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Artemi Panarin’s contract extension could be trickiest yet for Blackhawks

Artemi Panarin’s agent has started contract extension talks with the Blackhawks, and Chicago is going to have to be as careful as ever when it comes to inking the Russian winger.

Artemi Panarin’s rookie season was an incredible — and expensive — one for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Panarin blasted his way to the Calder Trophy in his rookie campaign with an outstanding 30-goal, 77-point season, and he formed one of the most remarkable scoring duos in the entire league alongside Patrick Kane. Combined, the two scored 76 goals and 183 points, and it was with Panarin as his wingman that Kane fulfilled his monster scoring potential, capturing the Art Ross Trophy with 46 goals and 106 points.

But after just one season in the league, Panarin already has free agency on the horizon — though, luckily for the Blackhawks, Panarin will be restricted, not unrestricted, meaning Chicago will maintain his negotiating rights. 

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc reported that Panarin’s agent, Tom Lynn, has started contract talks with Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. And while Panarin said he came to the league “not because of money and contracts,” he’s still going to want to be paid for the talent he is. That means it’s going to take some careful consideration on the Blackhawks’ part when it comes to Panarin’s second deal.

First and foremost, the concern is the Blackhawks haven’t had to deal with a youngster of Panarin’s ilk since Kane. While other talented young players have come through Chicago, Panarin burst onto the scene as a top scorer, and that’s not something the Blackhawks have had much of. There were other players who have developed into top-line talents — Brandon Saad comes to mind — but his big contract ask came after three seasons and a major hand in two Stanley Cups.

The difficulty for Bowman, then, will be putting a value on Panarin, because even while his base salary is a mere $812,500, Panarin earned the nearly $3.5 million this past season for meeting all of his bonuses. This coming campaign is yet another year of Panarin’s bonus-laden deal, and yet another year of him chasing down an extra $2.5 million-plus in extra salary.

With that kind of money already paid out, there’s almost no way Panarin’s contract dips anywhere below $3.5 million per season on whatever deal he signs next, and finding comparables for Panarin’s performance this past season should have Bowman sweating. Players such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski, Filip Forsberg and Steven Stamkos had somewhat similar seasons as Panarin in 2015-16, and each of those players earns clear of $5.5 million per season. If there’s a starting point for Panarin, that’s probably it.

However, Panarin could have some more interesting players to compare himself to if Bowman doesn’t sign the youngster in the next few weeks. 

Two star RFAs, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, have yet to ink deals for the upcoming season, and both could be used by Panarin’s camp as comparable players. In fact, Gaudreau’s deal might be the best of the bunch, as the two were near identical in scoring this past season with Gaudreau edging Panarin by a single assist. That Gaudreau is asking for $8 million-plus, an amount he could very well receive, might set the bar even higher for Panarin’s first non-entry-level deal.

Here’s where things get slightly better for the Blackhawks, though: Panarin doesn’t have the resume of Gaudreau, Kucherov or any number of the players with comparable offensive numbers this past season. Sure, he has the Calder and a 77-point campaign under his belt, but Panarin’s NHL career spans one season. That could work in Bowman and Co.’s favor. Without the resume or consistency of scoring, it’s hard to demand big bucks right out of the gate. That could help Bowman keep the cap figure down, which is of utmost importance.

Bowman doesn’t have infinite wiggle room with Panarin, and really, anything over $6.5 million might be considered pushing it. As it stands, Chicago is projected by CapFriendly to have roughly $15 million in cap space ahead of the 2017-18 season. Of course, that doesn’t account for the expansion draft and very real possibility that Marcus Kruger and his $3 million contract are scooped up by Las Vegas. But if Kruger stays and Panarin signs at $6.5 million, the Blackhawks would have only $8 million and change to improve and lock up pending RFAs.

And, really, the name of the game for Bowman is keeping the cap figure in a place where he’s comfortable holding onto Panarin and still keeping the team in shape to compete. That’s been an issue in recent years, and the Blackhawks’ continued success isn’t helping them keep their prospect cupboard stocked to the brim like it has been in past years. Gone are the days of the Blackhawks having players such as Saad, Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen in the pipeline, and a new crop is just now trying to break through.

The difficulty for Bowman and the Blackhawks will be if Panarin’s contract extension waits. If he enters the season on a similar scoring pace and maintains his chemistry with Kane, Panarin’s contract could push upwards from $6.5 million to the $7.5- or $8-million range. And while that may be doable for Chicago in the short-term, it could come at the expense of continuing to field a deep, skilled roster down the line. That’s the balancing act for the Blackhawks: finding a way to keep Panarin while keeping the club competitive. And with Panarin staring down a massive raise, that won’t be easy.

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