Scoring at a point per game pace, Artemi Panarin now has 15 points in 15 games. On the surface, there really aren’t too many red flags about his game.
That’s the thing about elite players — even when they aren’t performing at their best, they can still put up points and be difference-makers for their teams.
But a closer look below the surface shows that, despite his scoring, Panarin hasn’t been at his best to start the 2021-22 season.
So what’s gone wrong for the Rangers’ leading winger to start the year?
Panarin’s scoring, though impressive at a point per game, actually doesn’t even match his usual pace. Through his New York tenure alone, he netted 96 points in 65 games and followed that up with 58 in 42 last season. Those two seasons actually landed him with the best scoring rates of his career when weighing ice time, peaking at 4.22 points per 60 minutes in 2020-21. Both were also condensed seasons, so there’s always a chance of a player’s scoring lessening across a longer stretch of games. But in the early goings of this season, to compare, he’s scoring three points per 60 which, when stacking up to years past, is the second-lowest rate of his career.
To Panarin's credit, it’s only been 15 games on a team acclimating (and struggling, especially at 5-on-5), to a new coaching staff. There’s up to 67 more regular season games for him to take off.
Plus he had to shake off some of the off-season’s rust without his steady linemates.
Ryan Strome has become Panarin’s mainstay centre, and the duo is working with a somewhat new member of their trio in Kaapo Kakko, who saw limited time with them last year.
Jesper Fast and Colin Blackwell typically filled that role over the past two years, providing some defensive support to the puck-carrier on the left and his primary centre. Strome missed the team’s early road trip to Canada, then Kakko was injured. That meant Panarin spent time alongside Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow, as well as Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
With Strome and Panarin deployed, the Rangers have generated about 58 per cent of the even strength expected goal share, which their actual goals for percentage matches.
In Panarin's minutes away from Strome, not only did his offensive generation dip, but so did the team’s shot suppression. To compare, in Panarin's stints with Zibanejad and Goodrow, the Rangers were conceding over 60 per cent of the expected goal share.
Adjusting to a new system and having some changes in linemates in the early days of the season may explain some of Panarin’s start. It doesn’t help that the team’s shooting below seven per cent when he’s deployed at 5-on-5, too. But through 15 games, the Rangers are still conceding more than they generate in terms of both quality and quantity with their star player deployed, which is uncharacteristic for him.
Panarin’s transitional game is elite; his quick thinking and evasiveness help him move the puck up the ice with possession while creating time and space for his teammates. That’s why his entries can result in a successful play or quality chance after.
To start this season, he’s carrying the puck into the offensive zone at a lower rate than last year by about four entries per 60. He’s generally the primary puck-carrier on his line, and overall, one of the most reliable forwards at bringing the puck in with possession on his team. So when he isn’t at that top level, it can show.
Once in the offensive zone, Panarin's passing rate also falls short of last year. The puck-distributor is actually attempting fewer passes (about nine per 60), and subsequently, succeeding at a lower rate. He’s making fewer east-to-west passes to force goaltenders to move laterally, and moving the puck to the slot less often.
The key is, when he has been successful, it’s often showed up on the scoresheet because he has that game-changing ability.
While his numbers may have dipped from year-to-year -- by three primary passes per 60 -- Panarin’s still leading the team’s forwards at threading passes that directly lead to shot attempts. Panarin’s 58 primary shot assists rank fourth in the league among forwards, but when accounting for his playing time, that ranking drops to 14th. To compare, last year with 18.3 primary shot assist per 60, Panarin was third in the league. That may be a result of possessing the puck less in the offensive zone compared to last season (although it’s not for a lack of trying, as he’s still forcing a high rate of takeaways).
When Panarin isn’t at his best, he’s usually still above average. But on the 2021-22 Rangers, they need him to be at his best because they heavily rely on their top end talent to make up for some of the skill they lack in their depth -- even more so now that they’re down a winger in Sammy Blais.
Along with 5-on-5 play, Panarin also generally is an impact player on the power play. That’s where the winger’s scored eight points this season, primarily assists — and his positioning may have some influence here.
Panarin’s more of a passer, but since joining the Rangers, he’s actively increased his shooting -- and that extends to the power play. Some of that may be because of his prime positioning at the left circle, which bumped Zibanejad, the team’s best shot, to the slot upon his arrival. Between his shooting, passing, and vision, Panarin’s become an essential dual-threat on the man-advantage in New York.
But when the team’s power play struggled earlier this season, Zibanejad and his right-handed shot moved back to the left circle. That shifted Panarin and his right-handed shot to the right circle, which lessened his ability to one-time the puck and his shooting angle.
Overall, he’s actually shooting at a higher rate in this year’s very limited sample (we’re dealing with the #SmallSampleEffect no matter what when there’s only 15 games on the season; breaking it down to just power play time only shrinks it), which helps show the difference in his game from switching sides. With 40.6 total attempts per 60 minutes of play, he’s increased his shooting by about six more attempts per 60 than last year, and 10 more than the year prior. But the puck hasn’t actually reached the net more often than years past despite shooting it more; a higher percentage of his shots are missing the net compared to years past. But what’s also noteworthy is how few shots actually came from Panarin’s stint in the right circle.
And his placement on the right may explain his increased attempts to set up his teammates. Panarin was in a passing position while on the right and made it very clear that the idea was to feed the player in the left circle. He’s been threading his teammates for a one-timer at a higher rate, and passing east-to-west more often. That clicks with the Rangers’ shooting tendencies on the man-advantage, since most of their offence comes from the left or somewhere in front of the crease, but rarely on the right. What may also account for increased passing were shots taken that his teammates, primarily Kreider, redirected on net.
Now, Panarin's taking more reps back on the left and already looking more like the multi-dimensional threat on the power play the team needs him to be. And that’s helped the team find more sustainable success on the power play past just some early season luck.
If the Rangers are going to have success this season and reach their goal of the playoffs, they’re going to need Panarin to play his best hockey. He did that against the Blue Jackets and Devils this past weekend, with crisp passing and increased shooting. Ideally, that’s a sign that his game is trending in the right direction.
Until that’s the case consistently, though, at least the team’s still getting production from one of their top players who has shown that he can change the tide of a game in minutes even when he’s having an off night.
Data via Sportlogiq