How Blue Jacket buddies Panarin, Bobrovsky changed the trajectory for the Rangers, Panthers

Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky were dancing.

It was July 2019. The two had been teammates with the Columbus Blue Jackets, becoming close friends when Panarin was traded there from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017. Their families are friends. Panarin is the godfather to Bobrovsky’s daughter. They take silly photos together. They celebrate holidays and vacation together — this particular dance party was in Capri.

Their dancing is extremely spirited, with both NHL players kicking their legs over their heads toward the night sky on the deck of a boat. It’s the kind of dance one expects in a moment of offseason catharsis, like when two friends sign free agent contracts worth a combined $151.5 million. The ink was still drying on Panarin’s seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the New York Rangers and Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70 million contract with the Florida Panthers.

It’s now May 2024. Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t speaking. There’s no animosity between the close friends, but the battle lines have been drawn: The Rangers and Panthers are playing in the Eastern Conference finals. Panarin is trying to score against his best friend in hockey, and Bobrovsky is tasked with preventing it.

At stake is a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, which Bobrovsky did last season with Florida but Panarin has yet to do in his nine-year NHL career. They are rivals now. They’ll be friends again when it’s over.

“I like how he looks at his life, how he looks at himself. Not only about hockey, but what he’s going to do after that,” Bobrovsky has said of Panarin.

“He’s an unbelievable guy, a great human,” Panarin said of Bobrovsky, via “We can talk about everything all day and we can say anything to each other. We can talk about good things and the not good things, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a very honest relationship.”

They are two of the most impactful players of the last decade in the NHL. Bobrovsky has more wins (354) than any other goalie since 2012-13, when he won his first Vezina Trophy. He won his second Vezina in 2016-17, the same year he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Panarin is fifth in points (781) since entering the league with the Blackhawks in 2015-16, the same season he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He’s sixth in points-per-game average (1.16) during that span. Only Nikita Kucherov is ahead of him in both categories among wingers.

In 2019, Bobrovsky and Panarin changed the trajectory of three franchises. They walked away from the Blue Jackets as free agents, and Columbus has made the playoffs just once since then. Bobrovsky solidified the Panthers’ goaltending, earning a third career Vezina nomination this season. Panarin helped the Rangers transition from a retool to top of the league this season.

As one NHL source put it: “If they don’t sign either one of those two, the Panthers and Rangers are not fighting to get into the Stanley Cup Final right now.”

AS FREE AGENCY drama often does, the Panarin and Bobrovsky saga started for the Blue Jackets a year before their contracts were up.

Reports were that Bobrovsky and Columbus were far apart on a new, long-term contract. But they were talking, which was more than could be said for Panarin and the team. He was pushing off talks.

The uncertainty of his future in the market had teams sending general manager Jarmo Kekalainen trade proposals, although few were designed to help Columbus in the present. But even if the Blue Jackets thought about moving Panarin, there was another complication: The NHL echo chamber was reverberating with talk that Panarin wanted to be a New York Ranger.

There were other teams he was considering — the New York Islanders and Panthers among them — but the Rangers were his team of choice, and that undoubtedly impacted the offers coming in for him.

Columbus fans wanted him to stay. Some even resorted to bribery: High Bank Distillery created a billboard proclaiming that Panarin would get free vodka for life should he remain with the Blue Jackets.

“I feel really good after that. I say it’s harder for me to keep talking about my free agency because I see how people want me to stay in Columbus,” he said of the billboard. “But it’s my life.”

In February, there was another wrinkle: Panarin fired agent Daniel Milstein and hired Paul Theofanous, the agent for Bobrovsky. At a media availability in Las Vegas, Panarin declared he was testing free agency that summer.

“It’s one life, and I want to test free agency,” he said, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “[They] have a chance [to sign me], but we’ll see what happens in the summer. I want to still [consider] this season and help the team win the Stanley Cup.”

The agent switch immediately sparked speculation that the two could become a “package deal” in free agency, handing a leading scorer and a franchise goaltender to some lucky team — luck in this case equating to geography and cap space, theoretically.

Hockey fans had seen this before: In 2003, star wingers and former Anaheim teammates Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were reunited as a package deal in Colorado, as both players were clients of agent Don Baizley.

