It feels like ages ago but at this time one year ago, the New York Rangers had just signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract and drafted Kaapo Kakko with the second pick of the NHL Draft. Kakko was the team’s reward for a dreadful regular season and signing Panarin showed that New York was ready to transition from rebuilding to contending.
While Kakko has had a decent, but somewhat disappointing season, Panarin has been spectacular and has changed the Rangers’ culture. The team made several key acquisitions in the offseason but Panarin has been the driving force behind the Blueshirts’ rise this season.
Panarin Has Elevated the Play of His Linemates
Early in the season, it became clear that Panarin did not need to play with star linemates to produce offensively. David Quinn, New York’s head coach, decided to move him from a line with Mika Zibanejad to a line with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. Panarin quickly developed chemistry with his new linemates and Quinn’s decision has created two excellent lines for the Blueshirts.
Panarin is the team’s best playmaker and he has repeatedly set up Strome and Fast. He has also proven to be an elite goal scorer, who finishes when he gets opportunities. He has 32 goals and 63 assists in 69 games and was on pace for well over 100 points when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is also plus-36, which is the second-best plus-minus in the NHL this season.
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Strome has a career-high 59 points (18 goals and 41 assists) in 70 games. His previous best was 50 points, which he had in 2014-15. Just last season, he was on the verge of being out of the NHL when he had just one goal and one assist in 18 games with the Edmonton Oilers. The Rangers acquired him in exchange for Ryan Spooner and he ended last season with 19 goals and 16 assists. He has developed into an offensive weapon for New York while playing with Panarin and has become much more confident in the offensive zone.
Fast, known as an excellent defensive forward, has 12 goals and 17 assists in 69 games. He was on pace for a career-high in goals and points when the season was suspended. He struggled offensively last season and finished with eight goals and 12 assists in 66 games. This season, with Panarin as his linemate, he has been more confident and aggressive offensively.
In addition to elevating his linemates’ offensive production, Panarin has been responsible defensively, as has everyone else on the line. They aren’t just selling out for offense and they are just as valuable when the Rangers are holding onto a lead as they are when the team needs to score a goal.
Panarin Has Improved the Rangers’ Power Play
Panarin has also been excellent on the power play. He has seven goals and 17 assists on New York’s power play this season. As a team, they have converted on 22.9 percent of their power-play chances, which is seventh best in the league. Last season they were 17th in the league at 19.4 percent.
Panarin is an elite playmaker and he has excelled on the power play, repeatedly using his vision to complete difficult passes and set up teammates. Zibanejad had 15 power-play goals in 57 games this season. He had 11 power-play goals in 82 games last season. Chris Kreider has nine power-play goals in 63 games this season. He finished with seven power plays in 79 games last season.
Panarin’s ability to control the puck and set up teammates has helped everyone else on New York’s power-play unit. He also commands attention from opposing penalty killers, which gives everyone else on the Rangers more time and space.
Panarin’s Play Against the Islanders
One of the most painful parts of the Rangers’ rebuild was repeatedly losing to the rival New York Islanders, who have developed into a playoff contender. The Blueshirts only won two of their eight matchups against the Islanders in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Despite the team’s struggles in recent seasons, it was reported that Panarin chose to sign with the Rangers for less money than the Islanders offered him.
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In his first game against the Islanders as a member of the Rangers, he put on a show at Madison Square Garden and lit up the Islanders for five points, including a highlight-reel goal in a 6-2 victory. The two teams met again just three days later, this time on the road. In front of a hostile crowd, Panarin helped set up a game-winning goal by Kreider with 24.6 seconds remaining in the game. Those games felt like a statement that the Rangers were not going to be bullied and beaten by their rivals this season.
The Islanders won the next game of their season series too. In February, the teams met for one final time in the regular season. The game went into overtime, and in overtime, Panarin drew all three Islanders on the ice to him, then made a beautiful pass to set up Zibanejad, who scored the game-winning goal.
The Blueshirts’ impressive play against their rivals was a big step forward in their rebuild and Panarin led the way.
It has not taken long for Panarin to change the Rangers for the better. His talent and creativity have been on full display and he has elevated the play of every teammate who takes the ice with him. The numbers are impressive but they don’t do justice to just how much he has meant to the Blueshirts this season.
He has changed the team’s culture. After two consecutive seasons with low expectations, this season the players on the Rangers expect to win and have success. His excellent play in crucial moments late in games and in rivalry games has given the team more confidence. In one season, they have gone from rebuilding to becoming a playoff threat. Panarin has already begun building a legacy with the Rangers, and he will have an opportunity to add to it when the season resumes.
It has taken just one season for him to help turn the team around, and there’s no reason to believe that he will slow down anytime soon. That bodes well for this young, hungry group of Rangers. The future certainly looks bright for Panarin and the team.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, rooting for the Rangers, Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. When my dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees fell short, I started writing about sports instead. I’m a proud graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.