The Chicago Blackhawks have four bona fide top-six forwards heading into 2017-18, with one open slot. But what about Richard Panik, who spent large portions of last season on Chicago’s top line?
On Jan. 3, 2016, the Chicago Blackhawks acquired forward Richard Panik from the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Jeremy Morin. Most thought it was a minor league deal to get Morin off Chicago’s books for a second time.
Few could’ve seen coming what Panik has achieved since arriving in Chicago. After tallying eight points across 30 regular-season games once being acquired by the Blackhawks, he had a nice spurt of three points in as many playoff games against the St. Louis Blues. But it was the 2016-17 season that served as a coming out party for Panik.
The Czech athlete bounced around Chicago’s lineup before eventually finding a role in the top six, primarily alongside Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. The end result was a career-high 44 regular-season points, split evenly between goals and assists.
Panik had moments where he looked like Marian Hossa — serving as a power forward who just couldn’t be taken off the puck in the offensive zone. He had times where he was stickhandling like Patrick Kane (though not as frequent as his power forward moments). And overall, he was just a solid presence for the Blackhawks last season.
Certainly he was important to a team that surprisingly won its division, but at least there were known quantities for Panik to suit up alongside. The top-line left wing role was obviously a revolving door, but most every other spot among the forwards had someone filling it.
That may not be so clear cut heading into the 2017-18 season. The top-line left wing spot will be re-filled by Brandon Saad, but the second-line right wing spot is now vacant. And the Blackhawks have a mishmash of bottom-six forwards they need to decide between.
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When you think of Chicago’s top six, the likes of Toews, Kane, Saad and Artem Anisimov come up as bona fide top-six forwards. But what about Panik? Well, the Blackhawks are probably going to need him to insert himself into such a role if they hope for sustained success in 2017-18.
Panik must prove himself
The numbers were obviously strong last season for Panik across the board. He managed to play in all 82 regular-season games and all four disappointing postseason affairs. He posted a shooting percentage of 14.2, which actually isn’t that far off his career pace (12.7). His Corsi-for rate was a fine 49.6 percent while splitting his zone starts evenly.
But the Blackhawks have so many question marks at forward heading into next season, that they’ll need Panik to assert himself even more dominantly. I’m not saying we should expect the guy to go out and post 75 points next season, but there are things he can work on.
Panik collected 58 penalty minutes last season. While this isn’t a whopping number, when you compare it to the totals posted by the Blackhawks’ top four forwards, it stands out. Toews was highest among those four at 35, while Saad spent just eight minutes in the penalty box last season. Eight!
Panik is known as a bit of a red-ass on the ice. His hard-nosed style of hockey doesn’t endear him to opponents, and Panik will often fight back to a matching-minors situation. The Blackhawks cannot afford to have this frequently happening in 2017-18.
There are too few certainties on who could replace Panik’s production while he spends time in the penalty box. Even at just two minutes at a time, it’s time that Panik could be spending scoring a goal or setting up a key play.
Another number you’d like to see Panik work on, though it’s one that’s less in his control, is his average time on ice. Panik clocked in at 14 minutes, 44 seconds in ATOI last season. Saad’s 17:02 was the lowest mark among the big four forwards last season, and you can expect that to shoot up with his return to Chicago.
Da Windy City
Panik is going to be on the ice more frequently next season if the Blackhawks consider him a true top-six forward, plain and simple. Coach Joel Quenneville is already aware of this, and hopefully Panik is training appropriately this offseason.
Panik could shift in lineup
The natural setup a lot of fans are jumping to is a top line of Saad, Toews and Panik. And that makes tons of sense. Panik flanked Toews many times last season, and Saad made magic with Toews and Hossa before being traded in 2015.
But don’t rule out Panik moving around the lineup, specifically to the second-line left wing position. Panik and Saad are both bowling ball-type players, and Toews himself isn’t opposed to taking some abuse to score. Quenneville could turn to someone like Nick Schmaltz to put a little more skill on the top line (though Saad has plenty of skill as well). Ryan Hartman also showed flashes of being more than a grinder last season, so he could slot up.
Panik, meanwhile, could be a useful player to clear space for Kane and Anisimov on the second line while also crashing the net. The last two seasons, Anisimov was the primary (and really only) puck winner on the second line. Kane and Artemi Panarin were far more concerned with taking the puck, playing catch and scoring.
Having Panik on the second line would bring a new element to the mix. Now it wouldn’t just be Anisimov opponents are watching for to take the body and win puck battles. You’ve got Panik doing so as well, in addition to any net-front presence he’s able to provide.
I wouldn’t be stunned to see Panik shift to the second line if the Blackhawks are unable to quickly find a suitable replacement for Panarin early in 2017-18. Quenneville has no problem turning on the blender in spots like this, as he’s shown while trying to find a top-line left wing.
This is another reason it’s imperative for Panik to separate himself as a true top-six forward in 2017-18. The Blackhawks have one of their more suspect rosters since the two seasons immediately following the 2010 Stanley Cup win. There would be one fewer concern if Panik distinguishes himself as more than a flash in the pan.