Artemi Panarin (Bill Smith/Getty Images)
Artemi Panarin isn’t Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, but the 23-year-old Russian rookie dazzled in his debut for Chicago. While it’s too soon to consider him a surefire Calder candidate, Panarin could be a deadly weapon for the Blackhawks.
He can’t talk directly to Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and following a game in which he scored his first career goal on Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers netminder admitted post-game that he didn’t even know to pronounce the name of “that young guy.” But after one game, Artemi Panarin is showing why he was one of the most intriguing free agents to come out of the KHL.
In his 2014-15 campaign, the 23-year-old played alongside some outstanding KHL talent, including former NHLers such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Thoresen and Dmitri Kalinen, but it was Panarin, not the veterans around him, who led SKA St. Petersburg in scoring with 26 goals and 62 points. There was good reason for him to be a hot commodity in the international free agent market, with reportedly six teams showing serious interest in the young winger.
When the Blackhawks inked him to a two-year, entry-level contract that will pay him $812,500 over the next two seasons, it included an out-clause: were Panarin to be sent to the AHL out of training camp, he would be able to return to Russia. But for reasons that were obvious to almost everyone with eyes on the Blackhawks’ No. 72 on opening night in Chicago, that clause didn’t get put to use.
Throughout training camp, he impressed the coaching staff and earned praise from Quenneville, whose Blackhawks have been notoriously difficult for young players to crack. Even in defeat Wednesday night, Quenneville said he was more than pleased with what he saw out of Panarin.
“Panarin was fun to watch tonight,” Quenneville said post-game. “We call him ‘Bread Man.’ He looked like he had the puck all night. (His) line was effective and dangerous, so I think it was a good start for him.”
That good start included Panarin’s aforementioned first NHL goal, a perfectly placed wristshot right under the glove of one of the best goaltenders in the league in Lundqvist.
For his first game in the NHL, Panarin looked right at home, even if it’s incredibly obvious he isn’t. In post-game scrums, he is communicating via teammate Viktor Tikhonov and Quenneville quipped that he uses Artem Anisimov or Tikhonov — “whoever’s closer” — to talk with the rookie. That hasn’t stopped Quenneville from slotting Panarin onto the second line, though.
“It’s a big honor that I’m trusted to play with (Anisimov and Kane),” Panarin told media post-game. “I’m going to try as hard as I can to not let the guys down. Hopefully in the future, the chemistry is going to grow and we’ll get better.”
If he doesn’t feel as though the chemistry is there quite yet with his linemates, he himself certainly appeared to have found his own comfort zone. He was smooth with the puck on his stick, didn’t make bad decisions when pressured and when trotted out on the second power play unit — his 31 seconds with the extra man were all he got in a game the Blackhawks had the man advantage just once — made a beautiful cross-ice pass to Marian Hossa that almost certainly would have been a goal were Hossa a right-handed shot.
Much of the hubbub leading up to the beginning of the season has been concerning two sure-to-be star rookies, Buffalo’s Jack Eichel and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. Maybe in the hype surrounding the 2015 draft’s 1-2 duo the fact Panarin is a rookie has gotten lost in the shuffle. And unlike McDavid or Eichel, Panarin is coming to the NHL after six seasons of playing against grown men and he immediately showed his ability.
That said, it has been just one game and there are still those who have very valid questions about Panarin’s ability to play within the Blackhawks’ system, especially under a coach in Quenneville who preaches defensive responsibility over almost anything else. Panarin’s mistakes, when they come, won’t come without punishment in the form of lost minutes.
Whatever is to come for Panarin, it’s too soon to call him a dark horse candidate for the Calder Trophy, but if he can string together more nights like his NHL debut, he stands a great shot at being up alongside the McDavids and Eichels when the 2015-16 season ends.