Artemi Panarin dominated the New York Islanders in his first game since he chose to sign with the New York Rangers last summer. He was the best player on the ice for either team, scoring two goals along with three assists. Given the caliber of his play this season, the stellar performance wasn’t all that surprising.
Even by his high standards, Panarin been outstanding. He has played the best hockey of his career in his first season after signing a seven-year, $81.5-million contract with the Rangers. He scored a career-high 87 points last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. This season he already has 67 points and is on pace for 122. He’s also on pace for 47 goals, which would shatter his current career-high of 31, which he had with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016-17.
On a team filled with players who have struggled to perform consistently, Panarin has been the Blueshirts’ most reliable player. He leads the team in goals with 26, assists with 41, and in plus/minus at plus-23. Ryan Strome is second on the team in points with 42 and Jesper Fast is second on the team in plus/minus at plus-15. Both have benefited enormously from playing on a line with Panarin.
Unlike many of the league’s top forwards this season, Panarin is not playing with star linemates. Fast has spent the majority of his career as a fourth-liner and penalty-killer. He finished last season with 20 points, while Strome had 35 points. They’ve both already surpassed last season’s point total and there are still 37 games remaining.
Not only has Panarin elevated the play of his linemates, but playing with Fast and Strome has benefitted the Rangers by allowing them to keep a line of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Pavel Buchnevich together. Splitting up the team’s top winger and top center means opponents can’t play their top defense pair against both Panarin and Zibanejad at the same time.
The Rangers power play percentage has also improved since acquiring Panarin and is 20.4 percent so far this season, up from 19.4 percent last year. He leads the team with six power-play goals and 15 power-play points. He’s on pace to set career-highs in both categories. The Rangers have a very young power-play unit and they rely on Panarin to be the quarterback of it all.
Every time Panarin has a shift the ice feels tilted in the Rangers favor. Every time he gets the puck in the offensive zone it feels like a scoring opportunity. Head coach David Quinn said his teammates play with more confidence when Panarin is on the ice with them.
Panarin hasn’t just impressed with his dazzling playmaking ability and offensive skill. Numerous times he has hustled back on defense to prevent scoring opportunities for opponents. For the most part, he has limited his giveaways and positioned himself well in the defensive zone.
Panarin has also been excellent in winning battles for loose pucks. While young players, including Kaapo Kakko, are often out-muscled for loose pucks, Panarin rarely is, despite his small stature. His line often keeps pucks alive in the offensive zone, which allows them to create more scoring chances. When the Rangers gain possession of the puck in their offensive zone, teammates look to get the puck to Panarin so he can make plays.
While the Rangers are still on the outside of the playoff picture, they are better than last season and Panarin is the main reason for their improvement. He was a star in each of his first four seasons and has been even better so far this season. It’s still early but he has played like a Hart Trophy candidate. If he continues to play at this level, he will have one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history.