Unlike some of our elected politicians, let’s begin our discussion by finding key areas on which we can agree. Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins and Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers are both elite-level NHL players. They are two of the best left wingers in the game. Both are among the league’s scoring leaders and are noticeable in every Bruins or Rangers game you watch. Both are below average size, and neither was considered a top prospect when he was eligible to be drafted. Neither entered the NHL with a sense of entitlement.
Bearing in mind these similarities, it is hard to imagine two top players at the same position whose styles are so different. Neither player is perfect. Both have aspects of their game which cause concern. But who is more valuable?
Panarin is 28. He comes from rural Russia and did not play for any Russian national teams until he was 19. When he was eligible for the NHL draft starting in 2010, he went unclaimed each time. He played for three different KHL teams and finally established himself with powerful St. Petersburg in 2013. After two productive seasons, he was signed as a free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks. He quickly became a first-line player with the Hawks and, in 2017, was traded to Columbus in a controversial deal. After two seasons as a top-liner with the Blue Jackets, he signed a mega-bucks UFA deal with the Rangers last summer. He’s a dynamic offensive threat both as a goal-scorer and playmaker. He has registered more than 70 points in each of his five NHL seasons and has averaged almost a point per game in the playoffs, even though his teams have won only one series.
Marchand is 33. He comes from Halifax and was drafted 71st overall from QMJHL Moncton in 2006. After two more seasons of major junior, he played 113 games in the AHL before arriving in Boston for good late in the 2009-10 season. He has been with the Bruins ever since. He did not, however, receive first-line ice time until 2015-16, the same season Panarin arrived in Chicago. During the past five seasons, Marchand has outscored Panarin while receiving votes each year for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. In the playoffs, Marchand has averaged more than a point per game during the past five years, and he co-led the playoffs in scoring last season. His teams have won a Stanley Cup, gone to the final on two other occasions and won 12 playoff series. Panarin has a lot of talent, but he cannot at this stage match what Marchand has done in the NHL.
(Just for fun, let’s redo the first round of the 2006 and 2010 drafts. Marchand would likely edge out Claude Giroux and Phil Kessel and battle Nicklas Backstrom for No. 2 overall behind Jonathan Toews in ’06. Panarin would compete with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko to try to displace the dynamic duo of Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin at the top of the ’10 class. Both players would undoubtedly be top-five picks. They have certainly beaten the odds.)
Panarin is a first-line left winger and a key element of the first power-play unit. He virtually never kills penalties and has not recorded a shorthanded point in his five NHL seasons. Marchand plays on the left side on the Bruins’ first line, he’s on the first power-play unit and he gets some time killing penalties, especially in key late-game situations. Over the past five seasons, Marchand has a league-best 25 shorthanded points, including 12 goals.
Panarin is dynamic and exciting. He is one of those rare players who can create something out of nothing. His ability to make plays is amazing, even when he is off-balance and being forced away from his intended target. His shot is not powerful, but he has a quick release and exceptional accuracy. On the power play, he generally plays on the half wall on his off-wing side. From this position, his priority is to serve as a playmaker. Although not physical, Panarin competes hard and is a responsible player in the defensive zone.
Marchand is a strong skater with a remarkable sense of positioning in all areas of the ice. To use a favored expression among coaches, he is exceptional at mirroring the puck. He always seems to be facing the play but still aware of where danger from the opposition is developing. He makes good, crisp passes to his linemates and can make plays off the forecheck. His shot is quick and accurate and often is used in tight quarters close to the net. Although not as creative as Panarin, Marchand has more assists over the past four seasons than Panarin. Marchand also has far more takeaways, blocked shots and hits. He used to play in front of the net on the power play, but he’s now positioned on the half wall on his off-wing. Like Panarin, his primary role from that position is that of a playmaker. Marchand is particularly effective in late-game situations. His combination of sense, positioning and alertness makes him a valuable player when the heat is on.
There are no perfect hockey players. Panarin is small. His weight and strength are below that of other elite-level NHL players. On those nights where he does not produce offensively, he looks like a hardworking small player – one among many in the game. He is not used in defensive situations. His departure from Chicago resulted in large part from an ineffective playoff series where he was often pushed off the puck by bigger, stronger opponents. In the past two years in Columbus, he had good moments early in the first playoff round, but, in both years, he appeared gassed by the time the Blue Jackets were eliminated. He has yet to show he can carry a team deep into the playoffs.
Marchand often does not know when to leave well enough alone. He can be provoked into taking retaliation penalties that often cross the line. The results are penalties to one of your star players and the threat of suspensions. His conduct can be obnoxious and often draw the ire of opponents and officials. One aspect of his actual game remains a weakness: for a smart player, he simply tries too many risky plays. Marchand often refuses to accept the fact that a simple dump-in may be the best option. He will try to feather lateral passes through several bodies and sticks in situations where the likelihood of success is remote. The result is an average of almost 75 giveaways a year over the past five seasons – an unacceptable rate.
Panarin is an NHL star. He is smart and highly skilled with a consistent work ethic. He is fun to watch. He also lacks breakaway speed and is smaller and weaker physically than other elite-level talents. Marchand usually is not as much fun to watch. He is a strong but not fancy skater who makes the correct play consistently. His conduct can be maddening. However, he can match Panarin in offensive production and outperform him defensively, and Marchand adds a physical dimension that increases the comfort level of his linemates. He has proven he can be a key factor in getting his club to the Stanley Cup final. Panarin is a valuable commodity in today’s NHL, but Marchand is more valuable.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.
This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Superstar Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.