Pucks in Deep: Artemi Panarin and the small market free agency dilemma

by Sam Stockton | 2/11/19 2:05am

Last Friday, Columbus Blue Jackets winger and leading scorer Artemi Panarin announced a change in agents from Dan Milstein to Paul Theofanous. In a vacuum, this would be a horrifically boring announcement, but in context, there is more to the story. Along with the new agent, Panarin, an impending unrestricted free agent, made fully public what had been an open secret since last offseason — that he intends to test the free agency market, where he will surely collect a handsome raise on the $6 million he took home this season. 

As for the significance of the switch in agents, Theofanous also represents Sergei Bobrovsky, Panarin’s fellow Russian and current Blue Jacket teammate, who just so happens to also become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. That Panarin linked up with Bobrovsky’s agent fueled speculation that the two will be a package deal come July.

For the Blue Jackets, things are going about how you’d expect for a Cup-contending team with two superstars heading to free agency, both of whom have suggested they are unlikely to re-sign in Columbus. Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen now must confront two painful options — either go all-in with his two stars in hopes of a last-gasp Stanley Cup but more than likely lose both for nothing in free agency, or flip one or both before this month’s trade deadline.

Before getting deeper into Kekäläinen’s options, I’d like to dwell on Panarin for a bit. Panarin arrived in the NHL marketplace in spring of 2015, signing a two-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. Panarin came to the U.S. by way of SKA St. Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. In his final season in the KHL, Panarin registered five goals and 15 assists in the postseason en route to a Gagarin Cup title for SKA. Coming to the National Hockey League, Panarin had no shortage of suitors. Sure, there is always the risk that a Russian player may not adapt well to the tighter checking North American game played on smaller rinks, but nonetheless, Panarin had superstar potential. In Russia, he showed the ability to score from anywhere in the offensive zone, and even with his dynamic goal-scoring, Panarin was better as a passer.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Chicago, Panarin proved that his jitterbug offensive game would translate to NHL play. In his debut season, Panarin scored 30 goals and added 47 assists, earning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. In December of his sophomore campaign in the league, Panarin signed a two-year extension with Chicago. Here, I’d like to stress that Panarin had plenty of options entering the league but chose Chicago, wanting to play for a big-budget team in a major city. In re-upping with the Blackhawks, Panarin affirmed his previous choice and took a relatively team-friendly $12 million over two years.

Panarin grew up in Korkino, a small mining town in the Ural Mountains. He started playing hockey at 5, in a pair of laceless skates so big he wore a pair of shoes inside them and gloves whose palms were patched with leather from a worn out pair of boots. By age 8, he travelled 25 miles, often by himself on the bus, from Korkino to Chelyabinsk to attend Traktor Hockey School six days a week. On the bus, he was so small that he was often mistaken for a 5 or 6 year old. Within 20 years, the undersized kid who could never afford new, or even well-fitting, gear was worth $6 million a year in the best hockey league in the world. Within a year of re-signing with the Blackhawks, Chicago dealt him to Columbus, neither a big budget nor big market team.

I say all this because I know how easy it is to decry a player on your favorite team for chasing the sweetest contract in the sunniest city they can find on the open market. Blue Jackets fans, who have never seen their team win so much as a playoff series, are of course devastated as they anticipate losing their twin stars, and I would never try to invalidate that reaction. Instead, in this era when athletes have asserted authority over the billionaires who solicit their services in unprecedented fashion, I bring up Panarin’s history as a reminder that these sports fans follow religiously — and I mean that literally — are played by human beings who are finally approaching the level of control over their own fates that any of us would expect in our chosen fields. Of course, Panarin will receive in the neighborhood of $10 million a season for his services, enough to secure generations of his family’s future, but again, I’d encourage fans to remember that Panarin earned that money with his talent and production, and he deserves the right to control his future. This is Panarin’s life, and at 27, depending on how long of a contract he chooses to sign, this will likely be his only chance to cash in as a free agent in his prime.

“Instead, in this era when athletes have asserted authority over the billionaires who solicit their services in unprecedented fashion, I bring up Panarin’s history as a reminder that these sports fans follow religiously — and I mean that literally — are played by human beings who are finally approaching the level of control over their own fates that any of us would expect in our chosen fields.”

With all this in mind, let’s return to Kekäläinen and the Blue Jackets. As I said, Kekäläinen has two options; both of them seeming like a trip to the dentist’s. He could proceed with his team as it is currently structured, perhaps even adding a piece or two at the trade deadline, and head into the playoffs hoping that the final year of his two superstars will be the one where his team finally breaks through and wins a Stanley Cup. That could be enough to persuade one or both to stay, but even if they win a Cup, both Panarin and Bobrovsky appear poised to leave. 

Then, there is a second option: finding a buyer for one of the two, or even packaging them together. But executing this kind of move would not be easy. The history of American sports suggests that the team giving up a superstar, particularly a superstar in his prime, loses the trade every time. At the time of this writing, the Jackets sit at third in the Metropolitan division and in a playoff spot with relative comfort. This positioning limits potential trade partners, as it would be perhaps even more painful to punt on what is, to this point, a promising season by moving Panarin and/or Bobrovsky for prospects or draft picks who will have no impact on this year’s playoff run. Therefore, the Jackets need to find a team willing to buy at the deadline but also willing to part with pieces that could help their team now. As a kicker, Panarin’s value suffers from the fact that he has made his intention to test free agency well known, rendering teams reluctant to part with anything of much value for a player they may well lose this summer. In brief, Kekäläinen finds himself in an unenviable position.

Kekäläinen’s dilemma tells us two things about today’s NHL. The first concerns the salary cap’s failure to completely level the playing field between the NHL’s richest and poorest teams. When instituted, the cap brought about the promise of economic equality among the NHL’s franchises, but a limit on spending can’t convince a free agent that Columbus is a more desirable destination than New York, Chicago or South Florida. Perhaps more saliently, Panarin’s impending free agency is a reminder that the current generation of athletes is less compliant than the ones preceding it. A GM like Kekäläinen could once trade for a player without much term on the contract with a decent assurance that they could resign that player by offering him something resembling market value. Now, that assurance is gone. Star players recognize their own value and want to take advantage of it on the open market. GMs of small market teams seem to think as though their best option is to offload players like Panarin sooner rather than later, maximizing their return before they lose star-caliber players for nothing in free agency.

At the end of the day, as the National Basketball Association has shown, player movement helps drive fan interest, luring fans in for 365-day-a-year coverage. At the same time, a consequence of this is that fans of small market teams are more susceptible than anyone else to watching their stars walk in free agency, with minimal hope of re-signing a replacement. Despite the promise of equality with the cap, the NHL remains a world of haves and have nots.