Brandon Saad

Should the Blackhawks explore bringing back Artemi Panarin?

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USA TODAY

Should the Blackhawks explore bringing back Artemi Panarin?

Here's an interesting development as we approach the NHL Draft: Artemi Panarin has informed the Blue Jackets that he's not ready to consider an extension "at this time" and because of that, Columbus is testing the market for the Russian winger, according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet.

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen responded to the report shortly after in a statement released by the team:

"Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.”

Ironically, Panarin was traded to Columbus on the afternoon of last year's draft as part of a blockbuster package that sent Brandon Saad back to Chicago. It shook up the hockey world, and has the potential to do so again.

Panarin is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but is free to sign an extension with Columbus on July 1. Clearly, that doesn't seem to be in the cards right now and it's why the Blue Jackets have to put out feelers. They can't risk losing him for nothing.

On the flip side, Panarin has every right to test the open market. He has one year left on his contract that carries a $6 million cap hit. He's due for a hefty raise, will be 27 years old next summer — the prime of his hockey career — and will certainly be looking for a long-term deal after accepting a bridge contract with the Blackhawks.

Speaking of whom, should his former team explore bringing him back to Chicago now that he's on the market?

Every general manager should and will do their due diligence and call for an asking price, Stan Bowman included. Those conversations might start with Alex DeBrincat or Nick Schmaltz, and if that's the case, you say thanks but no thanks and move on. 

The Blackhawks have the Nos. 8 and 27 picks in this year's draft as possible ammunition, but the Blue Jackets are ready to take that next step. They were up 2-0 in their first-round series before losing four straight to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. It's unlikely they'd be looking to center a potential deal around draft picks. 

The only way you even consider it from the Blackhawks perspective is if Panarin is guaranteed to sign a long-term extension at a price you're comfortable with, but that's one of the main reasons why they traded him in the first place. 

To cap it all off, trading for Panarin wouldn't even address the Blackhawks' biggest need and that's a Top 4 defenseman. Those don't grow on trees. The Blackhawks will have the cap space to sign a player like James van Riemsdyk to patch up their top 6. You can't say the same for the free-agent blue line group.

So while it may certainly be fun for Blackhawks fans to come up with possible trade scenarios to get Panarin back in an Indianhead sweater, it just doesn't make great sense for a variety of reasons.

Setting and predicting five early prop bets for Blackhawks in 2018-19

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USA TODAY

Setting and predicting five early prop bets for Blackhawks in 2018-19

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to overturn the federal ban on sports gambling, here are five early prop bet predictions for the Blackhawks in 2018-19:

1. Brandon Saad's point total: 48.5

In April, we detailed Saad's struggles from this past season and predicted that he'd have a big bounce-back year after recording only 35 points, a career-low in an 82-game season. This came after he put up back-to-back 53-point seasons in Columbus, and 52 previously with the Blackhawks in 2014-15.

You can imagine Chicago's frustration when that point total dipped to 35.

Still, we're setting the bar at 48.5 next year, because that's his average over the last five years — we didn't count his rookie season in 2012-13 when he appeared in just 46 games and had 27 points.

The pick: Over

2. Duncan Keith's goal total: 4.5

What a weird season for Keith, who found the back of the net twice on 187 shots for a 1.1 shooting percentage. In 2016-17, he had six goals on 183 shots for a 3.3 shooting percentage. His career average is seven goals per season on 4.4 percent shooting.

But with Keith turning 35 in July and his goal total declining for three straight seasons, we have to be realistic about our expectations. 

Knowing Keith, he'll probably score two goals in the first two games of the season because hockey's weird. So...

The pick: Over

3. Corey Crawford's win total: 32.5

Crawford was on his way to setting a career high in wins (35) before he got injured — something we predicted he would do before the season — and it would've been interesting to see how many he would've finished with had he stayed healthy. He was at 16 through 27 starts.

All indications are that Crawford will be ready to go by the start of next season, but there's still some uncertainly regarding how much time he'll need to get back up to speed. So we'll be a little cautious with this number and tab it at 32.5 for now but predict he'll have no problem returning to an elite level.

The pick: Over

4. More goals: Alex DeBrincat or Jonathan Toews?

It's very hard to score 28 goals in a season. DeBrincat did that as a rookie. But it's asking a lot for him to top that next season, even though there's no reason to believe he won't take that next step.

