CHICAGO – Forget all the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel talk. Or the well-deserved pub flowing the way of Detroit’s Dylan Larkin. The best rookie in the first half of the NHL season has been Artemi Panarin, the 24-year-old Russian who migrated from the KHL to left wing on the Chicago Blackhawks’ top line.
Panarin – nicknamed “Bread Man” by his teammates because his name is so similar to the well-known bakery chain – has been in, er, Yeast Mode all season. He entered Friday leading NHL rookies with 15 goals and 38 points in 42 games while playing with center Artem Anisomov and right winger/South Buffalo native Patrick Kane.
What has made the 5-foot-11 Panarin so effective to date? His simple answer through an interpreter after Friday’s morning skate: “Good partners.”
Kane, who was not available to the media Friday morning, told Chicago reporters last month he and Panarin are both fluent in “the language of hockey” and that’s why the combination works.
“His consistency for the first half was the part we liked,” said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville. “Whether he’s producing or not, he does a lot of good things and that line has been outstanding for us. He certainly has a great shot and when he starts thinking a shoot-first mentality, it’s adding to his game.”
Panarin entered Friday’s game on the heels of back-to-back two-goal games against Pittsburgh. He is on pace for almost 30 goals and 76 points. Kane, by comparison, had 21 goals and 72 points during his 2007-08 rookie season.
“He’s one of the best in the league and definitely a great partner and fun to play with,” Panarin said of Kane. “I can sense the same understanding of the game playing together. I enjoyed him right away. I knew Patrick Kane before I came to play here. Back in Russia, I was watching his game and definitely understood how to play with him.”
Sabres rookie Jack Eichel and coach Dan Bylsma got first-hand looks at Panarin while with Team USA during last year’s World Championships in the Czech Republic.
“He’s in a good situation here with a good team,” Eichel said. “You got a sense of his skill level and the type of player he is. It’s nice to see any young guys have success. It’s his first year coming over and living to America. He has a lot of things to adjust to. It’s his first year in the league so he’s still a rookie. He’s played professional and had a lot success doing it. But in terms of the NHL, it’s the first year.”
“I was real interested to see how dangerous and skilled he was and how much he could skate at the World Championship level taking that to the NHL level,” Bylsma said. “He’s been every bit of that. Chicago seems to have found a guy who has fit right into their team.”
Asked if he followed the exploits of Eichel or Larkin, Panarin shook his head and simply said, “nyet.”
As in Russian for no.
How have the Hawks have quickly been able to fit Panarin into their style of play? Bylsma had a quick answer.
“To be able to play with a guy like Patrick Kane I think we all would be happy,” Bylsma said. “... Right now that line looks like they’ve played together forever.”
Kane entered the game leading the NHL with 60 points on 23 goals and 37 assists. Anisimov, who came from Columbus in the Brandon Saad deal, had 15 goals and 23 points.
Panarin was a key member of the Russian team that won the world Junior Championships in Buffalo in 2011. He played on the top line with St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, helping the Russians overcome a 3-0 deficit in the third period to beat Canada in the gold medal game, 5-3.
When the Hawks played in Buffalo on Dec. 19, it was the first time Panarin was back in First Niagara Center since the gold medal game.
“Before I went on the ice, I thought I’d have some emotions,” Panarin said of Chicago’s 3-2 shootout win. “But then the game started, I forgot about that and it was just business.
The Sabres scratched Carlo Colaiacovo and put Mike Weber back in the lineup after a one-game respite. Weber entered the contest with a team-best plus-2 rating – after posting a combined minus-51 the last two seasons.
The Sabres maintained their usual defense pairs after Bylsma tinkered with them in Thursday’s practice. The coach insisted it was not a reflection of the struggles Josh Gorges and Rasmus Ristolainen had in the previous five games. Gorges and Ristolainen stayed together Friday, as did the pair of Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe. Weber returned to his spot alongside Cody Franson.
Winnipeg Sun reporter Ken Wiebe came to Chicago to interview Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian in advance of the Sabres’ game against the Jets Sunday in MTS Centre. The team will practice there Saturday afternoon and figures to draw quite the media crowd for the embattled Kane’s return to Winnipeg.