Artemi Panarin is showing why the Blackhawks need to re-sign him no matter what

Trade someone else. Find the cap space. Panarin is too valuable to what the Blackhawks do now to send him somewhere else in the summer.

Artemi Panarin is going to get paid, big-time. If that was ever in doubt during his 30-goal, 77-point, Calder-winning rookie season, he’s made it abundantly clear while leading the Blackhawks to the top spot in the Western Conference. We’re talking “Scrooge McDuck nosediving into a pile of gold coins” paid, and he’s going to deserve it, too.

As explained in a very good article by Sportsnet’s Dimitri Filipovic, Panarin’s game-breaking, puck-moving abilities have made him one of the most effective players in hockey. He’s going to command a huge contract when he’s a restricted free agent this offseason, with a starting price creeping closer to $7 million per year, based on reports.

And you know what? The Blackhawks need to get this done. Panarin’s addition to this organization was a once-in-a-generation twist of fate that will not be repeated. It was a lifeline to the championship window of an aging, expensive team. Three-time Cup winners aren’t supposed to add in-their-prime superstars, and it’s a credit to the team that it somehow did.

But that success hits a crossroads in the offseason when Panarin hits restricted free agency, and the team has to choose its next big move. And if it comes down to trading someone else, the Blackhawks should do it to keep Bread Man.

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Now, before we even get into the weeds, one thing needs to be made clear: If the Blackhawks can sign Panarin to a six- or seven-year contract worth around $7 million annually, it would be worth it. In terms of production, in terms of his impact when he’s on the ice compared to off it, there’s no doubt that he’s a $7 million player.

The problem is that the Blackhawks don’t necessarily have the luxury of paying guys what they’re worth right now. The team’s salary structure, with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews covering $21 million in cap space, clearly was not designed for a world where we’re discussing a potentially stagnant $73 million salary cap going into 2017.

That was a big miscalculation on Chicago’s part, and the team didn’t necessarily do enough to stay nimble and flexible by signing other key Cup players like Brent Seabrook and Marcus Kruger to lucrative extensions. Now the Blackhawks have their talented core intact, but it’s also pricy, aging, and stripped the team of its depth.

All of this is where Panarin steps in to change the dynamic. He’s the superstar who breaks up the timeline a bit. He’s younger than everyone else in “the core,” and plays like it with a flare and youthful exuberance that honestly makes the game more enjoyable. He also produces unlike all but a select few stars in this league.

So the problem is that the Blackhawks need Panarin, but can’t necessarily afford him. There’s a chance that the team could retain him without a major shake-up depending on his performance bonuses, the salary cap, and who Vegas selects in the expansion draft. All of that coming together is unlikely, though, which means we’re talking about clearing a key player in order to do it.

Right now, the Blackhawks have $61.2 million committed to 15 players for next season if you include the entry-level contracts for Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, and Gustav Forsling. The team will likely also have a cap overage of at least $3.5 million assuming Panarin keeps up his scoring pace.

So that leaves you with $8.3 million to sign a remaining four forwards, two defensemen, and a goalie. Again, this is before you’ve even gotten into retaining Panarin at a salary of at least $6-7 million. The money simply won’t work based on the most likely track.

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The Blackhawks will need to clear salary. Maybe you start with Kruger’s $3.08 million, but that’s not enough. Toews and Kane almost surely aren’t going anywhere, and the same can be said for Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa as a result of their cap recapture penalties (and continued strong performances). Niklas Hjalmarsson seems highly unlikely to get moved anytime soon, either, given his value.

That means you’re down to three players who could be traded to help clear cap space for Panarin: Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, and Artem Anisimov. Let’s break down each scenario a little bit, with an important caveat — each of these players has a no-movement clause, so actually trading one would be a little more challenging than normal. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s important to consider how the NMCs might impact attempts to trade.

Seabrook trade: The argument for trading Seabrook would be pretty simple. He’s a very good player on a very questionable contract that ideally the team gets out of before it becomes a boondoggle. The idea of losing such a key defenseman would hurt a lot, but getting his $6.875 million cap hit off the books would make signing Panarin a doable proposition.

And based on his reputation (3 Cupz!!!) around the league, it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be at least one team willing to take on the whole contract. If the team believes Gustav Forsling can step into a prominent role next season, maybe they’re comfortable pursuing this option.

The no-movement clause may be especially tricky here, though. Seabrook is a career-long Blackhawk with three Cups and an “A” on his sweater. You’d probably need to effectively let him choose his next destination to have any chance of convincing him to move on.

Crawford trade: The idea here would presumably be to re-sign Scott Darling, install him as starter, and use the remaining savings to re-sign Panarin. You’d probably get some good assets in return, too, given that Crawford is a high-level goaltender on a reasonable contract.

One problem is that Darling might not necessarily be cut out to be a No. 1 like Crawford has been, and goaltending has been a massive asset for Chicago this season. Another is that you’re probably not saving that much money between Crawford at $6 million and whatever you’d need to pay Darling to start. So while this will keep getting mentioned, I’m not quite sure I see it. Crawford is too important.

Anisimov trade: He’s producing like never before, so you’d be able to sell high on him and his $4.55 million cap hit. You’d also be taking away one of Panarin’s most familiar linemates since he arrived in Chicago, a talented Russian center who is stylistically a perfect fit for the winger’s game. The Blackhawks have valued him highly for good reason, but I’m not sure he’ll look like such a great value if they try to trade him after a year or two without Panarin. If it comes down to it, maybe you make this move and hope Nick Schmaltz is ready for bigger things in 2017-18.

Moving Seabrook and the extra $2.32 million in cap space compared to Anisimov would obviously help more, and on the whole, it could make more sense for the team to get out from under Seabrook’s contract now. But it may ultimately depend on how confident they are that the d-corps is ready to have new players take on his minutes, and trading Anisimov could be preferable. If it meant retaining Panarin, you figure out the 2C situation afterwards.

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The one thing that seems abundantly clear to me is that the Blackhawks need to be proactive about this. They’re almost certainly not going to have the cap space to sign Panarin outright next summer, so they need to start planning for how it’s going to happen. I would gamble a hefty sum that they’ve already started doing just that with Capocolypse 4.0 around the corner.

This means greasing the wheels to make sure Kruger has a taker in the summer (even if that taker is Vegas). It means reaching out after the season and seeing what it’d take to convince someone like Seabrook or Anisimov to waive his no-movement clause. They can’t find the clock running down to July 1 with zero cap space, Panarin waiting to see what’s up, and teams licking their chops to pry him loose, unless they’re ready to play some real hard ball. That hasn’t been their M.O. in past years.

Before the season, it was still a fair question whether Panarin was worth all the mess. He was electric during his rookie season, but it was only one year, and maybe he was benefitting from some fortunate circumstances. Now, however, it seems like it might’ve been the other way around — the Blackhawks need Panarin more than he needs the good situation they provide.

This isn’t like Brandon Saad (very very good, but not quite a superstar) or Andrew Shaw (top notch role player). Panarin is a full-blown NHL superstar in his prime. The team needs to find a way to re-sign him no matter what. He’s too good, too important, too dang fun. It’ll be worth the mess, even if it means we have to say some difficult goodbyes this offseason. Saying goodbye to Panarin would be even worse.