Meanwhile, Toews has scored at least 20 goals in each of his first 11 seasons, and is averaging 26.5 per season despite scoring a career-low 20 last year and 21 the year before.

We expect him to get closer to that 26.5 range, and if he does that, he'll make this head-to-head matchup interesting.

The pick: Toews

5. Blackhawks point total: 93.5

The Blackhawks' over/under last season was set at 99.5 by Bovada. They finished with 76, their lowest since compiling 71 in 2006-07.

And there were lots of reasons for that, most notably the injury to Crawford which we mentioned above. According to corsica.hockey, Crawford had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 8.5 over an 82-game season. That's a 17-point difference, so we put the number at exactly that: 93.5.

While a 17-point jump seems significant at a quick glance, it shouldn't when you look at the bigger picture.

The Colorado Avalanche clinched the final wild card spot in the Western Conference with 95 points, coming off a season in which they recorded 48 points the year before — an astounding 47-point increase.

That's a little extreme, but 93.5 points would still put the Blackhawks outside the playoff picture. And that's what they are as of right now: a bubble team.

The pick: Over

Breaking down Brandon Saad's struggles and why he's due for a big bounce-back season with Blackhawks

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Breaking down Brandon Saad's struggles and why he's due for a big bounce-back season with Blackhawks

Brandon Saad's homecoming didn't exactly go as planned.

He compiled 35 points, his fewest since totaling 27 during his rookie campaign in 2012-13, tallied only 15 goals in 81 games following a hat trick on Opening Night and finished with a career-low 7.6 shooting percentage

What happened?

"It's something where maybe I was gripping the stick too tight, thinking about it too much," Saad admitted at the end of the season. "Other games maybe just puck luck. I think there are still some positives you can take out of the season and some things I did well. Just fine-tuning a couple things and a few details should be back on track to go."

It's especially hard to swallow for Chicago fans when you look at the season Artemi Panarin had in Columbus, where he set a Blue Jackets record for most points in a single season (82).

But Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman reiterated that that trade specifically was made with the bigger picture in mind, considering Saad had four years left on his deal when the trade was completed compared to Panarin, who had two and is due for a hefty pay raise next summer the Blackhawks simply couldn't afford.

"It's hard to judge a trade just on one year," Bowman said. "I think that's a little bit unfair to Brandon to say that. Obviously his numbers were down this year in terms of number of points he had. But we were never trying to replace Artemi's points with Brandon's points. They're different players.

"Brandon actually did a lot of good things on the ice. He really did have a strong season in a lot of ways that don't show up on the scoresheet, but there's no question that his production was down. We're looking for that to rebound. But I think he did a lot of underlying things which were really good."

That's accurate. Saad was among the NHL's best in just about every advanced statistical category.

When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Blackhawks controlled 56.04 percent of the shot attempts. That percentage ranked 16th among forwards who logged at least 200 minutes, according to naturalstattrick.com.

And of the 15 skaters ahead of him, only one of them was on the ice for more scoring chances for and that's Panarin. It certainly helped that each of them had the most offensive zone starts among those players, with Saad at 426 and Panarin at 492.

But Saad's shooting percentage at 5-on-5 came in at 6.68, by far a career low after averaging 8.93 going into the season. It'd be surprising if there wasn't a market correction there next season.

"When he was on the ice, our team had a lot of chances," Bowman said. "His conversion rate was just really low this year. We look at that as more of an anomoly. We think he's going to get back to his normal production."

It also didn't help that Saad had a PDO of 97.7, a metric that combines on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage. Sea level is usually at 100, and his on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5 was 91.02, which suggests he wasn't geting many breaks on the defensive side of things, either.

Still, there's no excusing the fact that Saad's numbers must improve next season for the Blackhawks to get back on track.

"As individuals he's one guy that we're going to need more from him going forward," Joel Quenneville said. "We think he adds that element where he can make a difference on a line on a game-to-game basis where that line would be dangerous and absorb the other team's attention. His production should be up."

Marian Hossa scored just 13 goals in 64 games in 2015-16 and had a career-low shooting percentage of 6.8. A year later at age 38, he doubled his goal total (26) in 73 games and converted on 15.6 percent of his shots.

There's no reason to not expect a similar bounce-back from Saad.

"Obviously this isn't the year that we wanted," Saad said. "But it's not like I'm lacking confidence going into next year. I think I'm very capable of being a leader this team and helping us get back in the playoffs."