Why did the Blackhawks choose Brandon Saad over Artemi Panarin?

The Blackhawks brought an old friend back home on Friday, and here’s why.

The Chicago Blackhawks made huge news Friday, trading star winger Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for star winger and former Blackhawk Brandon Saad. Saad had previously been shipped out of the Windy City in the summer of 2015 due to having lofty contract demands, but with the salary cap having gone up and Panarin having an identical salary to Saad, the money factor played a small role in this trade.

So if the Blackhawks aren’t gaining salary cap space in this move, as has been the main result of many of their big ticket off-season moves the past few summers, what is the purpose of making this blockbuster star swap?

Looking solely at each player’s output over the last two seasons — as long as Panarin has been in the league — it looks like a major loss for the Blackhawks. Panarin has been a top-10 scorer in the NHL in each of his first two seasons and posted an impressive 74 points in 82 games last season. He flourished on the wing opposite Patrick Kane, and the two electric wingers had a chemistry that seemed unmatched throughout the NHL.

Saad hasn’t been quite as good for the Blue Jackets, but he’s been impressive nonetheless. He’s posted 53 points in each of the last two seasons, including an impressive 31 goals in the 2015-16 campaign. He also made his first NHL All-Star game appearance at the 2016 All-Star Game in Nashville.

It’s easily to look at the point production and see that this is clearly a loss for Chicago. They’re trading a prolific offensive talent away and getting a fine-but-slightly-worse offensive talent in return. However, this trade is about more than simple offensive production.

Saad is widely considered one of the better two-way players in the NHL. He is obviously a capable producer offensively, but he’s also extremely reliable defensively, with tremendous defensive awareness and excellent backchecking abilties. With the Blackhawks losing Marian Hossa for the 2016-17 season and likely beyond, an elite two-way presence on the wing of Jonathan Toews was a big hole. Saad fills that role perfectly, and is an upgrade over the aging and declining Hossa. Being able to slot Saad into Hossa’s place in the lineup is a major plus.

Panarin, on the other hand, often struggles defensively, with many fans and analysts criticizing his tendency to flee the defensive zone early in hopes of getting a breakout pass and creating a chance on the other end. While that kind of play has the potential to be exciting, it often lends more risk than reward, and in Joel Quenneville’s risk-averse system, that is not exactly welcome.

And while filling Panarin’s role is likely going to be challenging, the Blackhawks have plenty of players in the system capable of doing just that, even if not at quite the same level.

Nick Schmaltz is coming off a fine rookie season in which he posted 28 points in 61 games, really coming into his own near the end of the season. He is more of a playmaker than a pure scorer, but his elite passing ability and vision make him ideal for playing with Kane and Artem Anisimov as Panarin did. He can help put both players in better positions to score.

Moreover, the Blackhawks also have Alex DeBrincat in the pipeline and possibly ready to take the NHL by storm after dominating the Ontario Hockey League for three seasons with the Erie Otters. The 19-year-old winger scored 65 goals and totaled 127 points in 63 games last year after falling to the Blackhawks at No. 39 in the 2016 NHL Draft. His skating, along with his impressive shot and strong passing, offer a ton of potential, and he could be a top-six winger in the NHL in the next three seasons. His only downfall is his lack of size, but as the NHL continues to go toward a smaller and faster game, he should be able to succeed.

The presence of these players, along with the anticipated continued offensive emergence of players Richard Panik and Ryan Hartman, make the loss of an offensive presence like Panarin slightly easier to stomach.

And while the money is a wash now, as Saad and Panarin have identical $6 million cap hits, Saad having a two more years on his contract than Panarin offers the Blackhawks more financial security going forward. That’s clearly part of the equation here for Chicago.

At the end of the day, while this may not make the Blackhawks a whole lot better, it doesn’t make them a whole lot worse, either. Saad is a better fit for the system that the Blackhawks play, and because the Blackhawks have the pieces in place to mitigate the impact that losing Panarin could have, this is a smart move that could prove to be very smart both now, and in the future.