The year of 2015 brought a lot of positives to the Chicago Blackhawks. In June, the team won their sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history. They also added a player who would go on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie the following season when they signed Artemi Panarin out of the KHL in April of 2015. Panarin quickly blossomed into one of the league’s top forwards.
In his rookie campaign, the “Breadman” netted 30 goals and 47 assists. Those 77 points led all rookies and ranked top-ten amongst all NHL skaters. Panarin played a big role in Patrick Kane winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2015-16, as Kane found chemistry with the Russian winger almost immediately.
It looked as if the Blackhawks had their next star of the future. Kane and Jonathan Toews were each approaching 30 years old and Panarin looked like he’d be the next big-time player to wear the Blackhawks sweater for the next decade. However, following a first-round sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators in 2017, general manager Stan Bowman sent Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade — a trade that still confuses the Russian star to this day.
“It was a big surprise for me,” Panarin said about the trade. “I feel bad after the trade.” This is a bad look for Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks no matter how you look at it. Context is extremely important in Panarin’s case. On December 26, 2016, Panarin inked a two-year, $12 million contract to avoid restricted free agency. Had Panarin hit free agency, he surely would have gotten more than $6 million a season. However, Panarin took a bridge-contract with less money to help the salary cap-troubled Blackhawks.
Panarin told his agent that “Chicago’s pressed against the salary cap, I don’t want to be that guy.” Not too many players would do something like this. Young restricted free agents often do take bridge contracts, but Panarin is his own case. He was a little older than most, as he played a few years professionally in Russia first. He was also already a legitimate MVP candidate. He could have realistically gotten $9 million a season or more had he tested free agency.
However, Panarin showed loyalty to the team that gave him his first NHL contract. He showed loyalty to the team who had his newfound best friend, Patrick Kane. Panarin showed loyalty when he had no obligation to do so. He could have simply taken the money elsewhere and nobody could have blamed him. However, he chose to be loyal.
Where did that loyalty land Panarin? Columbus, Ohio is where it got him. Not even six months after showing the Blackhawks his loyalty to the team, Bowman traded him away for Brandon Saad and goalie Anton Forsberg. The trade was bad on paper, as Forsberg has been nothing more than an AHL goalie and while Saad is a good player, he is nowhere near Panarin’s level on the ice.
While the trade was bad on paper, it was even worse on appearances. Is this how Stan Bowman treats star players? Is this how the Chicago Blackhawks treat a player who just did the franchise a huge favor? Blackhawks fans were confused. Joel Quenneville famously stormed out of the United Center in anger after Bowman traded Panarin and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson on the same day. Patrick Kane was reportedly none too pleased either.
It just didn’t make sense. You can surely argue that the Blackhawks could not afford Panarin long-term. The electric winger signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the New York Rangers this past summer. With the Blackhawks cap constraints, that was likely a little rich for the team. However, Panarin and Saad were making identical dollar amounts over the two seasons Panarin spent in Columbus. The Blackhawks could have afforded him for that.
Bowman preached cap predictability when essentially swapping Panarin for Saad. He wanted the player locked up long-term and the lower dollar amount. However, what Bowman failed to realize was this trade made the Blackhawks substantially worse. The team hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since the trade. This will be the third straight season Chicago misses the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While re-signing Panarin long-term was always going to be a challenge, the Blackhawks absolutely needed to at least try to do so. Letting a player of Panarin’s ability go for just Brandon Saad is unacceptable. Factor in the fact that the organization also stabbed Panarin in the back in the process, and the situation was downright embarrassing. Bowman needed to find a way. Players of Panarin’s caliber don’t come around often.
Fans always like to preach that Bowman has had to make tough moves and lose players like Artemi Panarin, Teuvo Teravainen, and Nick Leddy because of salary cap issues. Well, who created those cap issues? Who overpaid Brent Seabrook and Bryan Bickell? Who gave Marcus Kruger way too much money after the 2015 Stanley Cup? There is only one answer.
So here we are, three years removed from Panarin being a Blackhawk. It feels like a lifetime ago. Blackhawk games are a lot less enjoyable these days. The team doesn’t have the same compete level they once had. There isn’t as much flash on the ice with Panarin gone. Oh, and there is significantly less winning on the West Side of Chicago.
Panarin has gone on to be one of the game’s top players since leaving Chicago. Many thought he wouldn’t enjoy the same success without Patrick Kane on his line. Those people couldn’t have been more wrong. In his first season in Columbus, Panarin set a franchise record for points in a season with 82. He broke his own record the following season with 87 points. On Wednesday night in Chicago, Panarin netted his 30th goal of the season. He is on pace for 42 goals and 110 points this season.
Much like Panarin, Blackhawks fans are left scratching their heads at the direction of this franchise. As the trade deadline approaches, does anyone really trust Stan Bowman to make the right moves? If the Panarin-Saad trade is any indication, don’t hold your breath. The Rangers and Panarin being in town on Wednesday night was just yet another reminder of the hellish situation the Chicago Blackhawks have found themselves in.