Goal-scoring from top-six forwards is an essential piece to an NHL team’s success, and it tends to separate premier clubs from the rest of the league as the season progresses. And with the Vegas Golden Knights losing right winger James Neal to the Calgary Flames in free agency, this leaves a hole in the depth chart up front. The 30-year old forward was a mainstay on the second line and notched 25 goals last season, fourth-most on the team, while also adding six goals in the postseason.
How should Vegas fill the void? Enter Artemi Panarin, a consistent 25 to 30-goal scorer who is only 26 years old and has one year left on his contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
What Panarin Brings to Vegas
Ever since he entered the league in 2015-16, the Blue Jackets forward has been a consistent goal scoring threat. Beginning his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, Panarin burst onto the scene as a rookie with 30 goals and 77 points in 80 games played, as both his goals and points totals were second on the team. His first-year success came full circle when he was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy for rookie of the year.
From there, the 26-year old from Korkino, Russia recorded 31 goals in his sophomore campaign, which was once again second-highest on the Blackhawks. Panarin was then traded on June 23, 2017 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he would quickly assert himself as the top-flight scoring option in Ohio’s capital city. The left winger led the Blue Jackets in goals scored with 27, while also registering a team-high 82 points in his first test as a team’s premier scoring option.
One of his most notable performances came on Mar. 20 when he racked up three goals and an assist in a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers. Panarin’s hat-trick performance was a full force performance of his goal-scoring and playmaking prowess, two attributes that helped Columbus earn a playoff spot as the Eastern Conference’s top wild-card team.
Throughout his three-year career, the 5-foot-11 forward has proven he can significantly contribute on offense as both a primary and secondary scoring option. He was surrounded by the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago, with the latter being one of the NHL’s elite scorers. Panarin’s ability to insert himself into a stacked lineup and excel was an impressive feat that only a fraction of young players can do.
In Columbus, he was relied upon to be the Blue Jackets principal scoring option, and both the numbers and on-ice performance suggested he rose to the occasion. His smooth transition from a high-level supporting scorer to the primary offensive option speaks volumes to his skill set and ability to play in different roles.
Fitting in with Vegas
If Vegas considered acquiring him, Panarin could slide seamlessly into either the first or second unit. The Golden Knights already have a pair of solid goal-scorers on the top line with William Karlsson (43) and Jonathan Marchessault (27). If either of the two were to see a decline in production in 2018-19, Panarin could easily climb up to line one and bring a consistent scoring touch to the trio.
However, Panarin’s presence would be most necessary and effective on the second line. The departure of Neal is significant for Vegas, as he was essentially a lock for 25 to 30 goals on the second unit. Inserting the Russian-born forward into Neal’s old position would not only bring a rocket-esque wrist shot to that line, but it would also be a bonus upgrade in the passing department.
Last season, Panarin notched a team-leading 55 assists, which would be a sizable boost from Neal’s 19 helpers. The three-year veteran would add an electric playmaking ability to a line that will most likely feature Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, who scored 29 and 15 goals, respectively.
The Contract Situation in Columbus
The 2018-19 campaign will be a contract season for Panarin, so there is no doubt he will be in-line for a solid payday. However, questions about his long-term future in Columbus have continued to arise. In an interview with The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, Panarin’s agent Dan Milstein said his client might be apprehensive about locking in a long-term deal with the Blue Jackets.
“It’s about, does he want to spend the next eight years in Columbus,” Milstein said in the interview. “That’s the only thing at stake right now. If it was a two-year deal we probably would have done it. But it isn’t a two-deal. It’s [going to] have to be an extended, seven- or eight-year deal put in place.”
This is where the Golden Knights could swoop in. Murkiness surrounding his stay with the Blue Jackets should entice Vegas to put together a trade package for Panarin, which should enhance the already special Golden Knights offense.
The Trade Package
There is no doubt that Vegas’ stunning inaugural season put some less-recognizable players into the spotlight as rising stars, and these players may become potential trade bait as well. Two names that could be valuable assets in a trade are Haula and Derek Engelland, with the latter also entering a contract season.
The Blue Jackets would be receiving a 55-point, 29-goal scorer in Haula who would add more depth to an already quality centre position for the Blue Jackets. This would most likely cement new Golden Knight Paul Stasny as the second-line centre. Engelland would be a solid addition to a Columbus defense core that already features Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray. Furthermore, the cap hit on Haula and Engelland would be $925,000 and $1.5 million respectively for Columbus.
The Golden Knights would be obtaining Panarin’s $6 million cap hit for 2018-19, which is fairly reasonable for a forward that could easily hover around the 30-goal, 80-point range.
If the Golden Knights can repeat their first-season magic in year two, then adding Panarin to Vegas’ electric attack could possibly implement them as the NHL’s premier offense and a clear-cut Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference.