The Blackhawks have yet to make it official, but reports have surfaced that one of the most sought after KHL free agents is on the verge of inking a deal with Chicago. If he fails to make the Blackhawks, though, he’ll be heading right back to Russia.
According to Igor Eronko, a vice-president with SKA St. Petersburg, Panarin’s KHL club, confirmed that the 23-year-old winger has signed a deal that has an out-clause: if Panarin isn’t on Chicago’s roster next season, he is free to return to St. Petersburg.
It was his 2014-15 campaign that made Panarin such an intriguing free agent, as he notched 26 goals and 62 points in 54 games this past season with St. Petersburg. In the post-season, en route to winning the KHL championship, known as the Gagarin Cup, Panarin potted another five goals and 20 points in 20 outings.
Since entering the KHL full-time in 2010-11, Panarin’s improvement has been steady. In his first full season, he registered five goals and 21 points in 40 games and followed it up with 30- and 40-point campaigns before having his breakout year.
There were a number of teams reportedly after Panarin, but it’s hard not to wonder if the ability for him to so freely return to the KHL tipped the scales in Chicago’s favor.
It’s an interesting structure for a contract and one for Panarin that protects him from spending the season in the AHL if he can’t crack the Blackhawks’ roster – one of the toughest lineups in the NHL to get into. While there’s nothing wrong with playing in the AHL, Panarin likely wasn’t interested in coming over to North America to play anywhere but the NHL. That it appears SKA retains his KHL rights allows Panarin to know exactly what’s next in his career should he not be playing in the Windy City to start 2015-16.
What will help Panarin in making the Blackhawks’ roster is the cap crunch Chicago is under. The Blackhawks have roughly $64 million tied up in salary for next season with Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger up for new contracts at the end of the year.
There will be at least one spot open for a forward, but there’s potential for Chicago to shed salary up front – Patrick Sharp or Bryan Bickell could be among those moved – to add to their blueline in the off-season. The Blackhawks are set to lose Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival and Kimmo Timonen this off-season on the backend, so they’ll need money for replacements. By shipping out a high-priced forward, they create cap space, which, in turn, would free up room for Panarin to make the squad.
There have been no reports yet on what the financial terms of the contract are.