The Blue Jackets opted not to trade either player at the deadline — Bobrovsky had a no-trade clause, Panarin did not — as Columbus was still in a playoff race.

“If they want to go and test the free agency, they’re going to want to have their best years. And that’s the best for us and the best for them,” Kekalainen said at the time. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We’ll have a great team next year, no matter what happens.”

They’d both have great years ahead of new contracts. Panarin had 87 points in 79 games, a new career high. Bobrovsky had a .913 save percentage and an NHL-best nine shutouts. They saved their best for last, both playing a major role in the Blue Jackets’ first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 128-point juggernaut and one of the best regular-season teams in NHL history.

Bobrovsky had a .931 save percentage in securing his first postseason series win. Panarin had five points in four games, outscoring every player on the Lightning in the historic upset.

The Blue Jackets would be eliminated in the following round by the Boston Bruins, officially signaling the start of an offseason of uncertainty.

At this point, it was widely assumed that Panarin was gone. Kekalainen’s big swing to keep him was an eight-year contract, which no other suitor could offer, worth more than $11 million annually. One source said the Jackets might have gone even higher to keep Panarin.

But the Blue Jackets always hoped they could hang on to Bobrovsky, logically surmising that the market for an over-30 goaltender seeking a long-term, big-money contract would be limited.

The buzz term surrounding his contract ask was “Carey Price money,” referencing the eight-year, $84 million deal with a full no-movement clause that the goaltender signed with the Montreal Canadiens in July 2017 — a contract the Habs are still paying, even as Price hasn’t played since 2021-22.

The Jackets were offering deals with a shorter term, hoping his desired contract wouldn’t materialize elsewhere. But there was, in fact, a market for Bobrovsky.

Among the most aggressive suitors for Bobrovsky were the New York Islanders. They had Ilya Sorokin eventually on the way from the KHL. Bobrovsky could have given them an elevated version of the Russian goalie tandem they eventually had with Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov.

The “package deal” rumors persisted. The NHL salary cap — then set at $81.5 million — was the primary deterrent.

“No way you can actually do that in this environment without one of the players getting shortchanged,” one NHL source said.

But teams were trying. The Islanders had $20 million in cap space at the start of free agency. Getting both Russian players would have impacted several other bits of business — re-signing Anders Lee, an eventual extension for Mathew Barzal — but it was doable for GM Lou Lamoriello, someone known for his audacity in roster building.

The Colorado Avalanche were also interested in a package deal. Their goalie coach, Jussi Parkkila, worked with Bobrovsky at St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL, and the two remained friends. They liked Bobrovsky, but they coveted Panarin. The Avalanche were offering a four-year contract that would have made Panarin the highest-paid player in the NHL, according to one source. But even with the flexibility of Nathan MacKinnon‘s cap-friendly contract at the time, they couldn’t find a way to sign both under the salary cap.

The real problem with the “package deal” is that one part of the package had aspirations to sign with one team in particular: The New York Rangers.

And the feeling was mutual.

ON FEB. 18, 2018, the Rangers’ website posted a new article titled “A Message from Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton About Our Team.”

It would be known henceforth as “The Letter.” It stated that the franchise “didn’t reach our ultimate goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to New York.” That the Rangers would seek to get younger and more skillful; and in the process, “this may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect.”

Much like how no one in “Casablanca” ever utters the phrase “play it again, Sam,” at no point does “The Letter” use the word “rebuild.” It wasn’t something the team referenced. When John Davidson left the Blue Jackets in May 2019 to rejoin the Rangers as team president, he preferred to use the term “build” when describing their plans.

They were building fast. In April 2019, the Rangers acquired the rights to defenseman Adam Fox from the Carolina Hurricanes for two draft picks. A native of Jericho, New York, Fox informed the Hurricanes he wouldn’t sign with them. It was widely speculated that Fox would eventually sign with the Rangers as an NCAA free agent anyway. He wanted to be a Ranger, and he was a Ranger.

