Panik’s Start Cause for Concern?

When the Chicago Blackhawks traded for Richard Panik in January of 2016, he couldn’t crack the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster. His 2015-16 season was spent split between the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, and eventually the Blackhawks. In 33 games with the Marlies, Panik scored nine goals and 25 points. Following his trade to the ‘Hawks, Panik recorded six goals and eight points in 30 games as well as three points in six games in the playoffs.

Fast-forward to the 2016-17 season, and Panik has scored six goals (on nine shots) and eight points in just six games. While many are ecstatic about the production from the 25-year-old Slovakian forward, some are skeptical about how sustainable Panik’s production could be. As it stands, Panik holds a shooting percentage of 66% through his first six games of the season.

How Sustainable Is a Shooting Percentage of 66% Over the Course of an 82-Game Season?

The simple answer is: not very.

Over the last few seasons, the average shooting percentage in the league has hovered around nine percent: 2012 – 9.11%, 2013 – 8.89%, 2014 – 8.9% and 8.98% in 2015.

Richard Panik
(John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Expecting Panik to keep up this shooting percentage is unreasonable, and will lead to a lot of disappointment as the season rolls along for those that think it will hold up. While Panik won’t score on 66% of his shots taken, he has shown a tendency to score at a higher rate than the NHL average in the past.

In his first season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Panik played in 25 games, took 34 shots, and scored five goals – good for a 14.7 shooting percentage. In his sophomore season, Panik played in 50 games, took 56 shots, and scored just three goals. His shooting percentage was recorded at 5.4%. It’s possible that this was an anomaly, however, as he rebounded well when playing in Toronto.

In his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Panik skated in 76 games, took 87 shots, and scored 11 goals – good for a 12.6 shooting percentage. It’s possible that the Blackhawks saw this trait from Panik; one that the Maple Leafs apparently didn’t, and took a gamble. That gamble paid off for the Blackhawks as Panik skated in 30 games with the club to close out the season, taking 39 shots and scoring six goals – a 15.4 shooting percentage. It’s clear that Panik has a knack for scoring goals when he shoots the puck, but there in-lies the make-or-break point for the NHL’s leading goal scorer.

Shooting More Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Scoring More

On the surface, it looks like the solution for Panik is simple; keep shooting the puck at all times. What’s worked for Panik in the past, however, has been his ability to carefully select his shots and capitalize on them. What that means, is that Panik can start shooting more, but that won’t necessarily translate to goals over the course of an 82-game season. It’s advisable to shoot the puck when getting a good look on net, and while Panik is certainly conservative in his shot-selection, he’d be best to not start shooting just for the sake of it. Carefully selecting his shots, but increasing his shot total over the course of a season, however, could lead Panik to more sustainable success and legitimate top-line figures.

While skating alongside team captain Jonathan Toews’ on his right wing, Panik has shown that he is capable of doing more with his ice-time than he has in previous years. While averaging his highest time-on-ice in his career thus far (16:21 per game so far this season), Panik has been able to produce the best hockey that he ever has. Despite this, however, the Blackhawks have started the season in mediocre fashion, holding a record of 3-3 with 23 goals-for, and 22-goals against.

The Blackhawks are trying something new to start the season with Marian Hossa patrolling the Blackhawks bottom-six, rather than his typical spot alongside Captain Serious. Despite the win/loss record, the experiment has worked so far with Panik alongside Toews, although the sample size is seriously limited.

Realistic Reactions to Panik’s Success

It’s easy to look at the success of Panik and proclaim that he’ll be the next prolific goal-scorer in the league. It’s easy, but it’s not necessarily the correct take. As it stands, some people who have been around Panik, including his former head coach in Mike Babcock, have made some comments on Panik’s start to the season with level-heads.

Babcock’s take on Panik was an interesting one.

The first time I saw Panik play was in the Calder Cup finals (With Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate)…and the two games I went to, Panik was the best player and then, for whatever reason, it took some time. He didn’t make our team at the start last year. He was in the minors (and Chicago) made a minor league deal for him.

Obviously we didn’t have the same value for him as the Hawks do and he’s proving them right, but sometimes it takes two or three stops for a young man to figure out what he is. But he’s playing with a real good player in Toews and he’s around the net and he’s a big body; he can shoot the puck, so good for him.

– Mike Babcock

Babcock’s comments acknowledge that Panik is a good talent who has the potential to do bigger things than he has in previous years. They also indicate that Panik is playing under good circumstances alongside Toews, and, that, along with some other factors, could play a role in the sudden improvement in Panik’s game.

Richard Panik
Apr 9, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Richard Panik (14) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Panik seems to agree with Babcock. While Panik has clearly played at an extra level to start the year thus far, he hasn’t let it get to his head too much – at least that’s how it seems.

“Maybe I’m a little lucky,” Panik said. “I’m just trying to find space in front of the net and that’s the spot goals are scored from.”

Toews, Panik’s linemate, and captain, seemed to know that Panik would be able to produce for the Blackhawks. Even with those expectations, however, Toews wasn’t prepared for the white-hot start to the season that Panik has actually had.

“We didn’t expect six goals in six games,” Toews said. “But we knew he was going to be an offensive threat for us. He has shown it consistently.”

Should the Blackhawks “Panik?”

While Panik’s offense may not continue to flow with a 66% shooting percentage, there’s no reason to believe he hasn’t finally put it together this season. At just 25-years-old and finally getting the opportunity he needed, Panik has thrived. Taking advantage of a good opportunity like this as it arose is a good sign for what Blackhawks fans can expect from Panik, even if he’s been a career bottom six, or AHL forward prior to this season.

When Panik eventually, and inevitably slows down, Blackhawks fans should take some time before they start to doubt the young winger. Toews seems to have faith in Panik, and without a suitable in-house option currently in place with a more proven track-record, the Blackhawks would be wise to afford Panik every opportunity they can to develop him into a proven top-six option.