In his first season with the Columbus Blue Jackets Artemi Panarin turned out to be everything the team could have possibly hoped for him to be. If anything, he may have exceeded their expectations. After two outstanding years riding shotgun alongside Patrick Kane in Chicago, Panarin arrived in Columbus and proved that he could be an impact player while carrying his own line and not only matched his production from Chicago, he managed to improve on it almost across the board.
He set a new career in total points. He averaged more shots on goal per game. His possession numbers jumped to an elite level. He was Columbus’ best and most impactful player for the entire season. When he was on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Blue Jackets controlled 57 percent of the total shot attempts. They outscored teams by a 61-37 margin. Without him on the ice the Blue Jackets were outshot (49 percent shot attempt) and outscored (108-111).
(Data via Natural Stat Trick)
He gave them the exact type of player they had been lacking for years: an All-Star level forward still in the prime of his career that could be command the attention of every team in the league the second he jumped over the boards.
After all of that Columbus now seems like it could be on the precipice of losing him entirely, a development that would be yet another disappointing blow to an organization that has known nothing but disappointment throughout its existence.
Entering the final year of his contract, Panarin is now eligible to sign a long-term deal with the Blue Jackets, something the team would no doubt have an interest in doing. As already noted, Panarin is one of the best offensive players in the league and at age 26 is still at a point in his career where he should still have several highly productive years ahead of him. Signing to a long-term deal and making him one of your cornerstone players would be a totally logical and sensible thing to do.
The problem for the Blue Jackets is that both sides have to be willing to make that happen, and Panarin does not seem willing to sign a long-term deal with Columbus at this time. To the point where he does not want to even enter into contract negotiations with the team at this moment.
Over the weekend Panarin’s agent, Daniel Milstein, spoke with The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline regarding the current situation and none of it sounds terribly promising for Blue Jackets fans. While Milstein paints a great picture of Panarin loving Columbus, the team, and the coach, the entire thing boils down to this line: “It’s about, does he want to spend the next eight years in Columbus? That’s the only thing at stake right now. If it was a two-year deal we probably would have done it. But it isn’t a two-year deal. It’s gonna have to be an extended, seven- or eight-year deal put in place.”
Milstein also pointed out that while Columbus is trying to find a trade partner, he has not provided Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen with a list of teams he would go to and he has not asked for permission to speak to potential teams when it comes to working out a contract.
You can read the full interview here (subscription required).
This leaves the Blue Jackets in a less than ideal spot.
On one hand, they still have Panarin for at least one more season and while he is not willing to negotiate a new contract at this time, there is always a chance he could change his mind at any moment and decide that, yes, Columbus is a place he would like to commit eight years to. That would be the ideal result.
But if you are the Blue Jackets are you willing to take that chance and risk putting yourself in a position to get Tavares’d next July and lose your best player for nothing as a free agent? If you think you are one or two moves away from winning a Stanley Cup — or seriously competing for one — this season maybe you ride it out and hope for the best. But in a division that has the past three Stanley Cup champions, and in a conference where Toronto and Tampa Bay are going toe-to-toe in an arms race — and oh let’s not forget that Boston is pretty damn good, too — the odds seem remarkably stacked against Columbus in this one year.
As painful as it might be for Blue Jackets fans, a trade might be the most sensible option here.
And that would stink. For one, it is nearly impossible to trade a player like Panarin and end up coming out ahead when it comes to value (just ask the Chicago Blackhawks).
That still might be better than losing him for nothing.
Then there is the hit Columbus would take in terms of its reputation.
Despite back-to-back postseason appearances this is still a team that is fighting for an identity. After 17 seasons they have still yet to actually win a postseason series, while the few star players that have played for the organization have all moved on without much team success. They were never able to build a contender around Rick Nash, while Jeff Carter spent his half season in Columbus as a mostly empty uniform before being traded for Jack Johnson.
There has not been a lot of good here.
Last week Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella felt compelled to passionately (and profanely!) defend the organization after a perceived slight from Johnson after joining the Pittsburgh Penguins — Tortorella’s long-time arch-nemesis — and talking about wanting to be a part of a winning culture.
“This is the Columbus Blue Jackets and we’re fighting our ass off to gain respect in this league, and we’re getting there,” Tortorella told Portzline (subscription required). “We’re getting there.”
And they are! They really, truly are.
Over the past two years the Blue Jackets’ 95 wins are the fourth-most in the NHL behind only Washington, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay. Given the success of those three teams (Pittsburgh and Washington won the Stanley Cup those two years while Tampa Bay was in the Eastern Conference Final this past year) that is strong company to be in.
Panarin was a big part of that regular season success this past year and would ideally be a part of the first Blue Jackets team to actually make some serious noise in the postseason. He is that type of player and could be that type of building block alongside Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
At this point, though, that just does not seem like something that is destined to happen and that one way or another his future seems to be in another city with another team.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.