Artemi Panarin

Artemi Panarin thought he'd play whole career with Blackhawks

Artemi Panarin thought he'd play whole career with Blackhawks

The honest truth is that for the Blackhawks, Artemi Panarin is the one that got away. A new truth, perhaps harder to swallow, is that the "Breadman" never wanted to leave.

Following the Blackhawks' 6-3 loss to the Rangers Wednesday, in which Panarin scored his 30th goal of the season, he told the Daily Herald's John Dietz he expected to play his entire career in a Blackhawks sweater.

"When I played here in Chicago I [thought] I would play here my whole life," said Panarin, whose 79 points are good for fifth in the league this season. "And then that happened. It still confuses me."

Panarin, now 28, had 151 points (61 goals, 90 assists) with Chicago in two seasons after signing a free-agent contract on May 1, 2015. The winger previously played in the Kontinental Hockey League before winning the Calder Trophy in 2016 as the NHL's top rookie. 

Panarin immediately established an undeniable chemistry with Patrick Kane, which aided Kane in grabbing the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP in 2016.

"Obviously an amazing player, a player that you'd pay to watch play the game," Kane said of Panarin. "Still try to stay pretty close with him and stay in contact and just kind of catch up here and there throughout the season."

During his second season with Chicago, Panarin agreed to a two-year $12 million contract, when he could have gotten more elsewhere. 

In June 2017, the Blackhawks traded the dynamic winger to the Columbus Blue Jackets, along with forward Tyler Motte and a draft pick, to re-acquire Brandon Saad and get goalie Anton Forsberg and a pick. 

"I was not ready for that," Panarin said. "It was a big surprise for me. I feel bad after trade."

Now, the man of bread is locked up for six more years after this one with the Rangers at an AAV north of $11.6 million and his contract has a no movement clause. 

"I love Chicago," Panarin said. "Nice every time I come here. Enjoy it. It's a great city and thanks [to] the fans for a warm welcome. I appreciate it."

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Artemi Panarin and desperate Rangers set to face Blackhawks

Artemi Panarin and desperate Rangers set to face Blackhawks

When you see a highlight of Artemi Panarin making a dazzling play — usually that results in the puck finding the back of the net — you can't help but think, 'He'd really look good in a Hawks sweater... again.'

Alex DeBrincat struggling to one-time the puck from the left circle the way he used to on the man advantage is one of the factors giving the Hawks the NHL's worst power play. Artemi Panarin was the guy who used to do that for the Blackhawks, and he rarely missed. 

Alas, the man of bread is locked up for six more years after this one with the Rangers at an AAV north of $11.6 million and his contract has a no movement clause. 

In June 2017, the Blackhawks traded the dynamic winger to the Columbus Blue Jackets, along with forward Tyler Motte and a draft pick, to re-acquire Brandon Saad and get goalie Anton Forsberg and a pick. 

Panarin, now 28, had 151 points (61 goals, 90 assists) with Chicago in two seasons after signing a free agent contract on May 1, 2015. He previously played in the Kontinental Hockey League. 

The 2016 Calder Trophy winner had 169 points (55 goals, 114 assists) in two seasons with the Blue Jackets before signing with the Rangers as a free agent. 

This year, his 78 points (29 goals, 49 assists) are good for fifth in the league. 

Last year, Panarin returned to the United Center ahead of becoming a free agent and had a friendly competition with Patrick Kane to see who would be last of the ice following warmups. Kane isn't sure there will be time for pregame shenanigans with his pal before Wednesday's game.

"I think we got that faceoff tonight (40th anniversary of Miracle on Ice ceremonial puck drop with Jack O'Callahan), so it'll be interesting to see what comes of that," Kane said. "I always try to be the last on my team, not really worry about the other team, but he's having a great season. 

"Obviously an amazing player, a player that you'd pay to watch play the game. Still try to stay pretty close with him and stay in contact and just kind of catch up here and there throughout the season."

Panarin has meant a lot to a Rangers team desperate to claw back into the playoff picture while sitting eight points out, just like the Hawks.

"Unbelievable," New York center Ryan Strome (brother of Chicago center Dylan Strome) said of Panarin. "The way he controls the puck, the way he controls the play, you guys were lucky enough to see it for a few years here. 

"I think he's better now than he was then. His game's growing, he competes on pucks really hard and he's been a silent leader for us. I think everyone sees how hard he plays and how hard he works and we follow. He's been our catalyst and he's done everything we could ask of him, so he's been great."

Strome thinks the "Breadman" should be in the MVP conversation as well.

"Yeah, especially if we get in the playoffs here," he said. "It would be hard not to consider him. His numbers are ridiculous. I've seen some stats about Jaromir Jagr and some ex-Rangers that have put up similar numbers to him. To be in that category is pretty special. 

"You guys have seen it firsthand, the way he acts and how much fun he has doing it I think just rubs off on everyone, too. In such a serious season and such a serious business we're in, I think to have a guy like him, he's doing his leg kick and he's lightening the mood a little bit, that stuff is contagious. That's part of his personality and part of what makes him a great player."

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Artemi Panarin signs massive contract with Rangers, surpasses Patrick Kane as highest paid NHL winger

Artemi Panarin signs massive contract with Rangers, surpasses Patrick Kane as highest paid NHL winger

The biggest fish on the market is taking his talents to The Big Apple.

After months of speculation, Artemi Panarin signed a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers when NHL free agency opened on Monday and his deal reportedly carries a cap hit of $11.642 million, surpassing Patrick Kane ($10.5 million cap hit) as the highest paid winger in the league. Panarin reportedly turned down a lucrative last-second offer by Columbus late Sunday night, and the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders were believed to be involved in the bidding war also.

The belief was always that Panarin would be a package deal with fellow countryman Sergei Bobrovsky, who share the same agent. Florida originally emerged as the favorite to land both, and the hiring of Joel Quenneville only fueled speculation that Panarin would reunite with his former coach. But the Panthers were only able to land one of them, with Bobrovsky inking a seven-year contract and Panarin heading east to play for the Rangers.

It always felt like a longshot that Panarin would consider returning to Chicago, where he spent his first two NHL seasons before being traded to Columbus in a four-player deal that centered around Brandon Saad. Financially, it just didn't make sense for the Blackhawks to bring back the Bread Man and Panarin likely turned the page on that chapter a while ago.

The Blackhawks will get their first look at Panarin in a Rangers sweater on Feb. 19 when they host New York in what could be a nationally-televised Wednesday night game. The two teams also wrap up the season against each other on April 4, which could involve some interesting playoff implications.

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