Panarin’s four goal game exposes the Hurricanes, Kravtsov issue looms for Drury, Rangers despite recent success

It was a good weekend for Artemi Panarin and the Rangers. The team’s leading scorer ended an eight-game goal drought in epic fashion by recording the first four-goal game of his brilliant career in a 6-2 road win over the Hurricanes.

For most of his fourth season in New York City, the 31-year old Panarin has been up and down. Even if you pointed at the point production, which was still good entering Saturday’s game, the lack of consistent goal scoring had become an issue.

The highest paid player on the team, the Bread Man shouldn’t be a one trick pony. He has only a dozen goals over the first 52 games, including just two on the power play. To be fair, he is more of a setup man.

It’s been mostly Mika Zibanejad, who’s done the damage with a team-leading 16 power play goals. Last year’s single season record breaker Chris Kreider has scored only four times after getting 26. Vincent Trocheck is second with eight. Most came in the first half. He’s been moved to the second unit.

Nobody would dispute what Panarin means offensively to the Blueshirts. However, he had failed to click with anyone at even strength. Coach Gerard Gallant tried many different combinations, including force feeding him with Trocheck. But they never had any chemistry. He even tried Panarin with Filip Chytil, whose improvement has been a huge plus.

Recently, Panarin had played with Zibanejad on the first line. Before the acquisition of former Blues finisher Vladimir Tarasenko, he was finding it difficult to mesh with Zibanejad and Jimmy Vesey. Something had to be done. Rangers Team President and GM Chris Drury went out and traded for Tarasenko to help upgrade the scoring on the right side.

In his debut, Tarasenko wowed fans by scoring less than three minutes in on a perfect centering feed from Panarin to electrify MSG. The Rangers won that game 6-3 over the Kraken. Tarasenko almost had Zibanejad for a goal in an exciting first period.

If the plan was to keep them together, Gallant sure didn’t waste any time breaking it up. With the team falling behind the puck possession Hurricanes 2-1 in the second period, the experienced coach felt he needed a spark. So, he moved Panarin off the top line and onto the Trocheck line with Vesey, who moved up in the lineup for whipping boy Vitaly Kravtsov. More on that later.

Kreider was back up with Zibanejad and Tarasenko. That line didn’t factor into the scoring at five-on-five. However, Zibanejad continued to score on the man-advantage for their first goal in Raleigh.

Trocheck plays a straightforward style, as does Vesey. Panarin prefers more of the East/West dynamic that can be lethal when there’s time and space. It’s been harder for him to find the seams with his passes. The middle isn’t as open. Opponents know what he’ll do. His tendency is to gain the zone and pull up. Then, circle and look for options.

At least for one game anyway, Panarin found success playing with Trocheck. He scored the tying goal after being moved onto the line. In the third, with the game tied, Panarin scored his second on a rebound of a Braden Schneider shot with Trocheck also in front. That gave the Rangers their first lead.

With the Hurricanes getting sloppy, a turnover allowed Panarin to get a clean breakaway. He hasn’t been money on them this season. However, he didn’t miss this time. In on Andersen, he shot over the glove to make it his fourth career hat trick, and first of the season. The last one came at San Jose in his first season as a Blueshirt on Dec. 12, 2019. It was a memorable year where he put up a dominant 32 goals, 63 assists, and 95 points pre pandemic.

On an interesting note, all four of his hat tricks have come on the road. That included his first two, which both victimized the Rangers. He did it with the Blackhawks on Feb. 17, 2016. Then, he scored three over two years later with the Blue Jackets on March 20, 2018.

Following an empty netter from Kaapo Kakko that the surging Alexis Lafreniere helped set up, Panarin made it four goals when he took a Vesey pass in front and beat Andersen with 1:04 left in regulation.

It was a significant game for a star player who’s been searching for answers. He isn’t paid $11.65 million to only pick up assists. When you look at his career, Panarin has scored 20 or more in six of the previous seven years. The only exception was the abbreviated 2020-21 when he had 17 in 42 games. That eerie season, he missed significant time due to a false rumor back home. Then, came the Tom Wilson beating. An event that seemed to have an effect on Panarin. He hasn’t been the same player since.

This isn’t to say he isn’t productive. Buoyed by a season high five-point game in the latest Rangers beat down of the flawed Hurricanes, who lack enough skill despite their record, Panarin has recorded 308 points (87-221-308) in only 239 games. No other free agent addition in club history has ever produced at that level.

The bigger issue is that, at times, Panarin has disappeared during games. He is too important to the Rangers for that to happen. He has developed a penchant for taking bad penalties in the offensive zone. Not to the level we’ve seen from Trocheck and former center Ryan Strome, who was a perfect fit for his game. But they need the Bread Man to avoid losing discipline and play at the high level he’s capable of.

