The Case for Panarin for League MVP

Earlier this week, Artemi Panarin was among the league’s elite for the prestigious Hart Trophy. Given how well he performed in turning the Rangers into a much improved must see Broadway act, Panarin is definitely worthy of being up for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.

The Bread Man signed on the dotted line over a year ago for a cool $11.6 million average cap hit through 2026. As much as I was a skeptic regarding the total cost, he’s well worth it. In fact, I now view that seven-year, $81.5 million figure as a bargain. Where else can you find a true superstar who makes everyone around them better? Unless you luck into a Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews /Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin or Auston Matthews (I could list more), they don’t grow on trees.

Right now, I feel pretty good about the Rangers’ chances against the Hurricanes in the upcoming best of five preliminary series that begins a week from now in Toronto. No disrespect to the Canes, who are a proven opponent that made last year’s Conference Final. It’s the Rangers who have the best player in the series.

Panarin has been unbelievable in his first season as a Blueshirt. The electrifying 28-year old Russian forward leaves fans breathless with his uncanny ability to possess the puck, control play and find open teammates. Whether it’s his excellent release that is a scoring threat or his dynamic playmaking and vision to thread the needle, this is a driven player who’s unselfish play is refreshing. Who doesn’t love his enthusiasm when a teammate scores? He’s selfless.

Honestly, we should be grateful to have such a superstar. They don’t come around often in the Big Apple. Let’s appreciate how special Panarin is. Thank you to both John Davidson and Jeff Gorton for landing last summer’s big fish. Ditto for poised second-year coach David Quinn, who’s done a masterful job utilizing the Bread Man as he sees fit. It’s that same bench boss many of us questioned, who realized splitting up Panarin and top finisher Mika Zibanejad would be beneficial for the team to have success.

What that translates to is opponents having to pick their poison. Either shadow the Panarin line with the cohesive Ryan Strome and two-way complement Jesper Fast, or match-up against the cohesive KZB line of a now healthy Chris Kreider with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. That gives the Rangers an edge. They know they can send out two dangerous scoring lines that are a threat every shift.

Even better, having Panarin on the top power play unit with Zibanejad, Kreider, Strome and Tony DeAngelo makes them scary. Quinn knows he can count on that five man unit for 90 seconds if they control the puck. The precision passing allows for great scoring opportunities for the trio of Zibanejad, Panarin and DeAngelo. Strome is more playmaker while Kreider can either slide out into the slot for the one-timer or provide the grunt work on front screening goalies. That also includes his nice scoring touch on deflections.

The second unit is nothing to sneeze at either. When Quinn can send out the more traditional three forwards of Filip Chytil, Pavel Buchnevich and Kaapo Kakko along with defensemen Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba, it gives the Rangers a different look. They can look for shots rather quickly or rely on the skill of Fox up top with Buchnevich and Chytil each able to distribute or shoot. Trouba has the green light obviously due to his top heavy shot. Kakko excels on the man-advantage where his confidence grew prior to the pause. He should be more of a scoring threat in seven days.

None of this is possible without Panarin. He’s elevated teammates to higher levels. It’s not a coincidence that Strome and DeAngelo produced career best seasons. So did Zibanejad with a good chunk of it on the power play. However, the top center’s improvement at even strength and on the penalty kill has been due to his commitment.

A potential future captain, he deserves full credit for what he’s done. Taking on more of a leadership role along with Kreider and veteran Marc Staal, Zibanejad has blossomed into a star. He was on fire when the season stopped. With 41 goals including his signature five goal game in a breathtaking 6-5 overtime win over the Caps, he might’ve hit 50 goals. Only three other Rangers have reached that figure. Vic Hadfield. Adam Graves. Jaromir Jagr.

When the Blueshirts line up for real on August 1 to battle the Canes up North, it’ll be with the knowledge that they boast the best player in the series. In 69 games, Panarin registered 32 goals with 63 assists for a total of 95 points and a whopping plus-36 rating that led all NHL forwards. His 95 points tied for third in NHL scoring with omitted Bruins star David Pastrnak. Someone had to be left out of the Hart nomination which includes Art Ross winner Leon Draisaitl (43-67-110) and Nathan MacKinnon (35-58-93). No Connor McDavid either despite the Oilers superstar still finishing second with 97 points (34-63-97) behind teammate Draisaitl.

Of the deserving MVP trio, it’s the Bread Man who paced all skaters in even strength points with 71 points (25-46-71). It exemplifies how valuable he is at five-on-five. Astonishingly, Panarin only wound up with 24 power play points (7-17-24) despite being a constant.

If you were to compare what he did at even strength to Draisaitl, who wound up second with 66 even strength points, it’s not as close as it looks. One player finished a minus-seven which means he also was on for a lot of goals against. Draisaitl also produced 44 power play points (16-28-44). That paced everyone with McDavid right behind with 43 PPP. In case you’re wondering, MacKinnon’s breakdown was 62 even strength points (23-39-62) and 31 power play points (12-19-31). The Avalanche captain was a respectable plus-13. He did play mostly with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. One of the game’s top scoring lines. He’s a superb player.

Neither Panarin nor MacKinnon has a McDavid. However, you can make the argument the Bread Man did the most with the least by primarily dominating with Strome and Fast as a line. The seven power play goals and four game-winners aren’t jumping off the board. But that’s because of the caliber player he is. He is as team oriented a player as you want. If they used him on the penalty kill, there’s little doubt he could succeed. Especially with the subtle plays he makes. But that’s not his job.

While it would be nice to see Panarin rewarded for his special season, I highly doubt he won. The gaudy numbers Draisaitl put up that included 16 power play goals and 10 game-winners probably won him the Hart. You’re likely looking at the first German born player to win NHL MVP. Even if that is indeed the case, Panarin deserves to win the Lindsay Award that’s voted on by his own peers. That would be fitting.

Regardless, these awards aren’t as important as what begins in a week. Panarin knows that. He helped lead the underdog Blue Jackets to the big first round shocker over the Lightning last Spring. A clean sweep. The only time Columbus ever advanced past the first round.

In a short series, it’s usually up to the standout players to step up. If the Rangers do advance into the true Stanley Cup Tournament, it’ll be in large part due to the wonderful Bread Man. He wanted the bright lights and big city. Something Billy Joel would sing. He’s in a New York State Of Mind.

It’ll be exciting to see what Panarin does against those Hurricanes. Don’t put any stock into the Rangers sweeping the four game regular season series. It means nothing. Just ask the Lightning after their 128 point season went up in smoke a year ago. You have to play the games, which will be much tougher. It always is.

This is a great time to be a fan of the Blueshirts. Like the Bread Man, let’s embrace it.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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