The Blue Jackets and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen knew they were taking a risk when they traded for superstar forward Artemi Panarin.
Giving up the cost certainty of Brandon Saad — a motivator for Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman — and not knowing whether Panarin had a true desire to re-up in Columbus were legitimate gambles. One of them remains to be seen, depending on how Saad rebounds this fall, but the other has become quite a challenge.
As the summer began, the Blue Jackets were optimistic that they’d be able to open negotiations with Dan Milstein, Panarin’s agent, and work toward a long-term (and likely quite lucrative) deal that would keep Panarin in Columbus for the next eight years. We’ll not likely know the exact numbers under consideration, but it would be a surprise if the Blue Jackets weren’t prepared to offer in the neighborhood of $9 million-$10 million per season.
But as luck would have it, none of that would matter.
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Shortly before free agency began, Milstein notified the Blue Jackets that Panarin wasn’t prepared to sign a long-term deal with the Blue Jackets. The words “at this time” were reportedly included, but those are immaterial. Panarin doesn’t want to commit the next eight years of his career to Columbus, which is well within his right as a pending free agent.
It doesn’t make life any easier for Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets, though.
They’re between a rock and a hard place here (to put it lightly). Panarin is a star, perhaps the most talented player to ever wear a Blue Jackets jersey and a rare “worth the price of admission” type in a hockey market that’s had little to nothing in that regard for nearly 20 years. Losing Panarin would be a tough outcome to swallow, especially when you consider how he helped elevate their attack into a legitimately dangerous territory.
Let’s also make this clear: The Blue Jackets’ hockey operations team, led by John Davidson, is one with a clear directive on managing assets. They’re not a big-market, big-budget team that’s going out swinging every year in free agency. They intend to build a team through the draft and by establishing a solid infrastructure in their minor-league system. They’re in no position to let Panarin walk away for nothing as the Islanders did with John Tavares, and there’s a microscopic chance we’ll see that happen here.
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And you thought this situation seemed pretty straightforward, didn’t you?
Panarin and Milstein informed the Blue Jackets recently that, after Sept. 13, all business matters are off the table and the player will “focus on hockey.” That’s obviously open to interpretation because if Kekalainen can’t swing a deal with, say, the Rangers (we’ll use them as an example for this exercise) before that date — and Panarin has a desire to play there long term — who’s to say he won’t be open to being traded there on Sept. 22?
“Artemi loves hockey,” Milstein told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline. “He hates the business side of hockey. When the season starts, the focus can only be on playing. He’s going to play his best and give his best to the hockey club.”
So what can the Blue Jackets do?
Their best move — and really, the only move — is to trade Panarin before the season starts. What options do they have, and what teams could potentially be in the mix (either for a rental Panarin or as a long-term destination)?
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are in Position A after signing John Tavares and giving them arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league with he and Auston Matthews. But where the Leafs could improve is on the wing, and adding a game-breaker like Panarin should be something GM Kyle Dubas considers (even if it’s a one-year rental). The trouble for the Blue Jackets is, if they’re making a deal before the season, they need offensive help — and it’s unlikely Toronto would give up one of its talented young forwards in return. Call this one unlikely.
San Jose Sharks
I like this fit for a couple of reasons: First, it seems like the type of market that would grow on Panarin, especially given their window of opportunity in San Jose never seems to close. It’s also a good opportunity for the Blue Jackets to make a hockey deal with a few young forwards under contract. But there’s another scenario where, because Logan Couture just signed a long-term deal of his own, the Sharks offer Columbus a futures-heavy package and take their chances signing Panarin after the season.
I don’t put a whole lot of stock into the speculation that Panarin needs a beachfront property to be happy, but hey, he did recently buy one in Miami. I’m kidding. But he actually did. The Panthers have a slew of young forwards who could entice the Blue Jackets. Henrik Borgstrom is a big ask, but if you’re confident that Florida is a team with a chance to retain Panarin, he has to be in the offer. This one seems more than plausible. I’m interested to see how willing the Panthers are, and if the Blue Jackets can make it work.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings are just about tapped out financially (approximately $2 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly), so if they’re making this move, money has to be going the other way. They’ve already signed a big-name Russian forward this summer in Ilya Kovalchuk and bringing in Panarin would certainly be the offense upgrade that GM Rob Blake sought before the offseason began. But the acquisition cost and actual cost may be too much for the Kings — even though they’re in a market that could interest Panarin.
In all likelihood, if the resolution results in the player getting what he desires, the deadline is pretty flimsy.
These are interesting and pivotal times for the Blue Jackets, who have finally gotten some traction after nearly two decades of stumbling over themselves. Their roster stacks up well in the Metropolitan Division and their core of young players is the envy of many rival clubs, but they must navigate this situation carefully.