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Artemi Panarin: ‘You can’t earn all the money in the world’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Artemi Panarin could have gotten more. More money, more term, more of whatever he wanted. He’s a top-10 scorer in the NHL, a truly elite talent. And he’s not some kid fresh out of juniors — he’s 25 years old, in his prime. Guys who are 21 take bridge deals. Guys who are 25 dig in, cash in, and lock themselves in to a team and to a city.

But Panarin was well aware of the Blackhawks’ precarious salary-cap situation. And if staying in Chicago meant taking a little less and delaying his monster payday a couple more years, he was willing to do that.

“Chicago gave me a chance to play at the very highest level,” Panarin said Thursday through an interpreter. “I like everything about the team and the environment here. You can’t earn all the money in the world.”

Not that two years and $12 million dollars is a pittance, of course. Panarin’s contract extension might mean some more difficult decisions for general manager Stan Bowman this summer, but the short-term nature and the below-market value of the deal will give the Hawks at least some flexibility as they figure out who stays and who goes.

Artemi Panarin has 114 points in 117 games with the Blackhawks. (Getty Images)

The Hawks now have about $66.6 million tied up in just 15 players next season — nearly $60 million of which is just Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Panarin, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov and Niklas Hjalmarsson. And if Panarin hits his performance bonuses again, much of that $2.575 million will carry over to next year’s cap, meaning his cap hit could be more like $8 million.

Assuming the salary cap is in the $73-75 million range, as commissioner Gary Bettman generally forecasted earlier this month, that leaves only about $5-7 million for seven or eight players. The Hawks will get some cap relief in the expansion draft, as Vegas could take Marcus Kruger ($3.08 million), Trevor van Riemsdyk ($825,000), or Ryan Hartman ($863,000).

The Hawks have been making contingency plans long before they finally locked up Panarin, but Bowman said it was “way too premature” to discuss who’s staying and who’s going, or even what type of player could be moved. And the way Bowman sees it, things could be so much worse, as Panarin isn’t the first player to take less to stay in Chicago. He pointed to Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson, among others. And while the $10.5-million deals signed by Toews and Kane look like albatrosses now that the cap has stagnated, they were considered below market value at the time.

“The same could be said for all of our guys,” Bowman said. “I think Artemi’s the latest guy. When I talk to these players and their agents, the one thing you have to try to convey is that everyone who’s come before you has not tried to get every last penny, because there’s something special here and they want to be part of it. … Success will do that. We hope to have more of it as we go forward.”

The Hawks had to trade restricted free-agent Brandon Saad in a similar situation two years ago, and lost Andrew Shaw last spring. There were doubts that Panarin could be re-signed, and now there are doubts about how the Hawks will get under the salary cap next season. But for now, the Hawks are just happy to have their leading scorer around for at least two more seasons.

“Stan has done a great job of figuring that stuff out,” Kane said. “I’m sure it will take care of itself. I think with kind of the roster we have, and the core group of guys that are making the salaries they are, there are going to be some changes made. That’s just kind of inevitable with any team. You look at teams around the league, it doesn’t seem like any team has really stayed together too much. We’ve just probably had the most changes. You try not to concern yourself with that stuff. That’s beyond our job description. The management does a great job of figuring that stuff out.”

Future concerns aside, the new contract is a relief for Panarin and the Hawks. With 45 goals and 69 points in 117 NHL games, Panarin — a late-bloomer plucked from the KHL in the spring of 2015 — has established himself as one of the top wingers in the league. He’s also helped elevate linemate Patrick Kane to even greater heights, as Kane won the Hart Trophy and the scoring title last season.

“It’s a great day for him, a great day for the organization, and it’s good that he’s going to be sticking around for a couple of more years,” Kane said. “I’m happy for him; it’s well-deserved. He’s had a great season and a half that he’s been here, and he’s proven himself as one of the most dynamic players in the league. It’s a great day to be a Blackhawk and a Hawks fan.”

Panarin has been answering questions about his future since the World Cup in September, and while he said he “didn’t have any extraordinary worries” that the deal would get done, he admitted it was a relief to not have to think about it anymore.

There’s a flip side to that, too. No longer playing for $825,000 a year plus performance bonuses, Panarin will be counted on to live up to the contract.

“It’s nice to get it out of the way,” he said. “Some of the pressure is relieved. But some additional pressure is now here, because I need to justify the trust that has been given to me, and perform as expected or better.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus