Going to the Blackhawks' preseason game against the Stars on Saturday night, I knew I'd watch some hockey, have a couple beers, maybe even catch a nice highlight or two. What I didn't expect to see was the opening salvo of Artemi Panarin's coming out party with a North American audience that looks sure to love him.
We spent a lot of the offseason hyping up Panarin, the 23-year-old Russian winger who signed on to become a Blackhawk in the spring. First we saw the highlights on YouTube, the monster numbers from the KHL, the brief glimpses at the World Championships. Then everyone, from anonymous scouts to Blackhawks players to Joel Quenneville, said this guy was the real deal.
Still, as a fan, you wanted to see it in person. Everyone could talk up how skilled Panarin is, but it still felt like conjecture until he was actually doing his thing against NHL defensemen. And as we were reminded with Marko Dano's reassignment Saturday, young players have to grind out every opportunity they get under Quenneville's coaching staff. After missing most of training camp and preseason, could Panarin really be so good that Q would slot him in a top-six role from Day 1?
We immediately got our answer to that question once Panarin took the ice wearing No. 72 on Saturday night. This guy might not just be ready to take on a prominent role in Chicago from Day 1. He could end up being one of the most exciting things about watching the Blackhawks this season. I don't care if that was preseason; Panarin stood out next to some of the best players in the game.
One of the things everyone wondered about Panarin was whether he could translate his ridiculous stick-handling skills against bigger, more disciplined NHL defenses. Would guys be able to push him off the puck? Would he get caught with his head down?
Then he did this. It is, in my opinion, the highlight of the preseason:
Welcome to Dangle City. https://t.co/9VwPRhrmkh— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) October 4, 2015
In about 10 seconds, Panarin stick handles his way through pretty much the whole Stars defense, single-handedly maintaining neutral zone possession long enough to set up an entry pass to Patrick Kane. It's the kind of play most forwards only dream of being talented enough to make. Panarin did it minutes into his first game wearing a Blackhawks uniform. Here's to guessing it won't be the last time.
There are a mountain of caveats -- it was one game, and a preseason game at that -- but Panarin looked special. And the results were there, too, with two assists. No matter how you slice it, this was the debut you wanted to see from Panarin, who immediately looked comfortable next to Kane and center Artem Anisimov on the second line. It was easily the best line for Chicago on Saturday night. If the team sticks with that entering the season, it looks to be the team's go-to line when it needs to make an offensive push. Defending Kane was always difficult enough -- pairing him with someone like Panarin is going to force opposing players into making tough choices frequently. Choose the wrong one and this group looks ready to make you pay.
And that was the real takeaway from Saturday. More than anything, we discovered that Panarin looks as good as everyone said. Duncan Keith picked him to win the Calder Trophy over Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. That might've been a bit of good leadership supporting a teammate, but you watch Panarin and it doesn't seem impossible. He could put up big numbers on a contending team as a rookie.
Surely there will be growing pains. Panarin is still learning to speak English, grow familiar with the Hawks' system and get back to 100 percent after dealing with a minor upper-body injury. We never really saw him get challenged defensively by Dallas on Saturday. The intensity will surely kick up with the real games starting next week. But he'll keep learning and getting better, and for now, it seems apparent that his hockey I.Q. will foster enough chemistry with his teammates. Once he really settles in, look out.
It's Panarin time in Chicago. At the very least, this should be fun.