We all know the track record for Artemi Panarin’s first two years in the NHL.
He came into the NHL as a somewhat unknown quantity, with a pretty good KHL track record (100-plus points over his previous two seasons) but with the caveat that he played with Ilya Kovalchuk that whole time, and Kovalchuk had been the best player in that league for a while.
Of course, he went to the NHL and did the same thing: 77 points as “rookie” at 23, and then another 74 last season. But again, the caveat: He did all that with Patrick Kane, who was the league’s MVP when Panarin was a rookie, and finished sixth in Hart voting this year.
So when Panarin was traded to Columbus straight-up for Brandon Saad earlier this summer, there was some cause for concern. With all due respect to Alexander Wennberg, who had a very good season and could be an elite passer in the making, and Cam Atkinson, their talents are not particularly comparable to those of Kane or Kovalchuk.
The question is, then, what kind of output can we expect from Panarin? Columbus didn’t have anyone get even particularly close to a point a game last season. Atkinson was the team leader with just 62 in 82, and while I’ve always liked Atkinson more than most, I think we’d all agree he’s also not a reliable 35-goal guy, right? Panarin instantly becomes your No. 1 left wing, bumping Nick Foligno, the Shooting Percentage King of Ohio, down to the second line. Wennberg is almost certainly the No. 1 center, though that might be a situation where you say, “Dubinsky takes all the hard minutes, though.”
(Panarin would of course be familiar with that kind of deployment given the whole “Jonathan Toews” thing with his previous employer.)
Whether you want to slot Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand or maybe even Josh Anderson (who had 29 points in a very limited role last year) in as your No. 1 right wing, there may be some interchangeable talent levels there over the course of the season. In any case, it’s probably Panarin-Wennberg-whomever, and I think that probably puts him in a position to show up on the scoresheet pretty regularly.
This comes up because, in Panarin’s first-ever press conference in his new home city, the guy who traded for him got up and and laid out the defense for his quality, as a means of insulating the player against any notion that he should be seen as a passenger or complementary player.
“It should be noted that Patrick Kane had a couple of his best seasons playing with Artemi, so I think it works both ways,” Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters. “Anywhere he’s been, he’s been a first-line player, whether it’s the Russian national team or the Chicago Blackhawks,” Kekalainen said. “He’s on the power play, the first line. He wants (the puck) at all times and wants to score.”
While I can’t definitively speak to how much puck-carrying he did in Chicago, anecdotally I would say he deferred to Kane pretty often, as well he should have. Kane had two of the higher-octane production seasons of the past two seasons, and he’s the kind of player you want carrying the puck for you. So no big deal there. Even if you’re saying “Panarin is the puck-carrier now,” data and the eye test both suggest that’s fine because he’s really good at it.
But to Kekalainen’s point about Kane’s offense taking off the second Panarin showed up, that’s worth exploring. What’s interesting is that Kovalchuk’s production actually dipped in the two years he played with Panarin (95 points in 99 games with him versus 174 in 150 without), but his shot rate went way up in those seasons while his shooting percentages declined, potentially indicating a little bit of bad luck but also better production overall.
Obviously we know what happened with Kane. He was always very good, of course, but in his prime years of 22 to 26 he was a little under a point per game. Very, very good, but not truly elite. Panarin comes to town and instantly he goes from about .99 points per game to about 1.2. Some have pointed out this coincided with Kane also getting Artem Anisimov as his center, but Anisimov has never increased a linemate’s scoring by 20 percent before.
One wonders, of course, whether this was something of a perfect symbiotic balance of skills that allowed both Panarin and Kane to take off together. On some level it had to be, because Panarin’s track record even from the KHL was succeeding with good players. Not that succeeding alongside elite talent is hard, of course, but you can tell from watching him that he, too, brings an incredible skill threshold.
So the question becomes, what happens when Panarin isn’t playing alongside some of the most talented players alive?
Again, the first line in Columbus is perfectly good, but no one would mistake a single one of them for an MVP candidate. For all the nice things you can say about him, we have a very limited track record of what Panarin looks like in the NHL to begin with, and it’s basically non-existent without someone of Kane’s skill level, playing in front of a very good defender (the most common defensemen behind him last season were Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell). Not that this will necessarily be an issue in Columbus; put him out there with Zach Werenski and you don’t have to worry about a leaky defense.
Wennberg-and-someone are probably plenty talented to drive Panarin’s production, and vice versa. With that having been said, you’d have to imagine there’s just not going to be as many points to go around; 70 would be his career low in the NHL and that seems like it would be pushing it unless someone takes a big step forward. Which, given the age of the top group, is a possibility.
Still, the person I’d be worried about most in all this isn’t Panarin, but rather Kane. We’ve gotten a good, long look at which Kane looks like both with and without elite talent at this point and it’s tough to say the takeoff in production is a coincidence.
So now that Panarin’s gone away, and Kane’s left wing is suddenly a big ol’ question mark (Patrick Sharp? Ryan Hartman? We know Brandon Saad will probably be on the Toews line). I’d be far more concerned about 88 clearing a point a game quite so easily again than Panarin finishing in the 55-60 range.
There’s plenty of reason to believe Panarin can succeed in Columbus. Maybe, probably, the points don’t reach (or even approach) MVP-level for himself or Wennberg, but he does seem to have an uncanny ability to get everyone to score at a greater rate. Even if the talent around isn’t All-World anymore, there’s no reason to expect that trend would stop now.
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