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Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

NBC Sports logo NBC Sports 12/5/2019 James O'Brien
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Aside from no-brainer cases such as Nathan MacKinnon being paid essentially half of his on-ice value (maybe less), it can be tricky to say that an expensive free agent signing is “worth the money.” Especially since the New York Rangers have been worse than their 13-10-3 record would indicate.

So … maybe you’d argue Artemi Panarin hasn’t been worth every dime of his $11.64M AAV, but I believe emphatically that he’s at least justified the hype as the rare superstar to actually hit unrestricted free agency.

Thursday serves as a momentous occasion to consider that decision, as Panarin is playing against the Blue Jackets for the first time in Columbus since deciding to leave for the Rangers. Let’s look at this situation from a few different angles.

Still a superstar

As the headline suggests, Panarin remains a dynamic talent.

Even with a two-game pointless drought coming into Thursday’s game, Panarin has been producing, generating 12 goals and 33 points in 26 games. If Panarin managed to maintain this pace over an 82-game season, he’d set new career-highs with 39 goals, 67 assists, and 106 points.

He might not be able to maintain it. While Panarin’s shooting percentage isn’t totally out of order, his playmaking might cool ever so slightly (his on-ice shooting percentage – a decent way to see if a player’s assists might be a touch inflated – is very high at 15.6 percent, compared to a career average of 10.8).

Even so, if Panarin stays healthy, he’s off to a hot enough start that he might beat his career-high of 87 points.

Most importantly, Panarin is still extremely good, and brings more to the table than just the highlight reel passes and goals.

By most underlying numbers, Panarin is more or less the same player: a dynamic offensive presence who doesn’t seem to hurt his team defensively. Maybe you can chalk that up to the notion that the best defense is to not have to play defense because you have the puck all the time, but either way, he’s remarkable. Check out the past three seasons of his heat maps via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

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(As a reminder, lots of red and a positive number up top, in the offensive side is great, and not lots of red and a negative number in the bottom [defensive] half is also great. So, basically, Panarin ruled and still rules.)

Via the Point Hockey’s stats, Panarin is tied with Mathew Barzal for the lead in offensive zone puck possession (1:12 per game) and Panarin’s 72 completed passes to the slot ranks fourth overall.

At this point, it’s not about if Panarin is still an elite player, but where he ranks among the cream of the crop.

Not downplaying the meaning of the game

Plenty of people involved with the Rangers acknowledge that Thursday’s return to Columbus means a lot to Panarin. Panarin himself admitted as much on Wednesday, as the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports.

“I’m pretty excited. It’s not going to be a regular game for me,” Panarin said. “It’s going to be a different game, I’m going to try to show the best I can.”

Via The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello (sub required), current Rangers and former Blue Jackets executive John Davidson believes that Panarin might be a “little apprehensive” about how he’ll be received. Going to the Rangers was basically Panarin’s first full-fledged choice (his options were limited when he came to the Blackhawks from the KHL, and it wasn’t his call when Panarin was traded to Columbus), so here’s hoping that Blue Jackets fans are as understanding as 1st Ohio Battery’s Chris Pennington recommends.

Breadless

So far, it’s been an up-and-down season for Columbus, who have lost two in a row and sit at 11-12-4.

While Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bloated contract and rocky start make his departure seem like a possible blessing in disguise, it’s tougher not to miss Panarin.

In particular, I’ve been curious to see how Pierre-Luc Dubois has fared without Panarin. He’s been glued to Panarin for the first two years of his career, making it difficult to tell just how good he is. (We knew PLD was a very useful player, but a star like Panarin can really shine you up.)

So far … mostly very good. Like Panarin, is heat maps look strong as ever:

© Provided by NBC Sports

With 18 points in 27 games (thanks to a dry spell of one assist in his last five games), Dubois isn’t quite on last season’s 61-point pace, but he’s not so far off, and has a shot at his first 30+ goal season.

Sure, Dubois proving himself doesn’t totally soothe things for a Columbus team facing ups and downs, yet it’s something they can hang their hat on as Panarin comes back to town.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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