Blackhawks' chances of landing Panarin take a dive
You've got to give Artemi Panarin a ton of credit.
Despite the uncertainty of what will happen at the trade deadline, as well as which team he'll ultimately sign a long-term deal with this summer, the 27-year-old Russian superstar managed to steal the show during Columbus' 5-2 victory over the Blackhawks on Saturday.
And that goes for off the ice as well.
During the game, Panarin showed why he will be the most coveted free-agent forward on the market by scoring 2 key goals and dishing out a gorgeous first-period assist.
Afterward, Panarin performed like a stand-up comedian in front of his locker stall during a rare postgame interview.
Asked how he got the idea to give Patrick Kane a watch last October, a smiling Panarin said in Russian: "I didn't gift it to him. I just let him borrow it so he could wear it for a little bit. In the end, I'm going to take it back."
Big laughs and then Panarin in English: "That's a joke. Just joke, just joke."
And what kind of watch was it?
"Casio G Shock."
More big laughs and then again in English: "Joke, Joke. Rolex, Rolex."
What hasn't been a laughing matter to Blackhawks fans for the past two years is the fact that Panarin is no longer creating magic with Kane in Chicago. They could reunite if Panarin decides to return to the Hawks, but I'm beginning to seriously doubt that will happen.
While I reported that the Hawks will be going "all in" once Panarin hits the market, there are suddenly too many red flags to ignore.
After talking with a couple of reporters who know Panarin pretty well, here are the biggest reasons why I think the odds of his return have taken a serious nosedive:
• His agent switch. Panarin dropped Dan Milstein and is now using Paul Theofanous, who also represents Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Some believe they want to go to the same team, and if that's the case, it won't be the Blackhawks.
• The trade to Columbus honked him off. Panarin, who has said it's not all about money for him, agreed to a two-year, $12 million bridge deal with the Hawks in December 2016. Six months later, Stan Bowman sent him packing.
It was totally Bowman's right to do so, but part of the reason Panarin signed that deal was to help the Hawks out. "Chicago's pressed against the salary cap," Panarin told then-agent Dan Milstein. "I don't want to be that guy."
His price for loyalty was a ticket out of town, and it figures to be a big sore spot if the Hawks make an offer.
• He enjoys being the top dog. In Chicago, Panarin was playing in the shadow of Kane, Jonathan Toews and other big-name veterans. In Columbus, he's the star. Some have speculated Panarin will go to the Rangers, and that makes sense because New York has a very lively Russian community.
• He's a sucker for warmer climates. That puts the Panthers, Sharks, Kings and Golden Knights in play. The Kings, however, have serious cap issues.
• Asked if a recruting pitch by Patrick Kane would help sway his decision, Panarin offered a blunt, one-word answer: "No."
Add it all up and the math isn't working out for the Hawks.
Not that it might be such a bad thing. Bowman's squad desperately needs defensive help and more forward depth.
I'm not saying Panarin wouldn't be a huge addition. He absolutely would. Even if the defense is still subpar, what does it matter if the Hawks are scoring 4, 5, 6 and 7 goals a game?
But if he doesn't come back, it's honestly too bad because what we saw Saturday should remind all of us just how much he's missed.
And how much he'll be valued no matter where he goes.
"When we first got him, I wasn't sure if we could coach him," Columbus coach John Tortorella said. "Does he play hard? Does he have an attitude?
"He has been -- from Day One -- just a great pro. One of the hardest-working guys on our team. One of the hardest guys in the National Hockey League on pucks, on 1-on-1 battles, which really surprised me. ... Forget about all the skill and stuff like that, he has been all of the other things.
"I do think he is easily top 3, 4 or 5 in the (NHL)."