(The top 10 continues in our ranking of the Hawks' best players under 25 years old! Check out all the previous entries in the series with our storystream.)
Artemi Panarin is where our list of the Top 25 Under 25 takes a turn toward something truly exciting. The first 22 names on the rankings were a menagerie of intriguing fliers, Rockford guys on the fringe and recent draft picks hoping to make good on their pedigrees. Now we get to the potential stars, the guys who could make up the next wave of franchise cornerstones.
Panarin was one of the best players in Russia during the 2014-15 KHL season, and a bunch of teams were pushing to sign him before he went with the Hawks. The move by Chicago signaled a number of things, including the team's ability to lure top-level talent and general manager Stan Bowman's never-ending effort to maintain a pipeline of talent into the organization. Panarin liked the opportunity he'd get in Chicago, and the Hawks were smart enough to execute a plan to make that happen.
Now Panarin is set to be a key contributor on the Blackhawks next season at age 24. The excitement is building over a player who most fans have only seen in blurry highlights and occasional bits from the Hockey World Championships, where Panarin starred for Russia. It would feel weirder to be this optimistic about a winger coming from the KHL if the talk surrounding Panarin wasn't so uniformly positive.
"The real excitement is Panarin," Bowman said at the Blackhawks Convention. "He has tons of talent. We're trying to be patient with the expectations because he's coming to a new country, learning the language ... There's going to be a bit of an adjustment there, but he has special ability."
The past year has been a coming out party of sorts for Panarin, who emerged as one of the best players not in the NHL as a member of SKA St. Petersburg. Viktor Tikhonov, who also signed with Chicago this summer after playing with Panarin in Russia, says he's now ready to make the jump. "Panarin has always wanted to come over," Tikhonov said. "He just didn't know if he was ready. And just seeing him and how fast he's developing. I honestly think he was one of the better players in the KHL."
We've already seen photos of Panarin around Chicago trying to get comfortable in a new city. The team made some smart moves to bring in a pair of fellow Russians, Tikhonov and center Artem Anisimov, to help ease the transition. And on the ice, the opportunity is massive after the losses of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, not to mention the uncertainty surrounding Patrick Kane.
As Bowman said, Panarin's talent appears to be special. He finished last season fourth in the KHL in points after racking up 26 goals and 36 assists in 54 games with SKA St. Petersburg. The winger also added 20 points in 20 games during the playoffs as his team won the KHL title.
Not only did Panarin outscore teammate Ilya Kovalchuk, but he started making headlines as his line, which also featured Vadim Shipachyov and Evgenii Dadonov, started putting up more numbers than the Kovalchuk-led top line. If Panarin wanted to stay in Russia, he likely could've sustained some incredible success at SKA St. Petersburg. It's clear he wants to prove he can make it in the NHL, however, and he smartly signed a deal that allows him to return to the KHL if he doesn't make the Hawks' roster out of training camp. Not that anyone thinks that'll happen since Panarin is a borderline lock to make the team.
On the ice, Panarin is "the real deal," as ESPN's Corey Pronman said when ranking him No. 34 among the NHL's best prospects. Size might be the winger's biggest question mark, but he's got the skating ability and vision to weave through defenses and create chances. There might be a bit of an adjustment period to the physicality of North American hockey, which we saw a bit with Teuvo Teravainen, but Panarin seems equipped to make the right changes.
Here's an example of Panarin's stellar stickhandling ability from the World Championships:
And at the end of this video, you can see Panarin score the OT game-winner against Slovakia with a nifty shot between the defender's legs:
That's the kind of aggressive, effective play that Panarin's displayed consistently over the past year. He might have to tone it down a little bit in order to play the two-way game Chicago demands from each and every player. Still, the team will need his dynamic play on the offensive end to make up for the offseason losses. They'll have to be patient and let him work through his issues, even if that's not something every young player in Chicago's been afforded. The difference here is that Panarin could be genuinely great.
You certainly have to believe the Hawks will put him in the best positions to succeed. Even if it's almost impossible to speculate how the lines might look on opening night, or even a few days after that considering Joel Quenneville's love of the blender, Panarin could go down as one of Bowman's best moves. It's not often you can acquire a high-level winger in his early 20s on an incentive-laden contract with minimal risk. It's even harder to do that when you're up against the salary cap and need to convince the player he won't get buried on a stacked depth chart.
There seems to be mutual confidence between Panarin and the Blackhawks that this partnership will lead to great things. Luckily we won't have to wait long before seeing things pan out on the ice.
Position: Left wing
Birth date: Oct. 30, 1991 (age 23)
Acquired via: Free agent signing, April 2014
Most recent stop: SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)
Size: 5'11, 170 pounds
Contract: Entry-level; $812,500 cap hit (plus $2.575 million in incentives) for 2015-16; RFA in 2017
Highest ranking: No. 2
Lowest ranking: No. 4