Saturday was a step in the right direction. The huge game hiked Panarin’s point total up to 59. Four more than Zibanejad, whose 27 goals, 16 power play goals, 24 power play points, and 187 shots lead the team. The Bread Man has 43 assists, which is three better than Adam Fox. The former Norris winner ranks third in team scoring with 50 points.

If we’re being honest, the Rangers did what they usually do. Beat the Hurricanes. They did so with Jaroslav Halak making 27 saves on 29 shots for his seventh straight win. If you can’t bury your chances on the Rangers backup, that doesn’t say much for your offense. The Canes look like they could use Timo Meier. It’ll probably be a bidding war between them and the Devils with likely a mystery team in on the proven Sharks finisher.

The Rangers have owned the Hurricanes for a while. In fact, the two games they’ve played over the last six weeks are proof of the psychological edge they have. In a 5-3 home win on Jan. 3, they got the last three goals in the third period. Then, on Saturday, they scored four in the deciding third to pull away. That’s 7-0 in the third period for those keeping score.

Two match-ups remain. In late March, the Rangers and Hurricanes will meet for a crucial home and home series on 3/21 and 3/23. Given where they currently are in the standings, those could be pivotal games in helping determine who wins the division. By winning convincingly the other day, the Blueshirts pulled within six of first place and cut a point off second due to a Devils shootout loss at the Wild.

The top three are separated by six total points. Carolina leads the Metro Division with 76. The Devils are second with 73. The Rangers sit third with 70. Both the Canes and Devils each have 30 games remaining. The Rangers have 29 left. That includes one final meeting with the Devils on March 30 in Newark.

They’ve created some separation in the division. The Capitals, Penguins, and Islanders are separated by two total points. Right now, it’s the Caps holding the first wildcard with 62 points followed by the Pens, who are the second wildcard position with 61. The Islanders are at 60. Pittsburgh has three games at hand on Washington. The Islanders have 26 games remaining. Bo Horvat has helped. But they’re still blowing games.

As for the elephant in the room, the Rangers have nobody to blame but themselves for the complicated situation with Vitaly Kravtsov. While it’s true, the former ninth pick in 2019 made a mistake leaving Hartford to go back home to play in the KHL for the remainder of ’21-22, he was welcomed back to the team by Chris Drury.

It was supposed to be a fresh start for the young right wing. However, it’s been anything but. Gerard Gallant deserves most of the criticism for that. He’s made Kravtsov the scapegoat. Even when they posted a win over the Kraken where all four lines looked good, he made up a ridiculous excuse to sit him over the weekend.

Jake Leschyshyn brings nothing to the table. By continuing to play head games with Kravtsov, who’s come back with a good attitude, which Drury all but confirmed, it’s Gallant whose arrogant treatment of the former first round pick has devalued the 23-year old Russian. A player who is a good skater with more skill, Gallant has shown no patience.

By having so many starts and stops, which included the absurd demotion to the fourth line despite proven vets Trocheck and Panarin not pulling their weight in a home loss to the Bruins, Gallant again singled out Kravtsov. He went from arguably his best game where he scored his third goal with five shots in a win over Columbus on Jan. 16 to quickly vanishing. That was Turk’s choice.

Gallant prefers more grit and physicality. Kravtsov is a finesse player with skill and skating. He has the capability to make plays. He also hasn’t been given much of a chance. Don’t look squarely at the 3-3-6 in 28 games. A better evaluation is to study the game logs and see how the player was used. Even shift to shift, you don’t know when Kravtsov will be skipped. Without much consistency or trust, it’s hard for a young player to find their game.

The way he’s been treated, Kravtsov has been kept on a short leash. While Kaapo Kakko was given a lot more leeway ever since a dreadful rookie year and didn’t improve much in years two or three, Kravtsov has been handled like a grenade. At one point in January, he had a string of games where he was more noticeable than Alexis Lafreniere. But it didn’t last. The coach saw to it by continuing to play Russian roulette with his lines.

Why Gallant decided to do things this way only he knows. He feels Kravtsov doesn’t win enough one on one battles. However, there have been active shifts where he’s had takeaways and come close to setting up teammates. If he’s expecting Kravtsov to deliver big hits like Julien Gauthier, then he’s lost.

Not every player is suited for that style. Panarin certainly isn’t. Zibanejad isn’t. Trocheck will finish checks along with Barclay Goodrow and Vesey. Sammy Blais was the best hitter among forwards before getting dealt. He had 119 in 40 games. It’s ironic that he scored in his Blues’ return on a breakaway. Good for him.

Sometimes, you gotta let a young player be who they are. Is Kakko the most physical? Hardly. He can come out with the puck due to his size. It took him four years to improve. Though 11 goals are underwhelming for the former second pick, who’s celebrated by fans as if he’s suddenly closed the gap on Jack Hughes.

