While many teams are still trying to sort out their restricted free agent problems from this off-season, at least one team is already worrying about next summer. As was reported a few weeks back, talks have already begun between the Chicago Blackhawks and 2015-16 Calder Trophy-winner Artemi Panarin. The young Russian winger is entering the second of year of his rookie contract, which carried just an $812.5K cap hit ($3.5MM with bonuses). After scoring 77 points in his first season, the 24-year-old is understandably looking for a big raise in his next contract, with early reports suggesting that Panarin could seek a long-term deal of six to eight years at $6MM to $7MM per season.
Although the Blackhawks currently have over $3MM in cap space, there is no question that they are the least cap flexible team in the NHL. With $58MM committed to just 11 players in 2017-18, including nearly $34MM reserved for just Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford and another $5.5MM spent on a bargain deal for Duncan Keith, there is very little wiggle room for them to accommodate a contract like the one Panarin is asking for. Brian Hedger of The Athletic in Chicago opines that, no matter what, the Blackhawks must find a way to keep Panarin and avoid another “Brandon Saad situation”. Unable to come to terms on an affordable deal with the young phenom Saad last summer, Chicago was forced to trade him away. Hedger sees the makings of the same scenario with Panarin, and warns that another alternative must be found.
After losing Saad, as well as Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, and more recently Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen (as part of a package to rid the team of Bryan Bickell’s contract), all due to cap concerns, Hedger wonders when GM Stan Bowman will finally draw the line. While the Hawks remain in position to be perennial Stanley Cup contenders now, anyone can tell you that a continuation of selling off complimentary pieces and top young players to sustain outrageously large contracts will eventually lead Chicago back into the cellar of the NHL. Losing Panarin, perhaps Kane’s best line mate of his career, as part of this pattern could be the last step off the cliff for the Blackhawks. Instead, the team needs to make a bold decision and remove one of their high-priced veterans in the near future. This will be a big story line to follow during the upcoming season.