It is hard to imagine that anyone could touch Artemi Panarin in the Calder Trophy race at this point. He has been the most consistent rookie, and he has been a big part of his teams success as well. Of course, many believe that he is not a true rookie, but in the eyes of the league, he is indeed a rookie and therefore eligible.
However, because of that argument, I have felt that there was a good chance that Detroit’s Dylan Larkin could usurp the young Russian for the Calder Trophy. Based solely on numbers, I don’t think it would be right, but it could still happen.
Leads all NHL rookies in goals. Just scored his first career hat trick. Life is good for the Bread Man. pic.twitter.com/fji1YP8Hzq
— NHL (@NHL) February 18, 2016
Panarin should be the odds-on favorite to win. On Wednesday night, the Breadman became the first rookie to reach the 20 goal mark, and he didn’t stop there. He also netted goals 21 and 22 for his first NHL hat trick. In fact, Panarin took all of three shots on goal on Wednesday night. All three found the back of the net. The first was a go-ahead goal, the second was also the go-ahead goal after the Rangers surged back, and the final goal was an empty-netter that sealed the deal and put the game out of reach once and for all.
Don’t misunderstand, Larkin is deserving as well, but there is no way he should take the hardware from Panarin unless he has some late season heroics up his sleeve.
In 59 games played, Panarin has accrued 57 points (22 goals, 35 assists), and he currently holds the lead in points, assists, and goals. In fact, he leads Buffalo’s Jack Eichel (a Calder favorite since the draft) in points by 18, Larkin by four in goals, and Arizona’s Max Domi by 12 in assists. All players who have been in the Calder conversation for most of the season. In fact, Panarin is also holding fourth among all rookies in +/- at a +10 behind Dallas’ Mattias Janmark, St. Louis’ Colton Parayko, and Larkin.
Chemistry, Not Coat Tails
Of course, there are also those who will argue that he is riding on Patrick Kane’s coat tails, but there is little doubt Kane has benefitted from his two Russian linemates just as much, if not more.
Kane and Panarin have developed some kind of chemistry. Here's your game-winner.https://t.co/13ehumM2D3
— NHL (@NHL) February 18, 2016
At the end of the day, Panarin was going to make a splash wherever he landed in the NHL, just as Eichel, Connor McDavid and Larkin would have done. All four have had a positive impact on their teams, and that is really what the Calder Trophy is all about.
Panarin has been given all the responsibility of a veteran forward in Chicago. He plays on the power play; He protects the puck well, and he is a solid defensive forward. He is, in essence, the mirror image of Kane. He plays a very similar style on the opposite side of the ice. Both players are dynamic and have the ability to craft plays as if they had been scripted and rehearsed hundreds of times.
They are both electrifying and have fans on both sides sitting on the edge of their seats night in and night out. At times the two play as if they are on the ice all alone. Their passes go tape to tape as if the two share some otherworldly connection. In fact, there are times when the two of them look like big cats playing with a bunch of tiny mice as they bat the puck around before finally sending the puck behind the opposing netminder.
The pair of them makes a heated stretch run look like pond hockey. There is no disputing that the two are having fun out there while others are in full on battle mode at this stage of the NHL season.
Toews said he was joking with Kane that Kane "didn't seem quite himself" without Panarin when the rookie was sick.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) February 18, 2016
Three’s a Charm
Add Artem Anisimov to the mix and you have the most potent offensive line in the league with over a ten point lead on the Dallas Stars trio of Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, and Tyler Seguin. The three forwards have had an almost instant chemistry, and Kane has finally gotten a pair of stable linemates. Something he hasn’t had in years, if ever in his career.
— Blackhawks SPORTalk (@SPORTalkBHawks) February 16, 2016
Anisimov brings a steadying presence to his two high-flying wingers. He happily steps in to provide net front presence and battles to put away whatever stray pucks come his way. He has quietly put together one of his best years with 18 goals, 15 assists, 33 points and he is a +9. They are not his best numbers, but he still has time to get there with 21 games left to play. What has become clear is that this season has been his breakout year in terms of the impact he has made on his team.
