On the ice, the next several weeks in Columbus will be incredibly intriguing. The Blue Jackets enter the NHL’s unofficial second half a mere two points back of the Metropolitan Division leading Washington Capitals, on a 7-2-1 run that has seen them shoot up the standings and fending off the hard-charging Pittsburgh Penguins, who are going to make the divisional race one worth keeping an eye on.
And the shame is that there’s a chance the bigger story in Columbus will have nothing to do with the team’s performance at all.
From prior to the NHL draft last summer through to the mid-point of the current campaign, one of the bigger stories — sometimes at the forefront, other times at the back of mind — has been Artemi Panarin’s contract situation in Columbus. In the final year of an expiring two-year, $12-million pact, Panarin, 27, is months from being able to test the open market as an unrestricted free agent. He would do so, too, as arguably the most sought after offensive talent in the league, a player of game-changing ability who has been a near point per game player, netting 276 points in 280 games, since entering the league some three and a half seasons ago.
Ahead of the New Year, Panarin’s contract situation and pending free agency again rose to the fore. Speaking with TSN 1050 late last week, Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein, said his client is happy with his situation with the Blue Jackets right now, but that the two sides — Panarin and his agents and the Blue Jackets’ management, including GM Jarmo Kekalainen — plan to meet during the all-star break to discuss “what the future may hold.” That’s where things get interesting, because depending how those conversations go, the potential contract talks in late January could not only determine Panarin’s future but also the direction the Blue Jackets are forced to take.
The best case scenario from Columbus’ perspective would be a productive discussion about a new contract for Panarin that results in the winger re-upping on a long-term, big-money deal to remain a Blue Jacket. He’s been the team’s offensive driver since his arrival, proving the Patrick Kane’s-sidekick naysayers wrong in an instant all the while establishing himself as one of the league’s most purely gifted point producers. And though the Blue Jackets would hesitate to hand out a blank check to Panarin, you can rest assured that they’d be willing to pay him more than competitively. With upwards of $29.8-million in cap space opening this summer, Columbus probably wouldn’t bat an eye at a $9 million-plus payday.
But signing the free agent-to-be in the next several weeks is only one of three realistic scenarios, and given the concerns about getting Panarin under contract have existed for several months, it has increasingly seemed the least likely. The other scenarios — both of which operate under the assumption that Panarin remains without a contract as the trade deadline approaches — are far less favorable for Columbus.
On one hand, Panarin could remain without a contract come the deadline and the Blue Jackets could choose to keep him in the fold. He is, after all, their best chance at producing the offense necessary to make a deep playoff run and one-third of the team’s top line. With Panarin, Columbus can make noise. Without him, their Stanley Cup odds likely decline by a not-insignificant percentage. Keeping him, however, is a gamble. Doing so would be to risk losing him for nothing, save maybe a low-round pick if he’s traded following the post-season but ahead of July 1, and recouping not even a single asset for the team’s most talented offensive forward should he feel there are greener pastures and sign as a free agent elsewhere next summer.
The only way for the Blue Jackets to guarantee they avoid such a scenario with an unsigned Panarin, though, would be to either throw enough money at him that he’s persuaded to stay in Columbus or, as unfathomable as it seems, move him at or ahead of the trade deadline in order to net a worthwhile return. Contenders, especially top contenders looking for scoring, would undoubtedly relish the opportunity to land a player such as Panarin, paying a high price to do so. That could mean high picks, talented prospects and possibly even mid-range roster players come back Columbus’ way as a return. It would give the Blue Jackets tangible payment for Panarin instead of the more nebulous promise of spending room that can be exercised to add talent in his stead.
And painful as it may be, Columbus may need to seriously consider that nuclear, trade-Panarin option if he remains unsigned, because open as the Stanley Cup window may be, missing out on a championship this season and also losing Panarin for nothing could set this franchise back in a big way. That’s because not only would the Blue Jackets have no prospects or picks coming back their way in exchange for the loss of Panarin’s services, they would be unlikely to use the free cap space to land a top talent if history is any indication. In the salary cap era, Columbus’ most notable free agent signings — we’re talking the ones where they beat out others to ink a notable name — include Adam Foote (2005-06), Mike Commodore (2008-09), Sami Pahlsson (2009-10) and Nathan Horton (2013-14), though we all know how poorly the latter turned out. The real cream of the croup, however, has never landed in Columbus. The Blue Jackets haven’t been a destination for highly sought after free agents. That makes replacing Panarin, as much as any team could hope to replace a player of his ilk, a near impossibility.
Of course, making matters that much worse for Columbus is that Panarin’s situation isn’t one-of-one. The Blue Jackets face an almost identical scenario with Sergei Bobrovsky, who has risen to become one of the league’s standout keepers over the past several seasons and can likewise test the open market this summer. Though, the hope is that if Bobrovsky bolts, Columbus could find a replacement in the not-too-distant future in Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins or Daniil Tarasov. No similar option exists for Panarin.
And that’s what makes the Blue Jackets situation quite possibly the most interesting of any club over the next several weeks. What comes of the discussions in late-January could determine the direction Columbus takes for the foreseeable future, and there are only two ways this can shake out: with or without Panarin.