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Artemi Panarin’s reported contract demands make sense, but won’t be easy for Blackhawks to meet

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Panarin wants more than $6 million per year, and it’s not hard to see why.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Artemi Panarin reportedly wants six years at more than $6 million annually from the Chicago Blackhawks on his next contract, which is both a ton of money and completely reasonable. Based on recent contracts signed by other top young forwards as restricted free agents, it’s clear that Panarin and his agent, Tom Lynn, have a strong argument for the terms they’re requesting in talks with Chicago.

Panarin, who turns 25 in late October, is coming off a blazing rookie season in which he recorded 31 goals and 77 points en route to the Calder Trophy. The forward signed a two-year ELC with the Hawks in 2015 and immediately became one of the league’s most prolific scorers, finishing tied for ninth with Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The performance earned Panarin millions in bonuses as part of his contract, but it’s clear that the Russian star is setting his sights on a larger salary if he’s going to stay in the NHL beyond next season.

He’s earned it, too, barring a surprising drop in production during his sophomore season. Panarin’s performance as a rookie and the precedent set by other young RFA wingers have set a high price the Blackhawks are going to have a time tough negotiating any lower.

The comparisons

There are a few players I wanted to point out as key comparables that Panarin and his agent are likely pointing to in contract talks. This excludes two obvious names that Panarin’s camp is likely watching closely right now: Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov. Those two high-scoring wingers are still unsigned RFAs and their deals could have an impact on the market Panarin is part of.

But seeing what Panarin is reportedly seeking right now, you can get an idea of where his camp is coming from. I’m guessing there are three deals in particular that they’re pointing to right now:

  • Filip Forsberg’s six-year, $36 million deal with the Predators, signed June 27, 2016
  • Brandon Saad’s six-year, $36 million deal with the Blue Jackets, signed July 5, 2015
  • Jonathan Huberdeau’s six-year, $35.4 million deal with the Panthers, signed Sept. 6, 2016

All three players were top wingers, restricted free agents and in their early 20s. None is a perfect comparison — they were all younger at signing than Panarin will be, and only Forsberg got his deal after two full seasons — but these seem like the natural comparisons that Panarin’s agent is working off right now.

It also makes sense then that Panarin would be asking for a bit more than $6 million because he’s got a 77-point season on his resume, something none of the above players can say. If he’s working off the idea that he’s a comparable with Forsberg, Saad and Huberdeau, but is slightly better than them, it makes sense he would want a similar but slightly more lucrative deal.

The upper market

And then there’s another possibility: Panarin doesn’t just repeat his amazing 2015-16 performance, he improves upon it by scoring even more this season. It’s hard to see that happening considering how productive he was last season in a role favoring offense, but it’s not impossible for a player this talented entering his age-25 season.

If Panarin goes out and puts up 80 points in his second season, it’s possible his camp looks at the comparables and starts wondering why it would use guys who haven’t scored more than 60-65 in a single campaign. If the Russian winger starts looking toward his good friend Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored an eight-year deal worth $7.5 million annually from St. Louis, his career in Chicago is almost assuredly over. Gaudreau and Kucherov could also potentially provide comparables above and beyond the $6 million range.

This probably won’t happen because Panarin would need to continue producing at a very high rate, which could be impacted by lower shooting percentages (he shot 16 percent last season), less time with Kane or various other factors. But at this point, unless he gets hurt or has an otherwise disastrous year, it’s hard to see how his asking price goes anywhere but up from where it’s currently at.

What’s it all mean for the Hawks?

Chicago is in a tough position. The team has paid a premium for its two superstar forwards, its No. 3 defenseman and its No. 4 center. Added all together, it becomes hard to find the extra millions to pay market value to other big names on the roster as payday arrives. Panarin wants a reasonable deal that the Blackhawks may or may not be able to give him.

There’s a certain misconception among Hawks fans about the real tricky part of Panarin’s request, though. Fitting over $6 million into next year’s budget will be undeniably hard. The team has a lot of expensive players with no-movement clauses and doesn’t know what kind of cap flexibility it’ll have next season. Panarin missing his Schedule B bonus and Vegas taking Marcus Kruger in the expansion draft could go a long way toward finding more cap space.

But even so, the Hawks are actually prepared for this to some degree. Nick Schmaltz, Tyler Motte, Gustav Forsling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Ryan Hartman and Vincent Hinostroza make a combined $5.13 million in 2017-18. That’s to say nothing of RFAs like Ville Pokka, Michal Kempny and Richard Panik, who might command raises but nothing huge from their current six-figure salaries. Scott Darling can presumably be re-signed at a reasonable rate, too. That’s 10 guys who can probably be retained for less than $10 million total. They’re going to have lots of cheap players contributing in 2017-18.

So you can start to see how the Hawks might be able to pull this off even with Panarin making a bit more than $6 million in 2017-18. I’d actually a bit more concerned about the six-year term at such a high salary for a team that already has so many commitments. That is, unless the kids all bust, but that goes for this season, too.

It won’t be easy, and the team has tried to avoid cutting the salary cap so close at times, but retaining Panarin might be one of those times when it’s worth it. It also seems like the Hawks might’ve planned for this situation a bit — at least better than they did for Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. We’re less than a year from finding out how this resolves itself.