Artemi Panarin (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Chicago Blackhawks rookie Artemi Panarin has been brilliant, but that’s both a good and bad thing. Panarin, 24, has softened the blow of off-season losses, but the Russian winger’s scoring success could have him in line for a big bonus that could put Chicago back in a serious cap crunch.
The Blackhawks inked Russian scoring sensation Artemi Panarin with the hope his addition would be able to help reduce the impact of the cap crunch that was due to hit Chicago’s ability to compete. In his first season with the Blackhawks, he’s done just that. Ironically, though, Panarin’s been so good that he could end up putting the Blackhawks in exactly the kind of cap crunch Chicago was hoping to avoid.
When Panarin, 24, signed his entry-level deal, included was a performance bonus that stated if the winger finished his season in the top 10 in scoring among forwards, he would be awarded an additional $1.725 million. Even with Panarin’s success in the KHL, where he finished fifth in scoring with 26 goals and 62 points in 54 games in 2014-15, it seemed like a long shot he would become an immediate impact player in the NHL. And even if he played well, it seemed even more unlikely he would be coming in and score at a rate that would make him one of the 10 most productive forwards.
Remarkably, he’s done just that, and Panarin’s 28 goals and 74 points in 79 games ranks ninth in scoring among forwards with one more game to go. It’s been an impressive feat, but it’s one the Blackhawks weren’t banking on, financially or otherwise.
“I wouldn’t be honest if I expected him to come in here and [be top 10 in scoring in the whole league],” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told the team’s website. “That never happens for rookies; I don’t know the last rookie to be top 10 in scoring, but it’s been quite a while.”
That Panarin is playing so well isn’t the concern, though, and the immediate future of the Blackhawks will in part rely on the Russian rookie continuing to show off his scoring ability. But if the off-season comes and Panarin has achieved his big bonus, the Blackhawks are going to have difficulty managing the additional $1.725 million against the cap, especially with raises coming for Artem Anisimov, Marcus Kruger, Brent Seabrook and Viktor Svedberg.
“As far as this summer, I’ve said this many times before, but with so many unknowns in the situation — we don’t know what the salary cap is going to be — at this point it’s premature to assume anything,” Bowman said, via ChicagoBlackhawks.com. “We’ll get that figured out in due time, and we always find a way to make that work.”
It could be tougher than ever this off-season, though. The Blackhawks are set to have a projected cap hit of nearly $67 million next season, per CapFriendly, and that’s before Panarin’s potential bonuses — plural — kick in. All told, Panarin can earn an additional $2.575 million in bonuses, the majority of which are achieved if he finishes top-10 in scoring. With those added in, the Blackhawks will have nearly $70 million tied up in contracts with only 17 players under contract. The biggest holes will be up front where, with Bryan Bickell included, Chicago will need to find cheap replacements or creative workarounds to fill at least three spots on the roster.
Bickell is the most obvious answer for the Blackhawks in that Chicago will need to find somewhere to move him to and may need to risk taking back next to nothing for the former playoff hero in order to move his contract. If Bickell came off the books, the Blackhawks would have four spots to fill up front, but an additional $4 million with which to do so. That money could go a long way with some clever free agent signings. That said, it’s been no secret that Chicago has been trying to free themselves of Bickell and his contract for the past two years and there hasn’t been any takers up to this point. Burying him in the minors saves only a fraction of the contract. Another off-season gives Bowman another chance to move Bickell, but if Bowman can’t move him, what then?
The Blackhawks will get some relief, as they have in the past, by using prospects and low-cost signings to fill in holes in the bottom-six, but that can only go so far without there being a precipitous drop in skill. This season, while dealing with the losses of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks have iced their worst possession team ever under coach Joel Quenneville. While always believed to be a threat, Chicago doesn’t appear to be among the top Western Conference contenders this campaign. Another season of replacement players could mean another year out of true contention for the Blackhawks.
Of course, there’s still a chance that Panarin falls out of the top 10 in scoring even if he’s in the lineup Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, which he is expected to be. Vladimir Tarasenko and Anze Kopitar both have 73 points, and could realistically surpass Panarin with big games Saturday evening. That’s not unfathomable, but Panarin can also control his own fate. And while few will complain this season if Panarin keeps contributing, it could signal big trouble heading Chicago’s way.