After Panarin - who's set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 - said before training camp that he wouldn't negotiate a new contract during the season, the Blue Jackets were destined to find themselves in a pickle. And now, less than four weeks before the trade deadline, speculation on the matter is rampant thanks to a recent meeting with Panarin's agent that didn't yield much progress.
So, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is faced with an unenviable decision: keep his leading scorer for a potential playoff run - Columbus currently occupies the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference - at the risk of losing him for nothing in free agency, or bite the bullet and trade Panarin by Feb. 25 to ensure he returns future assets.
The latter route would be tough to stomach for a franchise that's never won a playoff series, but if there's a silver lining there, it's that opposing teams should be willing to pay a premium for the 27-year-old's services.
With that in mind, here are three Stanley Cup contenders that could make a major splash by plucking Panarin off the trade block.
The league-leading Lightning, who own a five-point advantage in the Presidents' Trophy race and sport by far the NHL's best goal differential, certainly have the means to go all-in and become even more powerful for a playoff run, during which they'll deal with significant pressure to finally get over the hump.
Despite their loaded roster, the Lightning are almost certain to face a difficult series against the Toronto Maple Leafs or Boston Bruins in the second round. What's more, shedding some long-term salary in exchange for an expiring contract would be a major benefit for GM Julien BriseBois, who will face contract negotiations with Brayden Point this coming offseason before dealing with Andrei Vasilevskiy in 2020.
That means a player like J.T. Miller and his $5.25-million cap hit could be the centerpiece of a deal, and he'd immediately slot into Columbus' lineup. Factor in a first-round pick and an impressive prospect pool built around Mitchell Stephens, Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, and Cal Foote, and suddenly it's not too far-fetched for the Bolts to put together a desirable package.
Predators boss David Poile is known to avoid handing out no-trade clauses, which keeps all his options open. And as a GM who's never shied away from pulling the trigger on a big deal, Poile's team is one to watch as the Panarin sweepstakes heat up.
The Preds could fit Panarin's modest $6-million cap hit within their books without shedding any salary, and beefing up their ninth-ranked offense before dealing with a gauntlet of powerhouse teams in the Western Conference playoff bracket should be a priority.
Panarin's 55 points this season lead all Nashville players by a mile, and he'd fortify a top-six forward group that relies heavily on the first line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson. Panarin could also help a power-play unit that ranks just 29th in the NHL with a 13.1 percent conversion rate.
As for the potential return, top prospect Eeli Tolvanen would be the crown jewel, but it's far from a guarantee that Poile would make him available. Otherwise, the Preds own picks in all seven rounds for the next three NHL drafts and have young wingers Kevin Fiala and Ryan Hartman, who are both talented but expendable.
Everyone knows Boston's success runs through its top unit of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak, and there's a considerable drop-off when you move down the depth chart. Enter Panarin, who would add another layer of offensive firepower ahead of the Bruins' impending postseason battle(s) against the Atlantic Division's elite.
Boston addressed its need for offensive depth at last year's deadline with the acquisition of Rick Nash, but the deal didn't pan out. In that trade, Bruins GM Don Sweeney gave up two roster players, a prospect, and two picks, including a first-rounder. That would be a steep price to pay in two consecutive seasons, but the Bruins are expected to be buyers once again, and Sweeney will have to weigh the pros and cons of potentially adding the deadline's biggest name to an aging core that's working against the clock.
Would a package built around prospects Anders Bjork or Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson - along with picks and a roster player like Danton Heinen or Jake DeBrusk - entice the Blue Jackets enough to get a deal done?
Only time will tell.