Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers deserves to win the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player, according to Nathan MacKinnon, but the Colorado Avalanche center admitted he might be biased.
MacKinnon told TSN 1050 in Toronto on Tuesday that he grew close to Panarin while trying to recruit him to play for the Avalanche last offseason before the left wing signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract ($11.6 million average annual value) with the Rangers as an unrestricted free agent.
"If I had to pick a guy I'd probably go with Panarin," MacKinnon said. "I think he dominated … I think [Edmonton Oilers forward Leon] Draisaitl was unreal. I mean, what a season. I think when [Oilers forward] Connor [McDavid] got hurt, he stepped up. But I think the Rangers had a lot of injuries themselves and it seemed like Panarin really elevated his linemates' game. I think he led the League in 5-on-5 points. … I love watching him play."
Panarin scored 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in 69 games this season, tied for third in the NHL with Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak. Panarin led the NHL with 59 points at 5-on-5.
MacKinnon, a finalist for the Hart in 2017-18, was fifth with 93 points (35 goals, 58 assists) in 69 games before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Draisaitl led the NHL with 110 points (43 goals, 67 assists) in 71 games.
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Panarin's primary linemates this season were Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. Strome, in his seventh season, scored an NHL career-high 59 points (18 goals, 41 assists) in 70 games. Fast, in his seventh season, scored 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 69 games; his NHL career high is 33 points in 71 games in 2017-18.
MacKinnon said he and the Avalanche made a strong push to land Panarin as a free agent.
"I was calling him like every day," MacKinnon said. "… I told him he [wouldn't] always have to be the man every night, you know, I'll take over some nights. I'm like, 'You can have my spot on the power play, I don't care, I'll go somewhere else, it's all good.' So yeah, I was trying everything."
The Avalanche and Rangers are among the 24 teams included in the NHL Return to Play Plan announced May 26. Colorado was second in the Western Conference with a .657 points percentage (42-20-8); the top four teams in each conference will play a round-robin in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to determine seeds for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. New York was 11th in the Eastern Conference with a .564 points percentage (37-28-5) and will play the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-5 series, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.
The qualifiers will be held at two hub cities to be identified -- one for the 12 participating teams from the East and one for the 12 teams from the West -- and begin at a date to be determined. Phase 3 of the Return to Play Plan, the start of training camps, will begin on July 10, provided that medical and safety conditions allow and the League and NHLPA have reached an overall agreement on resuming play.