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TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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The Bread Man is going to make cake.

Artemi Panarin delivered the goods despite a circus swirling around him in Columbus, leading the Blue Jackets to the best season in franchise history.

Now, after fulfilling his contract, he’ll head to free agency as the No. 1 player on the market this summer. Panarin is poised to become the rare winger with an eight-figure salary in the cap era.

Former linemate Patrick Kane ($10.5 million) is the only player at that threshold now, but more will hit that mark – most prominent among them restricted free agent Mitch Marner.

Panarin edges out two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson for top spot on TSN’s Free Agent Frenzy board.

Imagine slotting Karlsson at No. 2 a calendar year ago.

In this case, it all comes down to health. What seemed like a slam dunk likelihood for Karlsson to re-sign with San Jose has become a wait-and-see scenario after Karlsson missed 29 games this season.

There is no questioning Karlsson’s talent. There is also no question that Karlsson will be paid handsomely. Players of his all-world ilk rarely make it to market.

But there have been more than a few questions about his skating – hampered by groin injuries this season – which hasn’t been as effortless as usual in these Stanley Cup playoffs.

Some moments, he looks like the Karlsson of old, flinging a 125-foot saucer stretch pass down the ice. Other times, he looks to be labouring, like he’s not going to be able to finish the game.

Will teams be willing to pay mega dollars at a maximum seven-year term (or eight years for San Jose)? Or will he cash in with a higher AAV on a shorter-term, lower-risk deal?

When Karlsson did play, he produced points at his usual high rate (0.85 per game), but three goals in 53 games represented the lowest goals-per-game rate (.06) of his career.

When asked about his future, Karlsson seemed as confident as ever.

“I know what I am,” Karlsson said on April 30. “I know what type of player I am, what I can contribute, what I can get better at. I strive to do that every year. For the 10 years I’ve been in the league I think I’ve been improving from Day 1 and I think I’m a better player now than I was at any point in my career previously. It’s just going to keep going that way. And I feel like I still have a lot left to give.”

Meanwhile, Panarin’s output and effort never wavered during a tough season. He set a career-high with 87 points, collecting 28 goals and 59 assists. He is one of a handful of forwards in today’s NHL who can drive play from the wing.

Panarin, 27, then contributed five goals and 11 points in 10 playoff contests for Columbus. He paced the Blue Jackets in scoring and gave the Nationwide Arena crowd a thumbs up on his way off the ice after the Game 6 loss to Boston.

Speculation has connected Panarin to Florida much of this season – heightened by the hiring of his former Chicago coach Joel Quenneville – but it has also been thought he is in search of a big-market team with a large Russian population.

A return to Chicago doesn’t seem to be in the cards cap-wise, but how would the New York Rangers look?

The Big Apple could be an even juicier fit for Panarin if Columbus president John Davidson returns home to New York to succeed Glen Sather as Rangers’ president of hockey operations. But there will be no shortage of interested parties.

There is also no shortage of Blue Jackets on the board – Panarin is among three in the top five alone with an expected exodus unlike any other. Two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky is No. 3 while centre Matt Duchene is just behind him at No. 4. Add Ryan Dzingel and Columbus is represented by four of the top 16 players.

Here is the first TSN Hockey Top 25 Free Agent Frenzy list of the spring:


The Top 25

RK Player Team Pos Age GP G PTS 18-19
1 Artemi Panarin CBJ LW 27 79 28 87 $6M
2 Erik Karlsson SJ RD 29 53 3 45 $6.5M
3 Sergei Bobrovsky CBJ G 30 62 2.53 .913 $7.43M
4 Matt Duchene CBJ C 28 73 31 70 $6M
5 Jeff Skinner Buf LW 27 82 40 63 $5.75M
6 Anders Lee NYI LW 28 82 28 51 $3.75M
7 Joe Pavelski SJ C 34 75 28 64 $6M
8 Brock Nelson NYI C 27 82 25 53 $4.25M
9 Tyler Myers Wpg RD 29 80 9 30 $5.5M
10 Mats Zuccarello Dal RW 31 48 12 40 $4.5M
11 Alex Edler Van LD 33 55 10 32 $5M
12 Gustav Nyquist SJ LW 29 81 22 60 $4.75M
13 Jordan Eberle NYI RW 29 77 19 37 $6M
14 Micheal Ferland Car LW 27 71 17 40 $1.75M
15 Jake Gardiner Tor LD 28 62 3 30 $4.05M
16 Ryan Dzingel CBJ LW 27 78 26 56 $1.8M
17 Kevin Hayes Wpg C 27 71 19 55 $5.18M
18 Brett Connolly Wsh RW 27 81 22 46 $1.8M
19 Marcus Johansson Bos LW 28 58 13 30 $4.58M
20 Braydon Coburn TB LD 34 74 4 23 $3.7M
21 Wayne Simmonds Nsh RW 30 79 17 30 $3.98M
22 Brandon Tanev Wpg LW 27 80 14 29 $1.15M
23 Joonas Donskoi SJ RW 27 80 14 37 $1.8M
24 Colin Wilson Col LW 29 65 12 27 $3.94M
25 Ron Hainsey Tor RD 38 81 5 23 $3M