Why Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin works for Blackhawks

CHICAGO – While it’s ultimately a good deal, there are a few immediate concerns about the Chicago Blackhawks sending winger Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets to reacquire winger Brandon Saad on Friday morning.

Panarin is an incredible offensive talent. He has 151 points in 162 NHL games, and back-to-back 30 goal seasons. If the argument is that he’s a product of Patrick Kane, that’s fine: The point is that he was a successful product and, from an on-ice perspective, totally not the reason why the Blackhawks haven’t gotten out of the first round in consecutive seasons.

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Then there’s what motivated this trade. Frank Seravalli of TSN reports that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both informed GM Stan Bowman that they missed Brandon Saad, who was moved to the Blue Jackets in 2015 thanks to the Blackhawks’ cap crunch. (That was, let it be said, created in part by the contracts handed to Kane and Toews, as well as Saad’s ask.)

That’s a real “inmates running the asylum” vibe, but they’re not called “franchise players” for nothing.

Now, push those initial queasy feelings aside, and take this trade for what it is: a smart deal in the long-term for the Blackhawks, albeit one that comes with a hell of a gamble.

The Blackhawks today acquired Saad, goaltender Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round draft pick in 2018 from the Blue Jackets in exchange for Panarin, forward Tyler Motte and Chicago’s sixth round (170th overall) draft pick in 2017.

Money is the heart of every Blackhawks trade these days — see: Hjalmarsson, Niklas — and this is no different.

Let’s start with Anton Forsberg, who is a 24-year-old RFA with 10 games to his credit. He will make peanuts, and if the Blackhawks think he’s good for 20 games behind a (please god please) healthy Corey Crawford, he’s a cheap hire.

Saad makes $6 million against the cap through 2021, when he’ll be 29. Panarin makes $6 million against the cap through 2019, and then he goes unrestricted. So Bowman was looking at a situation in two years where both Panarin and Hjalmarsson would be up for new deals, and the team would still have $44 million tied up into four players with no-move clauses. (Man, that Seabrook deal.)

Bowman was also looking at a situation where Panarin, depending on his ask, could leave for nothing. Or the Blackhawks would be put into a situation where they needed to move him before he did, with no leverage.

To that end, acquiring Saad is better than anything they could have gotten for Panarin in 2018-19. And Saad provides a level of cost certainty through 2022 that they didn’t have with Panarin.

(To briefly address the Blue Jackets side of this, they acquire a player with two years left on an already considerable contract, a player that’s yet to prove himself away from Patrick Kane and a player who will know toil under a coach who’s not entirely known for this offensive ingenuity. That said, the Jackets’ power play is going to be even sicker.)

Saad’s great. The Blackhawks didn’t want to lose him. His potential is far from being tapped – this is a guy who should be hitting 30/60 with frequency, and a guy whose all-around game at even strength could be a tick better than Panarin’s.

His $6 million salary is a shade high for his accomplishments, but that might look differently now that he’s back in Chicago, assuming his numbers trend up with Jonathan Toews.

This trade is a really interesting one if you consider the power dynamics on the Blackhawks.

As was mentioned, Toews and Kane wanted Saad back. Well, in Toews’ case, there’s a bloody great reason for that: He’s never found someone on the left side that clicked with him like Saad did since the trade. He skated with guys like Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz last season, and made the best of it with 58 points in 72 games. But his goals-per-game dipped to a career low of 0.29.

So in essence, a Saad deal gets Toews going, and gives the Blackhawks a viable second scoring line behind the Kane line.

Except now the Kane line doesn’t have Panarin.

Kane had, on average, his two best non-lockout offensive seasons with Panarin on his wing, including his only 100-point season in 2015-16 when he won the Hart. And so the gamble here is that reuniting Toews and Saad doesn’t severely impact the effectiveness of Kane and Artem Anisimov, who also reaped the benefits of playing with Panarin. Would T.J. Oshie, long-rumored to be Chicago bound, get the same level of production out of Kane that Panarin did?

The gamble here is that they haven’t robbed Patrick to pay Johnny.

The hope here is that the embarrassment of losing in the first round twice — both times with Panarin and without Saad, for the record — has triggered Bowman into some aggressive moves that might benefit the team for years.

Rightly or wrongly, Bowman felt the Blackhawks had been pushed around by the Predators. Saad and Connor Murphy, acquired from the Coyotes, address that. But they also make sense fiscally, so even as reactionary “big shake up” moves, they aren’t irresponsible. We’ve seen worse. Hell, the Blackhawks have made worse.

That said: Hjalmarsson was a foundational player on three Stanley Cup winners. Panarin was a top-line player who helped the Blackhawks’ best offensive player reach unforeseen heights statistically. Marian Hossa, who likely has played his last NHL game, was a three-time Cup winner and a vital part of the team. (They still have to find a way out of this cap space this summer.)

We knew changes were coming to the Blackhawks. We wondered about their magnitude. Well, they’ve shaken this team, and this city. And one assumes there will be aftershocks.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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