The Columbus Blue Jackets are right in the thick of the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the tough Metropolitan Division, and a key factor has been their only forward with more than 26 points, Artemi Panarin.
Player evaluations in hockey can be tricky, but a useful perspective on a player can be gained by building peer groups of those most comparable to him in various statistical categories. Once those are built, you can see through the appearance of the same players in multiple groups who the player in question compares with most favorably. From that perspective, Panarin is in select company.
The first peer group can be constructed based on the eight other active NHL forwards who have won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie, as Panarin did in 2015-16 with the Chicago Blackhawks, when he scored 77 points (30 goals, 47 assists) in 80 games. He continued that success last season, with 74 points (31 goals, 43 assists) in 82 games, bringing his NHL career total to 151.
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The next peer group can be formed with the six other forwards who scored 150 points during those two seasons.
On June 23, 2017, Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with forward Tyler Motte and a sixth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft for forward Brandon Saad, goaltender Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Some fans credited Blackhawks linemate Patrick Kane for Panarin's output and were skeptical that it would continue in Columbus, where he plays on a line with rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson, who scored 29 points (17 goals, 12 assists) as a rookie last season.
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Panarin leads the Blue Jackets with 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists) in 50 games, which works out to 0.82 points per game, down from 0.93 in Chicago. That drop-off may seem like proof of Kane's influence on his scoring, but it was actually caused by moving to a less scoring-oriented team. In Chicago, Panarin's 151 points meant he had a hand in 31.9 percent of the Blackhawks' 474 goals during those two seasons. That number is about the same this season: 32.3 percent; he has 41 points and Columbus has 127 goals.
To take a team's relative strength into account, this next peer group can be based on the four players who, entering Wednesday, each led his team's forwards in scoring by at least the same margin as Panarin, who has 15 more points than Columbus' second-highest scoring forward, Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists).
One of Panarin's most notable characteristics is his ice time. Panarin has averaged 17:28 per game at even strength, which leads NHL forwards. His even-strength ice time has steadily increased from 15:40 as a rookie for the Blackhawks in 2015-16, which ranked 18th among forwards, to 16:17 in 2016-17, which was tied for seventh among forwards with Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. His average of 16:20 ranked sixth among forwards entering Wednesday. Twelve other forwards had averaged at least 16:00 per game in that time, forming the fourth peer group. (Pavel Datsyuk, third at 16:36 per game during that span, has not played in the NHL since 2015-16.)
Panarin is also notable for his shot-based metrics. At 5-on-5, Columbus is outshooting opponents 921-689 with Panarin on the ice, for an SAT of plus-232 that ranked first among forwards entering Wednesday. Columbus is responsible for 57.20 percent of all shot attempts when Panarin is on the ice, which is 9.67 percent higher than when he's not, 47.53 percent. That margin ranked first among forwards.
While with the Blackhawks, Panarin helped boost their share of shot attempts. Last season, Chicago was responsible for 54.60 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice, and 48.52 when he wasn't, for a Relative SAT of 6.08 percent. There were 13 other forwards with a Relative SAT percentage of plus-6.0 or greater during the past two seasons combined entering Wednesday, forming the fifth and final peer group.
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Any two players may coincidentally match in a single category, but any player who belongs to more than one of the five peer groups based on exceptional overall and team-relative scoring, ice time, shot-based metrics and the Calder Trophy should be an accurate comparison point for Panarin.
The list of nine players who match Panarin in multiple categories is essentially a list of the League's most valuable forwards:
- Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
- Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
- Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
- Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
- Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
- Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
- Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
Just as those similar forwards play vital roles for their teams, Panarin has been a key factor for the Blue Jackets this season.