There’s another wrinkle in the Artemi Panarin saga, and this time, it might actually be good news for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Earlier this week, Panarin fired agent Dan Milstein – news that became public recently – and hired Paul Theofanous. No, this doesn't change his mind on signing an extension with Columbus, but it may open up other new possibilities.
The elephant in the room, though, is that Theofanous represents another Russian Blue Jackets star whose days in Columbus are opaquely numbered: Sergei Bobrovsky. The two players are great friends who will unquestionably be among the most sought-after free agents this summer.
Elliotte Friedman, one of the best insiders in the business, seems to think that Panarin and Bobrovsky could be a package deal this summer.
There is word today Artemis Panarin has joined teammate Sergei Bobrovskys agent, Paul Theofanous. This is going to lead to plenty of speculation they could be a package deal in free agency. We will see how it plays out.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) February 8, 2019
If it is a foregone conclusion that they end up on the same team next season – and that’s purely speculative at this point – the Blue Jackets may as well try to facilitate that now as a means to get a massive haul.
The logistics of moving two star players – while getting them to agree to long-term extensions AND getting fair value in a deal – are tricky. Even if it doesn’t get to the finish line, it could drive up the price for teams that are looking to add a pure rental. Either way, it may require Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen to reconsider his "no extensions as part of a trade" stance.
On paper, the team that makes the most sense – and the team that’s been the most mentioned in this saga – is the Florida Panthers.
What would a package deal look like between these two teams? Tough to say. Let’s take a look at some names that would make sense for the Blue Jackets to pursue, and then see how a potential package could shake out.
The Potential Centerpieces
Vincent Trocheck, Center
Let’s get this out of the way: the Florida Panthers are not, under any circumstances, moving Aleksander Barkov. He’s a big-bodied perennial Selke and Byng Trophy contender who delivers Panarin-sized production on a Nick Foligno contract.
If Barkov is the best non-ELC value in the NHL, Vincent Trocheck’s probably not that far behind. He’s under contract for the next four years at a $4.75 million average annual value, and put up a career-high 75 points last season. He’s a legit first-line center in this league, and would give Columbus a potent 1-2 punch – along with Pierre-Luc Dubois – that they could build around for years to come.
The last three years, the 25-year-old Trocheck has really come into his own. His skating and skill are top-notch, and his defensive game has come a long way in the last few years. He’s a horse, too, averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per night in each of the last three seasons. He’s also turned into a quality face-off guy, at 53.0% this year after an elite 54.1% clip last year.
There’s a bit of a concern as he works his way back from a nasty ankle injury suffered earlier this season – he’s been held without a point in the last four games – but getting Trocheck is essentially the best case scenario for the Blue Jackets. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly likely one – he’d be a tough pry from the Panthers – but if Kekalainen can pull it off, it’d be a coup.
As the centerpiece in a deal for Panarin and Bobrovsky – both with extensions – the ask would undoubtedly begin with Trocheck.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Left Wing
The ask begins with Trocheck, but if the Blue Jackets ended up with Jonathan Huberdeau instead, Columbus would still be pretty damn happy. Signed to a deal that’s one year longer than Trocheck’s (at a team-friendly $5.9 million cap hit), Huberdeau is would seamlessly slide into Panarin's spot on the top line.
In the midst of what’s likely his best season so far (51 points in 52 games), Huberdeau’s game is a mix of skill and smarts. Like Panarin, he’s fantastic along the boards and a sublime playmaker. His skill is a tad behind Panarin’s – as are his shot (and his willingness to use it) and his defensive play (where Panarin is elite) – but he’s a high-end first-liner in his own right. Those are hard to find – especially on long-term deals with reasonable cap hits.
Of course, all of that is precisely why Florida may be hesitant to move him.
Henrik Borgström, Center
Center prospects like Henrik Borgström don’t grow on trees – and he’s the kind of piece very few teams would willingly part with. How many teams have an über-skilled, NHL-ready center prospect with a big frame on an entry-level deal?
In other words, how many teams would give up an asset that can do this?
Borgström’s skillset makes him a great potential building block for just about any team. That said, Florida already has two legit 1Cs on their roster who combine to make less $12 million dollars per season, and a deep system with plenty of options for their third center spot – even if they just dealt two of those options (Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad) in the same damn trade.
The 6-foot-3 Finn would be tough to pry from the Panthers, but with Trocheck and Barkov in the fold, the on-ice value that he gives the Panthers may be less than what they can get for him in a trade.
While he’s currently in the NHL (and producing, with eight points in 22 games so far), Borgström can be considered a bit of a future asset, as he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s got a skill and size combination that hasn’t been seen at the center position in Columbus since Ryan Johansen left. A center group led by Dubois and Borgström would a potentially game-breaking duo for years to come.
