The Columbus Blue Jackets are just 12 wins away from lifting their first Stanley Cup. Their unlikely sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning has only sprayed lighter fluid into the already blazing tempest of rumors and speculation as to where Artemi Panarin will land.
Regardless of what happens with the Blue Jackets in the postseason, Panarin will become a free agent on July 1. He and Erik Karlsson — if he gets there — will be the two most-desired players on the market. Both are players who can alter the fate of a franchise, which means that they will have no shortage of suitors.
The signals coming through on Panarin suggest that the two leading candidates are the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers. Both teams can and likely will offer him a seven-year contract that is expected to exceed $75 million. They can also both provide lifestyles that a blossoming superstar may find attractive.
So which team has the edge in signing the Bread Man? Well, there’s a reasonably good chance that the answer to that question is Florida.
The Quenneville Factor
Joel Quenneville was named the head coach of the Florida Panthers on April 8. Before the ink had dried on his contract, the odds of Panarin signing in Florida had already increased.
By all accounts Panarin loved playing under Quenneville in Chicago. And why wouldn’t he? Quenneville almost immediately recognized what he had in the Russian winger and put him in a position to succeed. Panarin won the Calder in 2016 and had back-to-back 30-goal seasons before he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Brandon Saad.
Quenneville was conflicted about the trade that sent Panarin to Ohio (as well as the trade that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes). Some of his comments after the trade helped illustrate the relationship he had with Panarin.
“The Bread Man had a special time here as well, and in a short amount of time made a big impact on the team and the city. It’s tough when you’re losing players of that dynamic.”
The bottom line here is that Panarin had a great relationship with Quenneville and the Panthers’ new coach is inked for five years. He’s also won three Stanley Cups as a head coach and is second all-time in wins coached. Those are nice things to have on a résumé
The Panthers’ Current Heading
Adding Coach Q was just the beginning. The Panthers are ready to throw a lot of money around this summer. A lot of money.
In 31 Thoughts this week Friedman said the Panthers could be a candidate for signing both Panarin and Bobrovsky. https://t.co/b7dkjXpMDl— Jeff Marek (@JeffMarek) February 1, 2019
Panthers owner Vincent Viola has given general manager Dave Tallon the green light to spend to the cap despite the fact that the organization has been bleeding money. Florida will have about $20 million in cap space to play with on July 1, which means that Tallon will be able to write a big check for Panarin and, potentially, fellow Blue Jacket Sergei Bobrovsky.
Panarin fired his agent Dan Milstein this season and signed with Paul Theofanous, who also represents Bobrovsky. By all accounts, the two pending UFAs are tight. How tight? Like, chilling out shirtless for a meme-worthy picture tight.
More importantly, the Panthers are in a better place than the Rangers are right now.
The Panthers finished the 2018-19 season two spots removed from the second Wild Card spot and went 8-7-6 after the trade deadline. They finished the year with the second-lowest PDO in the league (98.48) and were dragged down by terrible goaltending.
The San Jose Sharks were the only team that had a worse team save percentage at 5v5 this year than the Panthers. Florida has $7,933,333 in cap space tied up in Roberto Luongo and James Reimer until July 1, 2021. But it looks like Luongo will retire this offseason or the next one, and we already know that the Panthers want to move on from their current goaltending situation.
What’s Already in Sunrise
The Panthers have a lot of talent on paper. Aleksander Barkov is a franchise player coming off of a 96-point season and there’s a compelling supporting cast around him.
In addition to all of their cap space, Florida also has a lot of great pieces already in place. Their outstanding first and second line centers — Barkov and Vincent Trocheck — are both signed through the 2020-21 season; Jonathan Huberdeau, Keith Yandle, and Aaron Ekblad are also signed long-term. With the exception of Yandle, all of those players are under 26.
The Rangers, on the other hand, have just two players — Mika Zibanejad and Brady Skjei — signed through the 2021-22 season. Is that flexibility or uncertainty? Well, it’s both. And while that can be seen as both a positive and a negative when it comes to courting a big ticket free agent, it’s still clear that the Rangers have far more building to do.
Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt was a guest on Dimitri Filipovic’s Hockey PDOCast on Feb. 6. On that show, Prewitt mentioned a community of Russian players (and a billionaire or two) on Fisher Island in Miami. Evgeni Dadonov reportedly had a property there even before he signed with the Panthers. It’s a popular spot for Russian NHLers who aren’t playing in Florida too; Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Bure both reportedly have/had property there.
Dadonov and Panarin have known each other since before they were teenagers. They have played together on Russia’s national team many times and were also teammates in SKA St. Petersburg for two seasons. They won the Gagarin Cup together in 2015.
The opportunity for Panarin to play with Dadonov and Barkov (who holds dual-citizenship) could be pretty damn tempting. It’s also worth mentioning that the Panthers drafted Grigori Denisenko 15th overall in the 2018 Draft.
Oh, and there’s no state tax and a whole lot of sun in the state of Florida.
Why not New York?
Of course, the Rangers have their own clique of Russian players — and it’s a growing one. Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Alexandar Georgiev are all expected back in New York next season, and Igor Shesterkin and Vitali Kravtsov are on the way. Yegor Rykov, another prospect who has cut his teeth in the KHL, could also be arriving soon.
Namestnikov and Panarin were teammates at the 2017 Worlds and in the 2017 World Cup, but they have very little history of playing together. Namestnikov is also represented by Milstein, Panarin’s former agent. For those who are curious, Buchnevich is represented by Mark Gandler.
Ultimately, the Rangers can’t offer Panarin a lot of things that Florida can. The Rangers are also expected to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million in cap space to woo Panarin with, but they can’t offer no state tax, a best buddy, or a coach that Panarin has a great relationship with.
What they can offer is New York City.
Fortunately for Jeff Gorton and the Rangers, it’s been reported that Panarin wants to live in a major city. However, it’s also been reported that he’s attracted to the idea of a destination city, like Miami. Which opportunity and lifestyle appeals to Panarin more is known only to the Bread Man, but the rest of us are sure to find out on July 1.
Data courtesy of Corsica.hockey. Salary cap and contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.com.