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Late-bloomers and hidden gems help Blackhawks cope with the cap

Artemi Panarin leads all rookies with 16 goals and 29 assists. (Getty Images)

TAMPA, Fla. — Artemi Panarin didn’t just come out of nowhere. He was one of the most dynamic players in the KHL, and was in the midst of his second straight big season when the NHL came calling.

Toronto offered him a contract in December of 2014. Montreal and Calgary were in the mix, too. The Blackhawks came in later, as did many other teams. In the end, Panarin picked six finalists, all offering contracts laden with performance bonuses. All offered max entry-level deals of $925,000. All except the Hawks, who could only pony up $812,500 a year to make the salary cap figures work.

But Panarin chose Chicago, anyway.

“I liked the way Chicago played,” Panarin said through an interpreter. “And I wanted to win a Stanley Cup.”

With his low-key voice and mellow demeanor, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman doesn’t come across as much of a salesman. It’s hard to picture him on the recruiting trail, trying to lure free agents to Chicago with rah-rah speeches and lofty promises. But he doesn’t need to. The three gaudy championship rings he can flash speak volumes, and the Hawks sell themselves.

Good thing, too. Pouncing on undrafted and overlooked talent is how Bowman has so successfully managed the burdensome salary cap, replacing high-priced stars and veterans with cheap imports and castoffs.

Panarin has been a revelation, leading all rookies in goals, assists and points, while helping spur Patrick Kane to the best season of his career and offsetting the loss of Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad. But he’s not the only important addition. Erik Gustafsson, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Dennis Rasmussen are all late-bloomers who chose the Hawks over other teams, and who quickly became key contributors in their first year in the organization.

It’s counter-intuitive. If you’re looking for a path to the NHL, joining the top organization in hockey doesn’t seem like the easiest route. But the Hawks’ annual cap crunch actually makes it a savvy decision for players who feel they fit the Hawks’ stye of play.

“The way the Blackhawks play, it’s intriguing for all the European players, who like that puck-possession game,” said Hawks’ European scout Mats Hallin, who brought both Gustafsson and Rasmussen to Bowman’s attention. “It’s not like before when the Islanders or Oilers had their dynasties. There are openings on the Blackhawks every year.”

Panarin could have gone anywhere he wanted, and Bowman put on the hard sell once director of player development Barry Smith — a former coach in the KHL — vouched for him. Bowman called every two or three days to check in during the first few months of 2015, hoping to pry Panarin away from other big-name teams.

But as usual, Bowman didn’t have to push too hard. The Hawks checked all the boxes for Panarin. He wanted to play with top players. He wanted to play a skilled game. And he wanted a fair chance. Generously listed at 5-11, 170 pounds, Panarin was concerned he wouldn’t get a real shot in the rough-and-tumble NHL. But the Hawks don’t sweat size, with Kane, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw among their key players.

“Chicago had a demonstrated record of giving guys like Artemi a real chance,” said Panarin’s agent, Tom Lynn. “And yes, he left $250,000 on the table to play with the Blackhawks, but he wouldn’t have had the players to help him get to those bonuses somewhere else.”

It’s not as if these cheap, hidden gems simply show up on the Hawks’ doorstep, begging to play. It takes scouts such as Hallin to follow them around and gauge their skill and readiness. It takes staffers such as Smith to take a closer look and see if they fit the Hawks’ systems. And it takes Bowman — understated, unassuming, but unmatched in what he has to offer — to close the deal.

“When he talks to you, he’s honest, and he’s talking about how they can develop you, and how the team wants to win every year, to be the team that skates with the Cup after the season,” Rasmussen said. “That’s what I want, too.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter @marklazerus