In June 2019, the Rangers traded a first-round pick and defenseman Neal Pionk to the Winnipeg Jets for 25-year-old defenseman Jacob Trouba, who told the Jets he wasn’t signing with them. He pushed for a trade to New York so his fiancée, Kelly Tyson, could advance in her medical career. He wanted to be a Ranger, and he was a Ranger.

They drafted Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko second overall in the 2019 draft. They had goalie Igor Shesterkin and defenseman K’Andre Miller in their system.

“These are pieces that fit a puzzle, and we’re trying to get that puzzle completed the proper way as quickly as possible,” Davidson said.

The Rangers were on the right track back to contention. The question was whether their velocity synced with Panarin’s availability as a free agent. There were debates internally about whether the Rangers were ready to add a star, such as Panarin, at a considerable commitment to the salary cap.

Signing him would impact things in the short term — the Rangers bought out the contract of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk that August to create more room — and in the long term. The Athletic reported at the time that Panarin’s signing meant forward Chris Kreider “will be dealt before he hits unrestricted free agency next July 1st.”

Ultimately, it was decided that even if the “build” wasn’t at a point where adding Panarin would make them a championship contender, the Rangers couldn’t afford to wait to be ready. What if a player of Panarin’s caliber wasn’t available then? What if there weren’t similar options on whom the Rangers could spend their money? Panarin was only 27 that summer; what if the big free agent prize was 31 years old when the Rangers were ready to do business?

“When these young players pop, he’s still going to be in his prime,” rationalized Davidson, who was president of the Blue Jackets when they acquired Panarin.

Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the Rangers as free agency opened. His average annual value of $11,642,857 was the second highest in the NHL behind Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid ($12.5 million) but the highest for a winger, surpassing his former teammate Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks ($10.5 million).

Those incredible numbers aside, Panarin left money on the table to sign with the Rangers.

“I don’t think those [other] teams did anything wrong,” one NHL executive told ESPN. “I think he just wanted to be a Ranger.”

On July 2, Panarin took part in a now-iconic photoshoot on Seventh Ave., holding his No. 10 jersey in front of the Madison Square Garden marquee that welcomed him to New York.

“There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” he said regarding free agency. “My heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

His friend Bobrovsky felt the same way about South Florida.

THE PANTHERS OFFERED Panarin the same ballpark numbers as the Rangers. They thought they had a chance at him, what with his former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville behind the bench — Panarin credits him with coining his “Bread Man” nickname — and the state tax benefits from playing in Florida. But ultimately, they figured he was New York-bound.

They believed Bobrovsky was more aligned with their needs and remained focused on him.

“They had some good offensive pieces. If you had to pick one or the other, they didn’t have a goaltender,” an NHL source said. “They decided on Bob, and it paid off.”

Star goalie Roberto Luongo retired at 40 years old in June 2019. Thanks to NHL cap recapture rules, the Panthers saw salary cap savings of roughly $3.5 million annually; while the Vancouver Canucks, who originally signed Luongo to a 12-year, $64 million back-diving contract in 2009, were on the hook for more.

The other shoe to drop was that of goalie James Reimer. His contract wasn’t buyout friendly, so the Panthers traded him the Hurricanes for goalie Scott Darling, whom they then bought out.

It was obvious GM Dale Tallon was clearing the decks for a run at Bobrovsky, and nearly gave him the “Carey Price money” he was looking for: seven years, $70 million and a full no-movement clause as free agency opened.

“Sergei is an elite starting goaltender who has consistently proven to be one of the best in the NHL,” Tallon said.

Florida was praised for making a big bet on a long-term goaltending solution. ESPN gave the signing a B-plus at the time.

The contract made Bobrovsky the second-highest-paid goalie in the league in average annual value and base salary. It also put an enormous weight on his shoulders as he started with the Panthers in 2019-20. Bobrovsky had a .900 save percentage, a 3.23 goals-against average and a 23-10-6 record for Florida that season. Quenneville and his Panthers teammates spoke up to support Bobrovsky during that initial season.

“Sometimes there are ups and downs, but you have to keep your focus,” Bobrovsky said at the time.

The following season, Bobrovsky saw an old acquaintance join the team: Bill Zito, assistant GM in Columbus, was named the new general manager in Florida in 2020. He called Bobrovsky before being announced, leaning on the goaltender for information and insight about his new team.