Then again, Florida’s future is bright because they can build around two elite centers on contracts far below market value. Borgström has one more year on his ELC – if he puts it together next year, Florida would likely have the best group of centers in the league.
Mike Hoffman, Wing
Trocheck and Huberdeau are long-tenured Panthers who both wear the “A” on their jerseys – and Borgström is seen as a huge part of the team’s future. If Columbus insists on a high-end roster forward – and asks for one of the guys above – Florida likely counters with Mike Hoffman, a player with similar production but a lot less term. After all, according to Friedman, Florida may be trying to move Hoffman.
While his deal lacks the term of Trocheck and Huberdeau’s, his cap hit falls right in between the two at $5.187 million. Like Huberdeau, he’s in the midst of his best professional season, already notching 24 goals in 52 games. Still, he’s a quality forward with a ton of speed and a wicked shot.
The only problem on Kekalainen’s end is whether or not he feels like doing the same song and dance he’s doing with Panarin next year, as Hoffman’s deal is up after the 2019-20 season. Unlike Panarin – one of the game’s top 10 forwards – Hoffman could be amenable to an extension down the line.
Another forward, another caveat: if the Panthers feel like gambling, they may move Hoffman in a different deal and hope to sign Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency.
Owen Tippett or Gregori Denisenko, Wing
Let’s just lump these two junior standouts together, shall we?
Both players bring an immense level of skill and scoring ability to the table. Tippett should be ready for the big time next year, and has drawn comparisons to Phil Kessel for his shot/speed combination. He’d be a great long-term replacement for Panarin who could fill in starting next season.
Denisenko, on the other hand, was immensely impressive this year at World Juniors for Russia. As a small-ish Russian winger with immense skill and a high-end hockey IQ, he’s got a lot of Artemi Panarin in him, even if he plays with a lot more fire and can lose his head sometimes.
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman recently ranked them both near the top of his top 100 prospects list (Tippett third, Denisenko seventh). The Blue Jackets have apparently been staunchly against futures-focused trade packages, aiming to stay competitive this year, but these players may be too tantalizing to pass up.
Aleksi Heponiemi, Center
Another highly skilled Finnish center, Heponiemi’s skill alone would justify putting him in the top group. While smaller forwards like Brayden Point and Johnny Gaudreau have shown that skill trumps size in the modern NHL, Heponiemi’s size could still be an issue.
Listed at 5-foot-10 and a slight 148 pounds when drafted, his current team's roster has him at a shade under 5-foot-11 and 154 pounds. Heponiemi has lit up Liiga – Finland’s top professional league – as a member of Karpat this season, with 35 points in 38 games. Clearly, his size hasn’t been an issue yet playing against men, but that’s also on a bigger rink with more space.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) November 28, 2017
That said, he’s thrived before in North America, playing two seasons with the Swift Current Broncos in the WHL. He torched that league, putting up a 28-90-118 line in just 57 games (2.07 PPG) last season, and was a star at the World Junior Championships this year, putting up a 3-6-9 line in seven games for Finland.
It’s worth noting that Heponiemi didn’t make Pronman's list of the top 100 prospects at mid-season. Pronman called him an “all-world” playmaker but cited concerns about his skating. Still, he’s dominated a top-flight Scandanavian league this year. When a 20-year-old prospect does that, it’s usually a pretty good indicator of future success. Plus, with blue chip prospects and an already-impressive forward group, he’s a substantial, but not essential asset for Florida.
Denis Malgin, Center/Wing
Another small, skilled forward who made the jump from Europe, Denis Malgin doesn’t have the prospect shine of Heponiemi (thanks to the 136 NHL games under his belt), but he’s a player who could really thrive in a more prominent role.
The Swiss forward stands at 5-foot-9 and 177 pounds and has a skill set that makes him a potential breakout candidate if given a bigger role – think Tyler Johnson or Jonathan Marchessault. He’s had a few injuries and hasn’t been a consistent performer at the NHL level just yet, but he just turned 22. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, so he’ll be affordable for at least a few more years. If Columbus likes him, they could go the same route that Nashville did with Calle Järnkrok, signing him to a long-term deal at a low cap hit.
Derick Brassard, Center
A potential reunion between the Blue Jackets and Brassard has been floated for a while now, and it sure seemed like his move from Pittsburgh to Florida made that more likely. If the Blue Jackets only manage to move Sergei Bobrovsky, the return would almost certainly include Brassard, a quality middle-six forward who is on an expiring deal.
The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline appeared to pour a bit of cold water on that idea earlier this week, though, saying that while it could happen, the Blue Jackets don’t seem “obsessed” with making it happen.
Sure, #CBJ would be interested in Brassard. Hes a dramatic upgrade on Wennberg, Riley Nash and Brandon Dubinsky, would probably supplant Boone Jenner as No. 2 center. But I dont think CBJ are obsessed with bringing Brassard back for a second tour in Cbus. Could happen, tho. 5/?