Lafreniere has eight goals in Year Three. At least he’s finally putting up points. With eight over the last eight games, he’s up to 26. Two behind Kakko. It only took Gallant over half the season to realize Lafreniere had to be put back with Kakko and Filip Chytil. Chytil has been a revelation scoring a career high 19 goals and 33 points over 45 games. It took him five years to develop into a reliable player who is very effective at five-on-five.

As it turns out, patience is a virtue with young players. When he said he’s not here to develop players earlier in the season, Gallant came off badly. It couldn’t only be the vets who provided the scoring. They needed more from the kids. Not surprisingly, they’ve improved since Lafreniere was reunited with Chytil and Kakko. The most effective forechecking line Gallant has.

With Kravtsov finally realizing it’s never going to happen under Gallant, who seems to have a vendetta against him despite all the empty promises he’s made to the press, his days are numbered. Having made a second trade request due to clearly not being in the team’s plans, Kravtsov needs a change of scenery.

It happens. Eeli Tolvanen was mishandled by Nashville coach John Hynes. Astonishingly, they waived him. The Kraken couldn’t wait to put in a claim. Since then, Tolvanen has scored nine goals with Seattle. He is a former first round pick with a good shot. But he wasn’t good enough for Hynes’ liking. The Predators might regret that decision.

Will the Rangers regret how the Kravtsov situation played out? It’ll depend on the playoffs. He’s been devalued by one person. Not the Team President and GM. Drury all, but put it on Gallant last week. He makes the lineup decisions. If he thinks waiver pick-up Leschyshyn should play over Kravtsov, so be it. Why lose any sleep?

I’d given up on Kravtsov succeeding on Broadway a couple of months ago. It was obvious that Gallant had an ax to grind. Did Kravtsov handle 2021-22 well? Absolutely not. That was his choice to go home to Russia and finish out his season in the KHL. However, he did have a solid showing in the playoffs.

The idea that he doesn’t know how to play the game is preposterous. Even Larry Brooks, who’s nothing more but a mouthpiece for the Rangers organization, exaggerated the truth in his column. It isn’t healthy the way the veteran columnist goes about his business. The less said about it, the better.

Kravtsov doesn’t seem to have much value. If Drury can pry a second round pick like he did for Lias Andersson when he was disgruntled with the organization, then that would be the best case scenario.

You do have to ask why some of their former first round picks wind up wanting out. For every Chytil or K’Andre Miller, there’s an Andersson, Kravtsov, or Jamie Lundmark that gets lost in the shuffle. Most fans don’t want to remember those days. Hockey Is Different Here. It sure was. Mark Messier tarnished his reputation by hogging up the spotlight in a failed return.

Dylan McIlrath became a victim due to how much the game changed. Injuries didn’t help. However, fans loved him. His fights were always a crowd pleaser. You rooted for him to make it. He’s still playing in the AHL.

Even Manny Malhotra was pigeonholed. Maybe he didn’t have the upside that Neil Smith envisioned. But he was a solid checking center who became an effective penalty killer who could win draws. They traded him and Barrett Heistein for Roman Lyashenko and Martin Rucinsky. Malhotra wound up playing nearly 1,000 career games. Rucinsky would re-sign after the lockout and help the team reach the postseason in 05-06. Lyashenko died tragically.

There have been other first round picks who never made it. Hugh Jessiman. Bobby Sanguinetti. Pavel Brendl. Best known for hot dogs and being packaged to the Flyers with Kim Johnsson and Jan Hlavac for Eric Lindros.

Sometimes, you have to ask why the organization has such a checkered history with high draft picks. It helps explain why they’ve won one Cup in 82 years. They’re hoping to change that. The addition of Tarasenko should help. Maybe Drury can add one key checking forward to upgrade the fourth line. Leschyshyn is a place holder.

One more point. Remember when Dryden Hunt was deemed so valuable that he made the roster and Gallant used him on the second line? Hunt has since been waived, traded, and is in the AHL. He played over Kravtsov. It makes you wonder.

So, if you want to critique the younger player who was selected before Noah Dobson, be my guest. He got poor advice from his former agent. However, he did return with a better attitude and has worked hard in practice. He never was given much of a chance. That’s on Gallant.

Hopefully, things will work out better in the future. I’d hate to see Kravtsov go to waste. Maybe in the right situation, he can be given a better opportunity and succeed. That’s yet to be determined.

As much as I’ve supported him, I’m tired of writing about Kravtsov. Hopefully, this will all end very soon. It’s been nothing but a headache. Good luck to Drury on finding some good value for the player.

Whenever this saga ends, then maybe Drury can focus on adding a nice depth player like Sam Lafferty. We’ll see what happens between the day before Valentine’s Day and March 3.

The Rangers hit the road starting Wednesday when they visit Vancouver. They finish up the three-game Western Canadian swing in Edmonton on Friday and Calgary Saturday.


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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