It was one of biggest bits of news heading into a busy draft weekend: Artemi Panarin, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ electrifying young winger, informed the team that he wasn’t ready to sign an extension, that he wanted to take a wait-and-see approach with only one season remaining until he can become an unrestricted free agent. And while it’s been nearly three weeks since Panarin’s decision was widely reported, it appears there’s been no movement one way or another. The holding pattern remains.
There was, however, reason for some further consternation in Columbus over the weekend. In speaking with The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein, said that if the Blue Jackets were to offer the winger a short-term deal, chances are they would have done it by now. But with Columbus wanting some certainty with Panarin, to know they have their leading scorer locked up on a long-term pact, the question facing the 26-year-old, according to Milstein, is whether he wants to settle down in Ohio for the next seven-plus seasons.
But at some point, and it could very well be some point soon, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen is going to have to take this decision out of Panarin’s hands. Because while Panarin has all the tools to be the centerpiece of the franchise’s attack for the next several years and while he’s a player the Blue Jackets no doubt want to remain with the franchise well into the future, Columbus can’t allow this situation to drag out to the point where the Blue Jackets could potentially lose him for nothing. Kekalainen need look no further than the position the New York Islanders find themselves in this summer for all the reasons why the Panarin predicament is one that needs sorting before it even sniffs free agency.
Some will argue that John Tavares and Panarin are in no way similar, that the former is a first overall pick and decade-long face of a franchise while the latter is one season into his tenure with his second team in three seasons. But there’s an argument to be made that Panarin, who scored at better than a point-per-game rate last season, is the most dynamic offensive talent the Blue Jackets have ever had. Apologies to Rick Nash’s legion of supporters, but Panarin’s 82 points this past season set a new Columbus franchise record and matched Nash’s career-best points-per-game rate. That’s not to mention Panarin set the team record for assists in a season and was only the 11th player in franchise history to score at least 27 goals in a campaign. So, when you compare what Tavares meant to the Islanders’ attack and Panarin means to the Blue Jackets’ offense, the two are at least somewhat analogous.
That’s why Columbus can’t afford to make the same misstep as New York, though, and the exact reason the Blue Jackets should do what the Islanders didn’t and put a timeline on this whole ordeal. If New York had done the same, maybe Tavares would have been shipped off at the deadline for a considerable return that would have put the Islanders in a more favorable position going forward. Instead, they tied their hopes to retaining Tavares without any certainty and were burned for it.
It actually might be more important for the Blue Jackets to have certainty than it was for the Islanders, though. In New York, at least Tavares was surrounded with a significant amount of talent in the top half of the roster in Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Anthony Beauvillier and others. The Islanders also have a top-tier offensive prospect in Kieffer Bellows, who could be in the lineup as early as this coming campaign. Columbus doesn’t have the same benefit given their offense was considerably more top-heavy this past season. Panarin was the highest-scoring forward by 34 points, and beyond up-and-comers Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano, the long-term forecast on offensive prospects isn’t all that great for the Blue Jackets.
The other major concern for Columbus has to be that if Panarin was allowed to test the open market and walked, chances are the Blue Jackets aren’t going to be able to immediately replace him as a major player in the free agent market. It’s not a slight, but the truth is the Blue Jackets aren’t an organization that has traditionally been able to rely on free agency to bring talent to town in the salary cap era. Matter of fact, in the post-lockout NHL, the only sought-after free agent that Columbus has lured away from other suitors is Nathan Horton, who signed a seven-year, $37.1-million contract with the Blue Jackets following the lockout-shortened campaign.
Unfortunately, we know all too well how that turned out for Columbus. Horton played 36 games for the Blue Jackets, scoring five goals and 19 points, before landing on the shelf with a debilitating back injury and has not played since April 2014. He was traded to the Maple Leafs in February 2015 as a way for Columbus to clear his contract — which was uninsured — while the Blue Jackets took back a similarly priced player, David Clarkson, who could likewise be placed on long-term injured reserve with the deal insured. All of that is beside the point, however. The real issue here is that since July 2013, a span of five years, the Blue Jackets have not been able to bolster their roster with a single top-tier free agent. Everything they have now or have had in the past has been homegrown or brought in via trade.
Panarin is one of the best trade chips in the league, too, and the Blue Jackets may be able to get themselves quite the package in any trade involving the high-scoring winger. Even as it pertained to the Islanders and Tavares, there were some drawbacks. The big one, of course, was that if he was moved along, the Islanders obviously seemed to believe they had no chance of bringing him back (which, of course, isn’t altogether true, as some free agents have been dealt only to return to their former team once the market opened). Additionally, Tavares had a limited no-trade clause, according to CapFriendly. But Panarin has no such option. He’s free to be traded at the drop of a hat to the highest bidder.
Thus, even though we’re only weeks into a potential saga between the two sides, it’s beginning to look as though trading Panarin is exactly what the Blue Jackets should do if the prospects of a long-term extension continue to look so dire. It doesn’t matter if it’s December or January or the final hours leading up to the trade deadline, Columbus would be best served to set some sort of drop-dead date. And if Panarin isn’t signed by the franchise’s own self-imposed deadline, cutting bait may be the only way the Blue Jackets avoid a Tavares-esque disappointment next summer.
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