Zito also found himself having to defend Bobrovsky in light of his contract and results. “I’m not worried about him at all. He’s a really intuitive guy, really bright. He’ll figure it out. And he wants to win,” Zito told ESPN at the time.

That patience was eventually rewarded. By his third season, Bobrovsky’s save percentage ticked up to .913 and he led the NHL with 39 wins. He had a regression in the 2022-23 regular season, but no one remembers that.

What they remember is “Playoff Bob” facing a playoffs-high 639 shots, making a playoffs-high 585 saves, posting a .915 save percentage and orchestrating both the Panthers’ shocking first-round upset of Boston and their run to the Stanley Cup Final. That included a 63-save performance in a four-overtime game against the Hurricanes that lasted five hours and 44 minutes.

Since Paul Maurice took over the Panthers as head coach last season, he has witnessed Bobrovsky being more than just a franchise goalie he rolls out for playoff starts.

“Sometimes your goaltender is separate from your team, right? Nobody talks to them because they do that weird goaltender stuff,” he said. “But Bob is part of the fun and might be a driver of it in some ways. Because that’s not his natural state, because he’s a very intense man. So he has fun in the morning skates and everyone knows that ‘Bob’s good.’ I think he just enjoys the performance aspect of it.”

His performance this postseason is much different than in the Panthers’ Stanley Cup Final run last season. Bobrovsky went from facing 32.9 shots on goal per game on average in 2023 to 23.8 shots on goal in 2024, as the Panthers’ defense improved. It hasn’t always been perfect for him, but Maurice said he trusts his goalie to manage the change in volume.

“I feel that a guy that doesn’t have the experience that Bob has would’ve a difficult time doing what Sergei’s been able to do,” he said.

WHILE BOBROVSKY TOOK a little time to find his groove in South Florida, Panarin was a hit on Broadway from opening night, when he had a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ win over Winnipeg.

Panarin tallied 95 points with 32 goals in 69 games in the 2019-20 season, making him a Hart Trophy finalist for the first time in the COVID-19-truncated campaign. His points-per-60 minutes rate climbed in his second season in New York.

When deciding whether the timing was right to sign Panarin, Rangers executives had quietly targeted the 2021-22 season as the point at which they expected the franchise to turn the corner to contention again. He scored 96 points that regular season and 16 points in 20 playoff games to help the Rangers back to the 16-team tournament for the first time since 2017 and the conference final for the first time since 2015.

While Panarin was solid in 2022-23 with 92 points to lead the team, he wasn’t a happy player with the Rangers. Sources said he didn’t mesh with coach Gerard Gallant, who was let go after New York was upset in the playoffs by the New Jersey Devils. That series was also a nadir for Panarin, as he posted two assists in seven games.

“It’s mental, and I feel terrible,” he said after the season.

He took the defeat personally, recommitted himself to training in the offseason and shaved off his trademark locks in a symbolic vibe shift. The results: a new career high in goals (49) and points (120) in leading the Rangers to the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best regular-season record.

“I know this is a benchmark year for him, but his statistics over the last 7-8 years are incredible. There’s consistency that goes with that. This isn’t a fluke year — it’s just a really good one,” said coach Peter Laviolette, who replaced Gallant. “He’s been an elite player offensively, and this year has obviously been his best.”

As the Rangers and Panthers return to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 on Thursday night, all eyes are on Panarin and Bobrovsky again. The Rangers winger hasn’t scored a goal since Game 3 against the Hurricanes in the second round, although he has collected four assists in seven games since then.

Bobrovsky continues to battle, stopping 21 of 23 shots in Game 4 after giving up five goals in an overtime loss in Game 3. His save percentage for the playoffs is .904, but he has been there when they’ve needed him, posting a playoffs-leading .862 save percentage on high-danger chances.

One of them will play for the Stanley Cup. One of them will not.

After it’s over, when their lines of communication are no longer on mute, they’ll reconnect to talk about it.

Two rivals. Two former teammates. Two friends who have made indelible marks on their respective franchises since that fateful summer of 2019.

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