacement level or aging players but not guys just hitting their prime that are so integral to keeping the whole operation from falling apart. The Hawks lost Saad and are still licking their wounds in trying to find anyone to adequately fill that top line left wing role on a permanent basis. If lightning strikes twice and you lose such an offensive creator like Panarin, too, it's not likely the Hawks ever find a suitable replacement in time to maximize their current championship window that we concern ourselves with so much.
Kane's offensive burden only becomes that much more difficult in that scenario as well.
That's why it's so pertinent to sign Panarin this summer to any kind of deal, be it long term or a bridge contract, no matter the extenuating circumstances while keeping everything in play. His play and future is too important to the Hawks' near future. Discussions of trading Andrew Shaw and all of his $2 million cap hit are almost certain unless the Blackhawks can trade Bickell.
As noted here a few weeks ago, keeping Bickell on the books means Shaw is gone because you have to make room for Panarin's bonuses. Trading Shaw alone makes room for Panarin this summer, but not necessarily the kind of contract he may be preliminarily seeking. Trading Bickell instead (which has obviously been quite difficult and hamstrung this team in more ways than one) could open Chicago up to retaining Shaw and resigning Panarin long term or to a bridge deal immediately, and possibly even leave space for someone like Teuvo Teravainen. Buying Bickell out would partially relieve you of his cap hit but still leave enough lingering money, $1.5 million to be exact, that would then possibly prevent you from signing Teravainen.
The possibilities and doomsday scenarios are endless as well as continually frustrating.
That is, if you're prioritizing Panarin first, which you should be.
Whatever path is taken, Bowman is going to have to work his wizardry here with Panarin, because if not, he'll have that difficult task of the line of choosing between which players to keep and which will probably have to walk. Panarin is at the top of every single list, bar none. But obviously there are these complications and past precedents set.
I don't know how you say "I'm betting on myself" in Russian, but the Blackhawks better hope they're not learning anytime soon.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.