Pending a change of heart, forward Artemi Panarin is likely to become one of the most hotly pursued NHL free agents in recent memory on July 1st, 2019, with a sweepstakes potentially rivaling even that of John Tavares’ last year. His current team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, have done their best to convince Panarin not to test the free agent waters and instead sign an extension, but thus far it seems like a highly unlikely outcome. As a result, Columbus is saddled with the difficult choice this season of whether to hold on to Panarin for a run at the Stanley Cup and risk losing him for nothing or trade the talented winger for a hefty return while also damaging the team’s title hopes.
However, that dilemma could have instead belonged to the Chicago Blackhawks. Panarin was only traded to Columbus in the 2017 off-season. The Russian dynamo was originally signed by and played his first two NHL seasons in Chicago. However, the Blackhawks decided to deal Panarin away, opting instead to bring back Brandon Saad from the Blue Jackets, as well as young goaltender Anton Forsberg and a mid-round pick. By any metric, it is difficult to say that the Blackhawks won that trade, as Chicago missed the playoffs last season amid a very disappointing campaign for Saad, while Panarin was one of the league’s top scorers for a Columbus squad that performed well all season long. Yet, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman may have had more than just the trade return in mind when he dealt Panarin to the Blue Jackets.
Speaking with TSN, Bowman claims that he foresaw the “tough spot” that Columbus and colleague Jarmo Kekalainen are in right now with Panarin. The young forward made such an immediate impact when coming to the NHL, that Bowman expected he would test the free agent market as soon as possible, saying ” I saw that coming as a challenge.” This clearly was a major factor that contributed to Chicago’s surprising willingness to trade Panarin. For his part, Bowman does acknowledge that Saad has to play better and has been more than a little disappointing thus far in his second stint with the Blackhawks. Continued poor performance from Saad would make this trade a complete loss, even if Panarin does bolt from Columbus. However, Bowman still stands behind his decision to acquire a talented forward signed long-term at a $6MM cap hit in Saad rather than take his chances with Panarin, who felt was destined to depart in free agency.