'It was a big surprise for me': Panarin still confused about why Blackhawks traded him

Artemi Panarin minced no words and finally admitted what we all assumed: He was really upset when the Blackhawks traded him to Columbus during the 2017 off-season.

"When I played here in Chicago I (thought) I would play here my whole life," Panarin said after scoring his 30th goal of the season during a 6-3 Rangers victory over the Hawks Wednesday at the United Center. "And then that happened. It still confuse(s) me."

Panarin was one of the greatest free-agent discoveries not only by the Hawks, but probably in the history of the NHL. He won the Calder Cup as the league's top rookie in 2015-16 by piling up 30 goals and 47 assists, then followed that up with a 31-goal, 43-assist campaign that saw the Hawks win 50 games.

It was during that second season when Panarin agreed to a modest two-year, $12 million contract. He signed it to give the cap-strapped Hawks flexibility going forward.

"Chicago's pressed against the salary cap," Panarin told former agent Dan Milstein. "I don't want to be that guy. I want to play on a winning team.

"Give them the flexibility so they can retain the guys or sign the new guys because it's not about me. I'm young. I'm going to make plenty of money in my future."

Panarin's price for that loyalty was a one-way ticket to Columbus in exchange for Brandon Saad and goalie Anton Forsberg. It was a deal that incensed Patrick Kane, who had become fast friends with the talented, affable and joking Panarin.

Said Panarin: "I was not ready for that. It was a big surprise for me. I feel bad after trade."

Panarin said nobody from the Hawks called him last off-season to see if he wanted to return, but it's highly unlikely that GM Stan Bowman could have afforded him. Panarin ended up inking a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the Rangers.

Then again, if Bowman didn't sign Brent Seabrook to an eight-year, $55 million contract just before the 2015-16 campaign, things might have worked out differently.

After playing two more seasons in Chicago, it's quite easy to imagine Panarin signing an eight-year, $84 million deal. That, of course, is the exact same $10.5 million cap hit Kane and Jonathan Toews cost the Hawks.

Of course, we'll never know, and Panarin wasn't about to play "what-ifs" after Wednesday's game.

"I'm in New York right now and there's nothing else I can say about it," he said.

Before the Rangers dismantled the Hawks with a 5-goal third period, Panarin and Kane took part in a ceremonial puck drop with Jack O'Callahan, a defenseman who was part of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. O'Callahan got a big laugh out of the superstars by flinging the puck to Kane.

"Well, I saw a Russian and an American facing off and I was like, 'There's not a chance I'm even going to risk this Russian winning that draw,' " O'Callahan said with a laugh. "So I kind of looked at Kaner and I just fired it through his legs and he just kind of started to laugh.

"But I'm sure he expected it. Even though we're generations apart we're still teammates."

Which is likely what Panarin and Kane wish they still were.

Now all Hawks fans can do is offer warm applause upon Panarin's return once a year.

"I love Chicago," Panarin said when asked if he still misses the city and the fans. "Nice every time I come here. Enjoy it. It's a great city and thanks (to) the fans for a warm welcome. I appreciate it."

Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin celebrate Kane's goal against Los Angeles in November 2016. Associated Press
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