Last spring, when the Blackhawks signed Artemi Panarin they knew that they had a special player. What they didn’t know was how he was going to fit into their star-studded lineup.
Stan Bowman was already quite certain that Patrick Sharp was going to find a new home over the summer, and that would almost surely open up a spot on the left side. A risk for sure as the young Russian had been playing on the right. Not all players can make that transition successfully.
However, it was almost certain that Panarin would end up on the left as the Blackhawks were already pretty locked up on the right with Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane.
A Summer In Transition
Of course, they had Kris Versteeg and Sharp, but one, or likely both would move in the offseason. They also had Bryan Bickell, but he too was expendable. Then there was Andrew Shaw or Andrew Desjardins, both of whom would almost certainly stay and could play either side, but were more suited to being bottom six depth players. They were going to be needed in those shutdown roles.
Teuvo Teravainen was another option to fill the role Sharp was sure to vacate, but the plan was to give him a shot at center.
What the Blackhawks never planned on when they signed the Breadman was the departure of Brandon Saad. They thought they’d have two left wings for the top two line and that they would end up trading a combination of Sharp, Versteeg, or Bickell to shore up the hole at center on the second line.
Panarin or Teuvo could slot into the left on the second line, and one of the two would stick. That was the hope. Then on June 30, 2015, the unthinkable happened, and Brandon Saad was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets along with a slew of players on both sides. The deal landed Artem Anisimov and the whole landscape changed.
On Your Left
Now, the Blackhawks had questions on the left side across the entire line up with all of the remaining left wings on the trade block. Things were looking pretty bad, as Teravainen and Panarin were sure to fall victim to coach Joel Quenneville’s penchant for line blending.
They had no idea how Anisimov would adapt to Quenneville’s demanding role for his pivot’s, after all, both Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette took months to find a rhythm. Others have never found one. Suddenly, one of the deepest forward groups was laden with uncertainty.
The fanbase was worried, but at the same time, the expectations for Panarin, Anisimov, and Marko Dano (another return on the Brandon Saad trade) were very high. Perhaps, everything would be ok after all.
Sure, the Blackhawks have struggled to find the complementary piece for Jonathan Toews and Hossa to this point, though the newest acquisition Richard Panik seems to be poised to have his shot. That role is still very much up in the air, but for the first time in perhaps Kane’s entire career he has some continuity in his linemates, and that has paid dividends.
In fact, the Blackhawks Maestro, Stan Bowman could not have scripted the second line chemistry better if he’d had the entire psychic friends network at his disposal.
No Chemistry Experiments Needed
The Breadman as he is known in the locker room has performed above and beyond the expectations of Bowman, his team and the fans since his arrival.
Even though he was expected to have a long transition, Panarin made a splash in his very first game as he blasted a shot by all-world netminder Henrik Lundqvist in his very first game. What could have just as easily been a flash in the pan became a frequent occurrence as Panarin has become the most consistent point scorer among rookies.
After just a few games, Panarin and Anisimov had all but locked up their roles with the Blackhawks. Bowman had found his second line pivot, and Panarin was a natural fit on the left as he bookended the line; So much like Kane, but with a right-handed shot.
For the Blackhawks, there was no Phil Kessel-Sidney Crosby type of experimentation; It simply worked. Panarin and Kane were like bread and butter right from the opening puck drop.
Panarin would have to learn to shoot first, much like Kane had to learn early in his career, but the tools were already there.
For Panarin, his season has already earned him plenty of recognition not only for his team but throughout the league. He has been the front-runner in the Calder Trophy race since Connor McDavid went down in early November, and he had been a part of the conversation well before that.
The Blackhawks knew it was only a matter of time before Panarin would gain enough confidence in himself, and his linemates to take his shots without always deferring to Kane. When it did, the Breadman was going to be a force, and that line was going to be even more dominant than it already had been.
This past Tuesday, that day came.