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) February 5, 2019
Still, he’d fit a clear need, plus, given Alexander Wennberg’s struggles this year, he’d represent a big upgrade at the second center spot. Nowadays, he’s a 40-ish point player who profiles best as a second-line center and would be a good rental. That said, if the Blue Jackets can pry away Huberdeau or Trocheck, adding him may not make a ton of sense.
Frank Vatrano, Wing
Acquired last year by Florida in exchange for a third-round pick, Vatrano has blossomed in Florida to the tune of 36 points in 67 games overall, with 28 of those points coming this year. He’s benefitted from playing alongside the likes of Barkov and Trocheck, though, and isn’t much of a playmaker. That said, he’s got some speed and a hard shot and could slot in as a top-six left wing for the Blue Jackets if included in a trade, and he’s set to hit restricted free agency.
If the Blue Jackets move Bobrovsky, they’ll need someone to replace him in net. Joonas Korpisalo has certainly had his moments this season, but having a veteran option in the fold would be ideal in the midst of a playoff race. That said, the Blue Jackets are doing their due diligence on Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick – and it would appear that both of those options are preferable to the 30-year-old James Reimer.
Between his performance, this season (.901 save percentage) and his $3.4 million cap hit that carries through next season, the Blue Jackets likely won't want Reimer to be part of the deal.
Here’s the twist, though: it's been speculated that the Panthers may buy him out to fit Bobrovsky and Panarin onto their roster, but that buyout wouldn't make it much easier to fill out a roster that’s also adding two mega-contracts.
So, with that in mind, could Columbus take Reimer in the deal to save Florida the trouble (and cost) of buying him out? Perhaps, if it helps push Florida to include better assets in the deal.
Guessing At A Package
There are a lot of hurdles to clear before this would even get to a place where individual names would be discussed, but if the rumors of a package deal are true, it’s in everyone’s best interest to get this thing done before the deadline.
Packaging both Panarin and Bobrovsky – perhaps the best left wing and goalie in the league, respectively – would be an astronomical value going Florida’s way. They’d have more value in that trade than in any other deal, but if Florida is the only potential suitor, the Panthers could still negotiate and only give up assets they’d be willing to part with.
So, what would Florida be comfortable giving up? Unless you’re Dale Tallon, that’s probably hard to say. But hey, let’s play armchair GM. After all, it's the weekend, baby.
Even after clearing salary in the Bjugstad/McCann deal, if Panarin and Bobrovsky each sign for about $10 million, that would put the Panthers right up against the cap next season for a roster of eight forwards, five defensemen and three goalies. They’d have to fill out the rest of their roster – and doing that with players making $800,000 would put them over the cap by about $4.5 million.
Factoring in a nice RFA raise for Vatrano (let’s use Oliver Bjorkstrand’s $2.5 mil AAV as a comparable) would bump that number up to about $6.2 million. Malgin could get a bit of a raise as well. Buying out Reimer would save them a little bit, but they’d still be over the 2019-20 cap by $3.7 million, per CapFriendly.
While they technically could make a deal in spite of all of that (and worry about the roster crunch later), giving up leverage in future cap-crunch trades and filling out the roster with league-minimum guys – especially given their defensive struggles – doesn’t seem prudent. One option could be dealing Hoffman before a potential Panarin/Bobrovsky blockbuster, but that’d still make it a tight squeeze down the road.
Building the Package
What the Blue Jackets need is high-end production with long-term cost certainty. The Panthers have that in Trocheck and Huberdeau, so ideally one of them would headline the return. If not, Hoffman would be a good fit, but likely not Columbus's preference.
With all that in mind, Huberdeau makes the most sense as the headliner.
Beyond that, Columbus would likely a quality secondary piece in the deal. Ideally for Columbus, that's Borgström, but it's unlikely that Florida would part with him if they're also giving up a great asset like Huberdeau. Doesn't hurt to ask!
Columbus taking Reimer would make this much easier for Florida to swallow, so perhaps that’d entice them to give up Borgström in the deal. If not, Columbus could throw Gabriel Carlsson into the ring, as a former first-round shutdown defenseman who’s still young and could shore up a messy Panthers defensive corps.
Otherwise, asking for Heponiemi and a third piece, say, Brassard or Malgin instead of Reimer, would give the Blue Jackets a piece that can contribute now and help them avoid rushing Heponiemi’s development.
The logistics are perilously tricky, but it sure seems to be the best outcome for all sides.
Panarin and Bobrovsky get eight-year deals, beachfront property and no state income tax. Theofanous gets an even bigger commission check. The Panthers surround Barkov, Trocheck and Evgeny Dadonov with even more star power. The Blue Jackets get cost-controlled building blocks to add to an already-great core.
As unlikely as it is – and as dumb as armchair GM exercises are – it’s really tough to imagine a better scenario for just about anyone involved.
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