Tom Lynn jokes that he speaks about five words of Russian and Artemi Panarin speaks about 60 words of English. Yet somehow the relationship between the Wild’s former assistant general manager-turned-agent and the Chicago Blackhawks’ previously unknown-turned-rookie phenom works perfectly.
“He’s so smart and funny, but he doesn’t feel comfortable talking too much,” Lynn said. “He gets what I’m saying, but we have a mutual friend that translates for us.”
The two touch base a few times a month. They likely will see each other Tuesday because Panarin, an NHL Rookie of the Year front-runner, plays the Wild at Xcel Energy Center.
Lynn, who negotiated almost every contract in Wild history from 2000 to ’09, was certified as an agent in 2011. With six children playing Minnesota hockey, he didn’t want to leave the state, so former Wild players Brian Rolston and Dwayne Roloson suggested he cross the aisle and become an agent.
After months of convincing himself to start a new career, Lynn opened a player agency in St. Paul, where he still lives.
In the winter of 2014, Lynn client Viktor Tikhonov was playing for the Kontinental Hockey League team in St. Petersburg. Panarin, a teammate and friend, told Tikhonov that he wanted to play in the NHL and Tikhonov told him, “Try my guy.”
Tikhonov, the Coyotes’ first-round draft pick in 2008, was readying to return to Arizona to give the NHL a second shot. He arranged a phone call between Lynn and Panarin. Tikhonov did the translation because Lynn wanted to get a true sense how committed Panarin was to immediately coming over.
Panarin was quickly becoming one of the KHL’s young stars. He scored 20 goals in 2013-14 and was in the midst of a 26-goal, 62-point campaign last season. Lynn knew he’d be pressured to stay in Russia.
Panarin, 24, is listed at 5-11 and 170 pounds, “but he showed in the KHL he had no problem playing against the big boys and had no problem in traffic,” Lynn said. “He did most of his work within 40 feet of the net, so I knew big ice surface, small ice surface, it wasn’t going to matter much because he makes all his plays at the net in traffic anyway.”
Panarin convinced Lynn he was serious. Lynn signed him as a client and began calling NHL teams. A frenzy ensured. More than 20 teams were interested. Two NHL GMs visited Panarin in Russia; several others sent contingents to talk to him.
Lynn said he didn’t push Panarin on the Wild because “they had other needs.”
“Six teams were in the final that put in a lot of time and effort, and I said to them, ‘He’s going to get a contract resembling a first overall pick,’ which he did, ‘And we want to know specifically how he’ll fit on your team. Are you in?’ ”
The other finalists were mostly non-playoff teams. Lynn was criticized for putting Panarin in Chicago.
“The conventional wisdom was put him on a bad team that doesn’t score because then he’ll get all the ice time,” Lynn said. “My feeling was if he was the top offensive player on a poor team, he’d be easier to shut down. He agreed.”
With the champs
Lynn became friends with Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman when they were both assistant GMs. He trusted Bowman’s plans for Panarin. The Blackhawks signed Panarin in late April last year with the promise to Lynn that salary-cap room and roster space would be cleared. Chicago ultimately traded Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.
“Everyone looked at their roster last April and said, ‘[Panarin] won’t break into their top seven,’ but I was one of the few believers,” Lynn said.
After a sensational world championship for Russia, Panarin has played on a line most the year with NHL leading scorer Patrick Kane. Panarin leads all rookies with 25 goals and 64 points in 74 games.
He makes $812,500, already has accrued $850,000 in bonuses and could earn another $1.725 million if he finishes top 10 in NHL goals, assists, points or points per game; or finishes top five in one of three trophies; wins the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP); or is named a first- or second-team All-Star.
He sits 15th in scoring (only four points from 10th) and 25th in assists (six from 10th) on his path to win the Calder Trophy as top rookie.
Lynn, 48, played junior varsity hockey at Yale, got his philosophy degree at LeMoyne College and his law degree at Cornell.
He doesn’t have many pro clients. The late Don Baizley, a well-respected agent, suggested Lynn start his agency from the ground up with amateurs and not pilfer clients from other agents.
In June, Lynn will have his fourth draft class. His only NHLers are Panarin and Tikhonov. He advises many college and junior players and has about 10 minor-leaguers, including former Wild farmhand Ryan Hamilton.
“I’m the only agent ever to have traded his own player,” Lynn quipped.
Having Panarin as a client could help Lynn’s business, “But we haven’t leveraged it as much as you might think. Like, I’m not trying to jump in the Russian practice. I have three Russian-speaking clients and all of them called me.
“It’s a dangerous place and dangerous business to get into to start going there and recruiting. And I haven’t run up the flagpole with all the reports I’m getting back of every Russian agent in the world trying to steal him.
“My brand is, ‘Here is an honest guy that doesn’t do that.’ I’m content slowly growing the business.”