Part 15 of a series analyzing the New York Rangers.
An evaluation of Artemi Panarin’s first season on Broadway becomes a measurement against history.
A measure against the greatest players in the 2019-20 NHL. A measure against the best offensive seasons in Rangers history. A measure against the best free-agent signee debuts in New York pro sports history.
Panarin brought game, he brought class, he brought a twinkle in his eyes with him from Columbus (or Moscow) to New York and was simply a delight to behold on the ice and with whom to interact in the room.
There are not many athletes who have come to New York for that kind of cash and have had the ability to laugh off the inherent pressure and life in the spotlight that comes with it the way Panarin did this season. There are not many athletes with the ability to elevate the performances of everyone around him the way the Breadman delivered.
The best first seasons of free agent signees in New York/New Jersey: 1. Reggie Jackson, Yankees, 1977; 2. Amar’e Stoudemire, Knicks, 2010-11; 3. Curtis Martin, Jets, 1998; 4. C.C. Sabathia, Yankees, 2009; 5. Panarin; 6. Wayne Gretzky, Rangers, 1996-97; 7. Scott Stevens, Devils, 1993-94; 8. Plaxico Burress, Giants, 2005; 9. Catfish Hunter, Yankees, 1975; 10. Pedro Martinez, Mets, 2005 (TBD: Kevin Durant, Nets).
Of the top 10, seven have something in common. That is, they led their respective teams to the playoffs. Hunter did not while pitching for the Yankees in their second and final season at Shea. And it appears as if Panarin ultimately will not have the chance to do so.
He will all but certainly have to wait until next year and that means he will have to wait for next year to win the Hart Trophy, too. Everyone around the league knows what he did, but Leon Draisaitl pulled off some pretty neat tricks himself in somehow overshadowing and outscoring Connor McDavid and did so for an Oilers team ensconced in a playoff spot when the music stopped. Sorry, but that matters in this balloting.
Honestly, though, every time Panarin stepped on the ice, there was the prospect — or maybe even the promise — of magic. Every time No. 10 hopped over the boards, you inched a little closer toward the edge of your seat. There have not been many Rangers over the last quarter century to elicit that response. In fact, there has been one.
And that was Jaromir Jagr in 2005-06, when he established franchise records of 54 goals and 123 points and was the leader of the band that ended the team’s seven-year playoff drought. Prague, USA, was the address of the Rangers’ room, the team revolving around the contingent that featured No. 68 with Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Petr Prucha, Petr Sykora, Michal Rozsival, Marek Malik and Marcel Hossa.
Pavel Bure was electrifying the final weeks of 2002-03 after his deadline acquisition from the Panthers, but he played 12 games for the Rangers that year. The fact that the Russian Rocket scored 31 goals in 51 games on essentially one knee as a Blueshirt is one of the more remarkable feats I’ve witnessed covering this team.
By the way, on hockey-reference.com, if you type in Pavel B in the player search, three players come up on the autofill: Pavel Bure, Pavel Buchnevich and Pavel Brendl. But back to our story.
See, everyone knew Panarin’s talent level when he went onto the market last summer. But the irrepressible joy with which he played had to be seen every day to be appreciated and so did his conscientious work on the boards, in the one-on-one’s, and in getting back to take care of his responsibilities without the puck. His body- and stick-positioning were almost always perfect. His vision, remarkable, and his ability to get the puck through, rare. And he can skate.
The Russian Rockette opened on Zibanejad’s left for the first seven games before David Quinn moved him to Ryan Strome’s unit that included Jesper Fast on the other side. Panarin, who recorded a career-high 32 goals, probably earned Strome millions more on his next contract while parceling out the puck.
The Breadman Delivery Service at its finest.
Panarin was on for 127 of the Rangers’ 233 goals, 54.5 percent. He was on for 88 of the 173 not scored on the power play, or 50.1 percent. In 2005-06, Jagr was on 152 of the Blueshirts’ 257 goals, 59.1 percent, and for 86 of the 163 non-power-play-goals, 52.7 percent. Meanwhile, can I just say this: Gretzky was on for 265 of the 1981-82 Oilers’ 417 goals, 63.5 percent, while going plus-100.
It was Oct. 7, 2015, the Rangers were in Chicago to open the season. Panarin, undrafted, and now clearly the best undrafted player to break into the league in the salary-cap era, was making his debut after signing with the Blackhawks as a free agent following a process that was tilted in Chicago’s favor.
He wore No. 72 and he was dazzling. He beat Henrik Lundqvist by burying a two-on-one feed from Patrick Kane at 14:24 of the first period. He was here, he was there, he was everywhere. Unforgettable. After the match that the Blueshirts won 3-2 after having been kept in their room for more than an hour during the most obnoxious Cup banner raising ceremony in history, I asked a Rangers executive how hard they’d been in on Panarin.
“We weren’t,” he said, grimacing during a chat that was off the record. “Our scout [he named the name] over there didn’t like him all that much.”