The hockey world waits with bated breath as Artemi Panarin weighs his opinions, with Monday at noon signifying the opening of free agency. The talented 27-year-old Russian winger is thought to be deciding among the Rangers, Islanders and Panthers, with Florida going in as the favorite with its no-state-income tax offer representing the most lucrative financial decision.
Monday was always going to be a big day for the Rangers and Islanders, but now both of their offseasons are predicated on Panarin’s decision. Set to get a seven-year deal north of $11 million per is a big commitment for any club, and one that eats up a lot of the restrictive $81.5 million salary-cap ceiling.
Considering that the Islanders and Panthers would likely try to add Panarin’s buddy, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was his teammate for the past two seasons in Columbus, makes it even a bigger decision. With Bobrovsky set to get himself somewhere in the realm of $8 million-$10 million per year, that’s almost a third of a team’s cap hit going to two players — who still haven’t made a decision.
The Rangers, of course, seem set in goal. There is veteran Henrik Lundqvist, with two more years left in his deal at $8.5 million per. Then there is 23-year-old Bulgarian Alex Georgiev, showing signs of promise this past year as the backup. Last, but certainly not least, is 23-year-old Russian Igor Shesterkin, who finally came over from the KHL and had started his assimilation with the club’s very interesting prospect camp this past week up in Stamford, Conn. It’s possible Georgiev becomes expendable in a trade, but again, that is secondary at this point.
Both the Rangers and Islanders are focused on adding top-tier offensive talent, and that starts with Panarin. Having tallied 116 goals and 320 points in 322 career games over the past four seasons, he is the game-breaker both teams have coveted.
The Rangers have the advantage of first-year team president John Davidson, who ran the Blue Jackets for the past seven years with Panarin under his tutelage. That is probably a big part of why the Blueshirts were not willing to get into a bidding war, no matter the report late Sunday night that the Blue Jackets upped their offer — them being the only team that can give him eight years instead of seven.
Of course, things change once free agency opens. Things change once it’s close to players going elsewhere and when plans start breaking down.
So it’s fingers crossed for both the Rangers and Islanders, because if Panarin doesn’t, ahem, pan out, then it’s on to Plan B. And there isn’t much in the same realm.
It doesn’t seem like either New York team is in on Matt Duchene, who seems destined for Nashville to quench his thirst for music. Joe Pavelski could be leaving San Jose, but neither the Rangers or Isles would be inclined to go there on a deal longer than two years.
The Islanders would likely fall back on their captain, Anders Lee, whose negotiations never really gained substantial traction due to the gap in term. But if Panarin goes elsewhere, then losing Lee too would be a brutal blow to a team that hopes to improve on its second-round postseason exit, not take a step back. Team president Lou Lamoriello would also have to find a goalie if Bobrovsky doesn’t come, as the negotiations with the resurrected Robin Lehner have also stalled and he could very well end up going somewhere else despite his intense desire to stay. The threat of Bobrovsky could also be a ploy from Lamoriello to get Lehner back down to a deal he can stomach.
But it still goes back to Panarin, to the biggest decision of the league’s offseason. It just so happens that both the Rangers and Islanders are right in the middle of it, just waiting to see what will happen — either getting their guy, or moving on with something else.
It’s a big decision, and will affect both teams for years no matter where Panarin goes.