There is no mistaking the importance of each player on this line. As we have seen all season, Jonathan Toews has battled to find consistency without a steady pair of wingers since the loss of Brandon Saad. Where his line had been the steady one in the last couple of seasons, that torch has now been passed to the second unit. Of course,
Of course, Toews is still one of the best two-way forwards, and he will impact games regardless of his linemates, but there is little doubt the team is still reeling from the loss of Saad on that top line. You simply don’t lose a power forward like that without some setbacks. Andrew Shaw has proven yet again that he is a versatile piece of the puzzle for the Blackhawks, giving the top line some stability, but at the end of the day coach Quenneville would like to find a more permanent solution for Toews and Hossa (when he returns from a lower body injury).
While Panarin and his linemates might be a big part of the narrative in Chicago, the winds of change are coming for many teams throughout the NHL, and the Blackhawks are not immune.
There has been little more than whispers, however, it seems that two solid options would be Mikkel Boedker of Arizona or Andrew Ladd from Winnipeg. Ladd is a familiar face having been a part of the 2010 Stanley Cup Championship team, and would be a solid bet to shore up the top line though his $4.4 million dollar cap hit could be prohibitive.
Boedker is more within the Blackhawks realm of possibility at a more affordable $3.75 million. The two players have similar numbers on the year with Boedker at 37 points and Ladd at 30. Neither player is particularly outstanding on the +/- side with Boedker at -26 and Ladd at -10, but that is more than likely attributed to the teams that they play for.
Another option that has been mentioned before is Kris Versteeg. I firmly believe that he would still be in an Indianhead sweater if the Blackhawks could have unloaded Bryan Bickell over the summer. A third return could be in the cards, and he is having another solid year in Carolina.
Versteeg has 11 goals, 21 assists, 32 points and is a +1 on the season. He is by far the most economical of the three forwards with his $2.2 million dollar cap hit, and he is comfortable in the Blackhawks system.
One downside that could sway the Blackhawks away from Versteeg is that he is the smallest of the three at 5’11” with Boedker coming in at 6’0″ and Ladd at 6’3″. The Blackhawks may opt to go with size if they can grab either Ladd or Boedker without giving up too much in return. Whichever way they go, it seems likely they will be targeting a forward to play on the left side of Toews, and roll with the defense as it stands.
How Much Will the Blackhawks Mortgage on Their Future?
Some of the names that have come into play on the trade front have been Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, Marko Dano, Mark McNeill, and of course, the unsinkable Bickell. While Shaw and Teravainen might get the most in return, I think trading either player would be a huge mistake.
Both are versatile forwards who can slot in anywhere in the lineup, be it the left side, right side, or center. Shaw also brings an edge, but more importantly, he is one of the beating hearts of this team. When the team needs a boost, he always finds a way to give it to them whether it’s with a greasy goal, a gritty board battle, or dropping the gloves.
Kruger seems unlikely as they would love to roll into the playoffs with Toews, Anisimov, Phillip Danault and Kruger up the middle and that would be a formidable foursome to be certain. However, the play of Danault has made re-signing Kruger over the summer more of an option than a certainty at this point.
Dano certainly could command a decent price, but I think the Blackhawks would like to see what they have before pulling the trigger with him, but this one is far from an impossibility. The ideal move here would be to bait the hook with a talented player like Dano (or perhaps another player) and unload Bickell while retaining some of his cap. It seems highly unlikely Bickell goes anywhere as long as he has a $4 million dollar anchor around his neck, but at $2 million with a top notch prospect, this deal is a solid maybe.
McNeill is unlikely to be the only player involved in a deal, so he would have to move as a part of a larger package deal. He has only played one NHL game in his career, but he does have some upside for a team that has time to be patient.
Whatever may come, the Blackhawks are preparing for another deep playoff run, and it is clear that Stan Bowman is up to the task.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske