Despite the growing concerns about their deteriorating play at even strength over the past calendar year or so, the Chicago Blackhawks have found ways to bank enough wns to sit comfortably atop the Western Conference standings. They’ve managed to overcome their suspect underlying shot metrics in large part due to the brilliance of their goaltenders, who have combined to lead the league with a sparkling .949 five-on-five save percentage this season.
What happens to the Blackhawks should that number dip will be something to monitor and worth re-visiting on another day. And dip it almost certainly will, considering that the only team since 2007 to stop more than 94 per cent of their opponents’ shots over the course of a full season were the 2010-11 Boston Bruins with a 94.1 per cent clip.
The other big contributing factor to Chicago’s early success has been the excellence of Artemi Panarin in his sophomore campaign. While it’s not necessarily surprising that he’s having a great season after scoring 77 points in 80 games as a rookie en route to winning the Calder Trophy, the fact he’s made the jump to being arguably the most impactful skater on a team that features Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith has been a noteworthy revelation.
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Breaking through the perennial stranglehold Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron have on any shot differential metric is a fool’s errand, but the fact Panarin looks so good compared to essentially everyone else who’s appeared in at least half of their team’s games this season is what’s key.
It’s interesting that Chicago’s ability to stay afloat territorially has seemingly been dependant on whether or not Panarin has been on the ice. With him out there, the Blackhawks have controlled 57.5 per cent of all shots attempted during the course of five-on-five play. Without him, that number dips all of the way down to 46.9 per cent.
It was just this past week when all of that finally started to manifest itself into tangible on-ice results, when he accumulated a whopping 10 points in just four games and was named the league’s ‘First Star of the Week’. That torrid stretch not only made him the leading scorer on his team, but also vaulted him into a tie for eighth in the NHL in goals and fifth in points.
For our selfish purposes as spectators and fans of the game, maybe most important of all is the manner in which Panarin has gone about producing all of that offence. Since coming into the league he’s been nothing short of dazzling, displaying the type of uninhibited patience and creativity with the puck that should not only be encouraged but actually emphasized far more emphatically than it has been in the past across all levels of North American hockey.
One particularly devastating move he’s relied upon to dissect opposing defences has been the one highlighted below, where he niftily slips through multiple defenders by gently finessing the puck towards an open sheet of ice and then going to get it. This is Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, one of the most impenetrable pairings in the league, who he effortlessly carves up like a knife through hot butter to create a quality scoring chance:
The beauty of the move is that when executed properly, it’s essentially unstoppable. It all happens so fast that the defender can’t really anticipate where the attacker is going. Cheating in an attempt to reach the spot first isn’t really an option, because all that does is leave an open lane straight to the net. For a defender, it turns into a game of ‘pick your poison’: either let him get through and hope the goalie bails you out, or impede him with your stick and go sit in the penalty box for up to two minutes.
While Panarin has mastered it, he’s hardly the only one who uses it. With the heavy influx of young skill coming into the NHL over the past couple of seasons, we’ve seen more and more guys start to do it with growing regularity. Like Connor McDavid, for example, whose unfair combination of speed and puck skills is a problem other teams haven’t had any success solving. He’s drawn a league-leading 17 penalties at five-on-five this season, and his ability to force defenders into that kind of a dilemma with his speed is a big reason why.
Another instrumental part of Panarin’s arsenal we need to recognize is the proficiency with which he and running mate Kane are able to create scoring opportunities with their cross-ice passing schemes. While the idea of shot quality is still a topic we’re collectively trying to get a better grasp on, the insightful work by people like Steve Valiquette and Ryan Stimson (and everyone involved with ‘The Passing Project’) has helped more tangibly quantify concepts that we would’ve intuitively suspected to begin with.
Like the idea that your chances of putting the puck into the net markedly increase once you get the goalie moving laterally. Goalies are so good these days that if you allow them to get set and square up on the shooter, the likelihood of them stopping the puck seems to increase exponentially.
One way to swing the odds back in favour of the shooter is to crisply move the puck from one side of the ice to the other with the intent of creating cleaner shooting lanes as defenders and goalies scramble around. Panarin and Kane have mastered that, routinely passing up on what seem like good scoring chances for great scoring chances instead.
In today’s NHL the two of them are as good as it gets when it comes to moving the puck east-to-west through that imaginary ‘royal road’ area of the ice. The vision to see the play forming ahead of time is one thing, as is the requisite skill it takes to thread the pass through, but what makes them special is that aforementioned willingness to experiment with the puck and try things that most other players wouldn’t attempt in the first place.
The biggest beneficiary of this phenomenon has been Artem Anisimov, who has been making a living this season by ostensibly just making sure he’s standing in the right place at the right time whenever Panarin or Kane have been ready to deliver the puck to him:
Where Panarin and the Blackhawks go from here is shaping up to be a fascinating subplot the rest of the season. Thanks to his unique status last year as a 24-year old rookie after defecting from the KHL, he’s due a new contract after this season and should earn a significant pay raise from the $812,500 he’s currently making against the salary cap.
If there was any doubt surrounding the legitimacy of Panarin’s abilities heading into the season, it’s surely been washed away now. His rookie campaign was not just a byproduct of getting to play alongside a great player — it actually looks like what he did last season is just the tip of the iceberg for what he is capable of through his prime offensive years.
While Chicago GM Stan Bowman and his staff have had plenty of experience shifting money around to make it work in the past couple of years, this could be one of their toughest challenges just because of how tight up against the cap they already are and how much Panarin would be justified in asking for.
The reality is that unlike some of the other quality talent the Blackhawks have had to begrudgingly part ways with during this era of sustained excellence, even just the thought of losing a player the caliber of Panarin is an unpalatable one. Regardless of what he winds up costing, Panarin’s performance this year has made it clear he’ll be worth every penny.