Zawaski: Blackhawks Happy To Extend Artemi Panarin But Will Soon Face Tough Decisions

By Jay Zawaski–

(CBS) On Wednesday, the Blackhawks addressed the elephant in the room, locking up 25-year-old winger Artemi Panarin on a two-year deal worth a reported $12 million.

Panarin was scheduled to become a restricted free agent after this season, and with the Blackhawks’ well-publicized salary cap woes, it seemed that it would be some time until a deal was competed. Some reports even had Panarin seeking upward of $7 million annually. Apparently, general manager Stan Bowman and company learned their lesson from the messy Brandon Saad situation of two summers ago and nipped this potential road block in the bud.

With this deal, it’s safe to assume that both sides are pleased. The Blackhawks get at least two more season of Panarin’s services at a below-market value price, and Panarin gets the raise and security he deserves while being set to become an unrestricted free agent at 27 — which should be right in the middle of his prime years. At that point, Panarin could command somewhere between $8.5 million-$9.5 million annually, assuming his production remains at its current level or higher. After recording 77 points in 80 games last season, Panarin has 37 points in 37 games this year.

Now the Hawks have to turn their attention to next season’s roster. With Panarin in the books at $6 million per year, the Hawks’ cap situation becomes less clear. As it stands right now, Chicago will have $6,374,872 to fill nine roster spots (five forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender). That’s $708,319 per spot.

Can a team with that many bargain-basement players contend? That’s a tough sell, especially when considering that one of those spots almost certainly belongs to Nick Schmaltz, who has a $925,000 annual hit. Players like Ville Pokka (restricted free agent being paid $925,000) and Viktor Svedberg ($750,000) should compete for some of the empty defensive spots. Other prospects on the rise — like Alex Fortin ($685,000) and Alex Debrincat ($809,167) — could very well make the team as well.

Also keep in mind, the Hawks could lose players like Ryan Hartman and Trevor Van Riemsdyk in the expansion draft.

With this in mind, is it possible that one of the core members of the team is traded? As the Panarin rumors started, many speculated that defenseman Brent Seabrook or goalie Corey Crawford could be on the move to make room for the speedy Russian’s new deal.

I don’t see either of those moves happening for a few reasons.

Seabrook carries a practically unmovable eight-year deal that’s worth $6.875 million annually. Is he worth that money now? Yes, probably. But in another three to five years, his physical decline will be undeniable, and that contract will be an albatross.

I also believe the Hawks are extremely hesitant to move Seabrook, regardless of contract. He’s the vocal leader of the team and one of the most respected players in the locker room. That has value, whether some Blackhawks fans want to admit it or not.

Crawford has put together the best years of his career over the last two seasons. At this point, his contract has to be considered a bargain at $6 million annually. He’s also locked up at that rate through 2019-’20.

There have been a handful of off-ice incidents by Crawford that the Blackhawks were very salty about, including his fall off a step at a concert in 2014. That could play a role in his future, but his play has been so solid, so spectacular that it’s hard to make much of an argument about whatever he’s doing in his free time. It’s working.

In my mind, the most logical candidate to move is center Marcus Kruger. Last summer, the Blackhawks rewarded Kruger’s patience with a three-year deal that pays him $3.08 million annually. Yes, he’s the Blackhawks’ best defensive center. Yes, he’s the Blackhawks’ best penalty killer. And yes, in an ideal world, Kruger would be part of this Hawks group until he’s ready to call it a career. But $3.08 million is a lot to pay a third- or fourth-line center, regardless of defensive prowess.

Whatever happens, Blackhawks fans should brace for more painful change after this season, but I can’t fathom any loss would be as painful as losing Panarin would have been.

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast with James Neveau of NBCChicago.com that you can listen and subscribe to here. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.

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