It wasn’t a gamble. That isn’t quite the word for it. Gamble feels as though it insinuates there was potential for it to fail, and there was never any reason to believe the New York Rangers inking Artemi Panarin to a gargantuan off-season pact would be an outright flop. Through his five seasons in the NHL, Panarin had established himself as a premiere offensive talent, a consistent 30-goal threat and point-per-game player who could drive an offense. The Rangers knew what they were getting, and Panarin was always going to produce.
But when the Blueshirts handed the NHL’s most coveted free agent a seven-year deal with an $11.64-million average annual value – a cap hit that trails only Connor McDavid for highest in the league – it’d be true to suggest there was at least moderate concern Panarin would struggle to live up to the price tag. After all, he was being paid roughly $900,000 less than a player who had thrice cracked the century mark in scoring, twice posted 40 goals and whose trophy case included a Hart Trophy, two Ted Lindsay Awards and a pair of Art Ross Trophies. Contrast that with Panarin, who had 12 fewer goals and 52 fewer points despite playing 35 games more than McDavid since both debuted in the NHL, and it did little to lessen those concerns.
The way he’s performed throughout his first 45 games as a Ranger surely has, though, and it’s quite possible that there’s been no single outing that has made that as clear as Panarin’s Monday output against the rival New York Islanders. Five times Panarin found the scoresheet – twice in the goal column – in the Rangers’ 6-2 victory over the Islanders, and his showing marked the continuation of what has been one of the best stretches of the 28-year-old winger’s career.
Coming out of the holiday break, and beginning with a three-point performance against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 27, Panarin has put up an incredible six goals and 22 points in his past nine games. We repeat: Six goals…22 points…in nine games. Included in that, of course, is his five-point night, as well as another five games with three or more points, including a four-point effort against McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers on the final night of 2019.
On the strength of Panarin’s recent performance, too, he has rocketed into the thick of the Art Ross race, now sitting third in scoring, four and three points behind the Oilers’ one-two punch of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, respectively. But Panarin hasn’t just hit these heights because he’s been good for one single stretch. He’s been as consistent as any scorer in the NHL. Only in 10 games has he been held off the scoresheet. He’s managed multi-point nights in twice as many contests. And it’s the way Panarin has scored, the way he’s driven the Rangers’ offense and helped New York go from projected bottom feeder to fringe wild-card contender, that should put him on the periphery of the Hart Trophy conversation as we inch towards the all-star break.
Look, we get it. By the parameters the majority of award voters follow, Panarin isn’t going to be a frontrunner, at least not if the Rangers can’t push for a post-season spot in the back half of the campaign. The no-playoffs, no-hardware debate has waged on for years now, brought to the fore in recent years as a result of McDavid’s play in Edmonton. By MVP definition, however, few players have brought as much individual value to their organizations this season as Panarin has to the Blueshirts.
If we consider production and production alone, the argument is fairly cut and dried. Panarin has accounted for 17.1 percent of the Rangers’ goals, has a primary point on 29 percent of New York’s tallies and a point of any kind on 44.1 percent of those markers. Measuring each NHL player’s individual production against his respective team’s production, Panarin ranks ninth, eighth and third in those respective categories. Furthermore, Panarin ranks sixth (15.8 percent), fourth (29.7 percent) and first (44.6 percent) in those categories when it’s limited to 5-on-5 production.
What also can’t be glossed over is the impact his production has had on others in the lineup, most of all Ryan Strome. Centering Panarin – the two have skated nearly 431 minutes together at five-a-side – Strome has had a stunning transformation into steady top-six producer. His 42 points in 45 games are already more than he accumulated in any of the past four seasons and put Strome on pace to positively smash his career-best 50 points, which he registered as a sophomore in 2014-15. Strome’s elevation to top-six contributor has also taken some of the opposition’s focus from Mika Zibanejad, who has 35 points in 32 games, and frequent Panarin linemate Jesper Fast has also bested last season’s point total in 22 fewer games and finds himself on pace for a career-high 39 points.
There’s more to any talk of Panarin as a fringe Hart candidate than the base statistics, however, and his impacts all over the ice should be taken into account. Consider his underlying numbers: of the 354 players to have skated at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Panarin is 10th in Corsi percentage (7.2), 11th in shots percentage (7.9), 11th in expected goals percentage (8.6) and first in goals percentage (26.8) when measured relative to his teammates. It should be said, too, that of the 14 Rangers to skate at least 90 minutes with Panarin this season at 5-on-5, every single one boasts a greater goals percentage with him than without him. Save Zibanejad and defenseman Ryan Lindgren, the same holds true for the expected goals percentage of Rangers skaters with 90-plus minutes alongside Panarin. His influence has made his tilted the ice in New York’s favor significantly and done so for nearly every player with whom he’s shared the ice.
So, while the reality is that Panarin will fall well short of the Hart if – or when – the season ends with the Rangers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, it could be said that there are few players who have been more valuable to their team’s performance than New York’s big-budget off-season signing. End-of-season hardware or not, though, Panarin’s performance is proof of one thing: in today’s NHL when the league’s elite get eight-figure paydays, he has what it takes to be worth every penny.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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