The Blackhawks headed to Pittsburgh for a home and home series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (who were rumored to have been in on recruiting Panarin last spring). The Pens are a team that Patrick Kane has never scored against. Fans were waiting for the veteran winger to light the lamp, and end the drought. That was not to be, but what happened in Pittsburgh would surely make the fans forget all about it.
As with many rookies facing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first time, Panarin had some moments where he might have been a bit starstruck. However, that only lasted a shift or two.
Panarin ripped a slapshot behind Marc-Andre Fleury just before the halfway point in the second period making the score 1-0 for the Blackhawks. Toews would add a tally, and the Pens would add two of their own as the Blackhawks were outplayed for long stretches.
The game was knotted, and they were headed into overtime.
The expectation would be that Toews, Kane, or perhaps Duncan Keith would be the go-to guy on the Blackhawks. And that’s always a safe bet, but Panarin had other plans.
With just over a minute left in the OT frame, the Blackhawks were putting on a clinic that had Pittsburgh embroiled in a game of keep away. They were gassed, and Panarin and Kane were circling like sharks through the zone. Panarin threw a wrister on Fleury that was oddly similar to Kane’s first Stanley Cup winner (though this one went in and out), in that most of the guys on the ice had no idea that it had gone in.
Except for Panarin, and Kane, who were already celebrating a win as Seabrook took out an insurance policy throwing the puck back into the net again.
Fast forward to Wednesday and Panarin was ready to put on another clinic with his linemates. In the first period, the Blackhawks had the Penguins chasing again.
For the Pens, they had a tough time containing the Blackhawks second line. Of course, any team is going to have a tough time when the puck never touches their tape in their own zone.
Panarin, Kane, and Anisimov had been toying with them for almost a minute like a trio of raptors in Jurassic Park. The Pens were once again gasping for air as they prayed for a stoppage of play so they could get some fresh legs on the ice, but Panarin had already homed in on Fleury. He had the hot hand, and he was determined to play it.
He circled all the way from Fleury’s left side back to the top of the opposite circle before he fired the puck right by the Pens netminder.
Again, he opened the scoring, and this time, he finished it as well with the game-winner in the third. Teravainen would add an empty net tally, but Panarin had already sunk the dagger into their hearts as he ripped a shot top shelf off the faceoff. The play happened so quickly that even the commentators were caught off guard.
The Penguins had no response on the ice, but their twitter reaction was priceless.
Artemi Panarin Is Never Satisfied
After the game, everyone wanted to talk to Panarin (through his interpreter Stan Stiopkin). His response, when asked if he was satisfied with the way he was playing recently, was quick, and needed no interpretation.
“If I don’t score some goals in many games, then I start to think too much,” Panarin said through Stiopkin after Wednesday’s game. ”This is kind of not helping me. But tonight was good.””
For Panarin, he will always find the flaws in his game. His memory is short when it comes to the successes, and long when it comes to the things he wants to work on. That is how he has been successful throughout his career in Europe and it will serve him well in North America, too.
Panarin will continue to work on his passes near the blue line, and taking the shots as they present themselves instead of always looking for a passing lane. He will do whatever it takes never hear coach Q use the term ‘ordinary’ when he describes his game on any given night.
Of course, ordinary may not seem like the highest praise, but with Quenneville, the slight is just a testament to how highly thinks of the young forward. With good reason.
As of Wednesday, Kane, Panarin, and Anisimov have surpassed Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Sharp as the most productive line with 26 goals between them. That is an impressive feat considering the blistering hot start the Dallas Stars have put together in the first half of the season.
One thing is certain, Panarin has found a permanent place in the Blackhawks lineup beside Kane and Anisimov and there is little doubt that he will continue to improve with every shift. After Wednesday night’s 3-2 victory over the Pens, any team that wasn’t heavily scouting the young Russian before their games will be taking a closer look.
Kane, Anisimov, and Panarin are all special players on their own, but this trio is going to be lethal for years to come.