The Columbus Blue Jackets have been told that Artemi Panarin is not considering an extension at the moment, and have decided to start “testing the market” for the star winger, according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet. Panarin was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks last summer in exchange for Brandon Saad and others, but is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Obviously things could change at any moment and the 26-year old could decide that he is willing to stay in Columbus long-term, but just a sliver of availability is sure to generate plenty of interest from around the league.
In a response, George Richards of the Columbus Dispatch reached out to Panarin’s agent Dan Milstein, who told him it is not a “proper time to comment” on either part of the report. Aaron Portzline of The Athletic also got Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen on record commenting on the report:
Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.
Panarin is one of the best offensive players in the entire league, and represents a huge asset for the Blue Jackets if they’re truly testing the market. In 243 games since coming over from the KHL, Panarin has 233 points including 82 in the 2017-18 season. While some believed that his top production was helped by playing with Patrick Kane during his time in Chicago, Panarin proved he could drive a line by himself and helped Pierre-Luc Dubois get acclimated to the NHL as a teenager this season. Dubois finished second among all Blue Jackets forwards with 48 points this season, showing just how effective Panarin was at even-strength and on the powerplay. Just 21 of his 82 points were with the man advantage, while his 41 even-strength assists tied him for second in the league behind only Connor McDavid.
Even with that outstanding production though, there may be a case for the Blue Jackets moving on from him if there is no chance of an extension. The Blue Jackets are set up to be competitive for a long time thanks to the development of players like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and even though Panarin is clearly the heartbeat of their offense he could be used to supplement the current core and extend the window even further. Dubois, while not as offensively gifted, represents a legitimate top-line center option for the team, while other young talent like Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexander Wennberg and Sonny Milano could still take substantial steps forward.
The return for Panarin would have to be enormous for the Blue Jackets to trade him this summer, and it is unclear who around the league would want to part with those kind of assets while he’s unwilling to discuss a contract extension. Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic tweets that the earliest Panarin would want to discuss an extension is likely the start of the season, making this an extremely tough decision for both Columbus and any acquiring team. Sending what would likely have to be a package centered around a top young roster player is a tough pill to swallow for just a year, even if it is one of the most consistent offensive producers in the league.
Columbus though has other things to worry about as they move forward with this group. Sergei Bobrovsky is an unrestricted free agent next summer as well, while Werenski will be coming out of his entry-level contract looking for a huge raise. The team is in fine salary cap shape at the moment, but could easily find themselves in a position where they’re unable to keep Panarin or Bobrovsky anyway. The idea of entertaining offers, even in a very preliminary manner, makes some sense in this situation.