Well, that wasn’t the news Columbus Blue Jackets fans wanted to hear. On Monday, left winger Artemi Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein, tweeted the following:
“We have informed the team that we are willing to discuss Artemi’s future after the season. Our priority now is to focus on the rest of the season, trying to win a Stanley Cup for the CBJ & their fans.”
We can interpret that statement in multiple ways. Hey, at least Panarin’s camp discusses winning a Stanley Cup with Columbus. That implies he won’t demand a trade before Feb. 25 and that he’s willing to take one last ride with the Blue Jackets if they decide to retain him as a UFA “rental.” General manager Jarmo Kekalainen will also theoretically get a shot to re-sign Panarin – and would get to commence talks before the June free-agent negotiation window opens up to other teams.
Of course, at this point, Panarin would be crazy not test the market and field offers from all suitors in June. He’s 27, an outstanding two-way player and will make a killing as a UFA, likely scoring a seven-year deal with an AAV eclipsing the $10-million range if he doesn’t stick with Columbus.
Kekalainen likely understands the odds of losing his best forward are greater than the odds of keeping him at this point. He may decide that’s OK, that it’s still worth charging into battle with Panarin one last time with a Blue Jackets team good enough to make noise in the playoffs. But other GMs smell blood and will make offers between now and Feb. 25. As Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, the phone is already ringing off the hook.
The trade setup is awkward, as (a) Columbus is a contender and thus needs a helpful roster player coming its way and (b), as Kekalainen tells Portzline, the contenders who would want to rent Panarin don’t want to weaken their roster. Then again, it’s tough to imagine any team acquiring Panarin and getting weaker even if that means giving up a good player. A non-playoff or bubble team could also pursue a deal that involves signing Panarin to an extension. So while a trade isn’t all that likely, it’s not impossible to envision. Which teams are most likely and/or best equipped to pursue Panarin in the short term?
A lack of scoring depth at forward was a problem for Boston on paper to start the season and remains a problem. The Bruins need firepower to hang offensively with Tampa Bay and Toronto during their near-inevitable playoff showdowns. Adding a player as impactful as Panarin would launch Boston into the top-contender tier. He’d be an expensive rental but perhaps worth it. Zdeno Chara is 41, Patrice Bergeron is 33, David Krejci is 32 and Tuukka Rask is 31. This Bruins generation is running out of chances at another Cup run. Would it be worth sacrificing a package including Jake DeBrusk as the “useful roster player” heading to Columbus? Boston is also a major hockey market on a body of water, so the Bruins would theoretically have a shot at wooing Panarin to sign with them, though making him fit under the cap would likely require disposing of David Backes’ contract somehow – given Boston has RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo to re-sign this summer.
The Preds are an all-in, peaking Stanley Cup threat, but when they’re measured up against the Winnipeg Jets, the team they couldn’t conquer last season, what stands out is Nashville’s lack of superstars at forward. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are great players, but the other top contenders have the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and so on. Landing Panarin would spike Nashville's punch bowl with elite talent.
The cost would gut GM David Poile of something significant – Eeli Tolvanen? Kevin Fiala? – but Poile is an aggressive GM and likely understands his team sits in a crucial window right now. That said, Nashville also needs some size on the wings, so Mark Stone is arguably a better fit as a rental – though he’s more likely to sign an extension with the Ottawa Senators by Feb. 25 than get moved.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
I spoke with Sharks GM Doug Wilson shortly after he executed the Erik Karlsson trade last September, and Wilson revealed his founding philosophy behind the deal.
“I do not believe in complete rebuilds, because how do I look at my head coach or my players who have committed long-term contracts to us, and all of a sudden they don’t have a chance to win?" Wilson said. "Our belief is in doing the things necessary to give the best chance to win every year. That’s what we do.”
Wilson understands he has a veteran-laden roster, with Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Erik Karlsson set to become UFAs at the moment and stalwarts Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic north of 30. All the Sharks players bristled before the season when I mentioned the idea of a window closing – as Pavelski pointed out, “That’s what you said about us in 2016,” before they reached the Cup final – but it’s pretty clear that time is running out at least for a major chunk of the Sharks’ core. Wilson wants to reward his troops, so he seems like a candidate to construct a major-league offer for Panarin. The return would be difficult to figure out. Wilson’s already traded his next two first-round picks, and the Sharks’ farm system doesn’t pop aside from Ryan Merkley. It would also be too much to include Tomas Hertl or Timo Meier in any Panarin talks unless an extension was part of the trade. I can see a desire for Panarin on San Jose’s part, but I’m not convinced Wilson can put the right package together. He might be better off pursuing ‘The Bread Man’ in free agency as the Sharks did Tavares last summer.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
It seems like we can’t compose a trade-suitors list without including the Golden Knights. They always seem to be sniffing around the big fish. They came close to landing Karlsson at the 2018 deadline. They also have an interesting combination of assets they could use to acquire Panarin. They have a large cache of picks, a high-end prospect in Cody Glass and a collection of useful young roster players. The Golden Knights as a whole, though, are still young enough that they don’t fall into the go-for-broke tier like the teams listed above, so if they had any plan to deal Glass plus a useful forward such as, say, Reilly Smith, they strike me as a team that would need an extension to be part of a Panarin trade.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Ooh, a sleeper. TSN’s Darren Dreger recently suggested Panarin would love to play with Mathew Barzal .The Islanders, shockingly, find themselves leading the Metro Division. They feel way ahead of schedule, they have a nice group of prospects coming down the pipeline, and anything they accomplish this season feels like a bonus, so they don’t have to be aggressive. But if they were to pursue a Panarin trade that was more than a rental and included an extension, would it be worth surrendering some assets in the name of upgrading now? It’s a tough decision for GM Lou Lamoriello. The Isles feel like a logical choice to chase Panarin as a UFA in the summer, especially because their market would appeal to Panarin. At the same time, though, even if it’s a surprise to find yourself leading a division, don't you have to at least consider behaving as a buyer team in the present and adding some pieces?