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Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25: Artemi Panarin is No. 1 because of course he is

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You didn’t really expect anyone else, did you?

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Artemi Panarin is No. 1 on our Top 25 Under 25 rankings. This should be surprising to positively nobody except for the few people who probably didn’t realize he was eligible for these rankings. The winger doesn’t turn 25 years old until a few weeks after the beginning of the 2016-17 season, so here he is. And man, I hope he doesn’t go anywhere. Panarin is my favorite player in hockey right now. A superstar from Day 1, his future in Chicago is remarkably bright.

Key info

Position: Left wing
Birth date: Oct. 30, 1991
Acquired via: Undrafted free agent (SERIOUSLY HOW?!?!)
Most recent stop: Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)
Nationality: Russian
Size: 5’11, 170 pounds
Contract: ELC ($925K AAV plus performance bonuses, expires 2017)

Breakdown

Where do we even start with Panarin? The Russian winger arrived with great fanfare from the KHL last summer, but there was still an air of uncertainty surrounding him. We rated him at No. 3 behind Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano on last year’s list because we hadn’t seen much of him and weren’t sure how that KHL success would translate with his move to North America.

And then I went to a Hawks-Stars preseason game with my dad in early October, and Panarin did this:

Un-freaking-believable. But hey it’s preseason, right? Nobody gets that excited about preseason. Then came Panarin’s NHL debut against the Rangers. He scored a goal:

That was only the beginning of a season where Panarin scored 77 points, won the Calder Trophy and firmly entrenched himself among the league’s premier scorers. You might hear some knucklehead ask if he’s just a fluke next to Patrick Kane, but you can happily retort that they should just go watch Panarin. He passes the eye test with flying colors.

And he’s got that bite to his game, too. Despite being somewhat undersized, you rarely see Panarin get pushed off the puck. He’s somewhat like Kane in his supernatural ability to contort his body and shrug off bigger, stronger defenders in the offensive zone with speed and guile.

There’s one other play I wanted to point out because it shows not only Panarin’s absurd physical gifts, but the fascinating way he thinks about the game, too. In a matchup against the Blues in the playoffs last year, Panarin got forced into an offensive zone faceoff against Paul Stastny, who is regularly one of the league’s best on the dot.

Recognizing that he was stuck in a mismatch, Panarin intentionally lost the faceoff, beat Stastny to the corner, won the puck battle and delivered a perfect pass into the crease, where Artem Anisimov was waiting to finish the play. It happened so quickly you needed to see a replay. Wait, did Panarin just ... holy crap, yes he did.

I’m fully sold on Panarin. He’s an offensive dynamo of the highest order, and a perfect yin to Kane’s yang on the ice. Even if he gets split up from that line, I have little doubt that he’d be able to thrive next to other players. The fact that he so quickly earned Joel Quenneville’s respect is telling not just of his amazing ability, but the fact that he works hard and plays a mostly complete game.

There are better two-way forwards, but it’s a short list of players who can put up numbers like Panarin.

What’s next for 2016-17

Another delightful year full of dekes, snaps and dudes scrambling on the ice trying to stand back up after Panarin put them on their butts. I don’t know if he’ll get to 77 points again considering he shot 16 percent last season, but expect Panarin to be chasing those big Schedule B bonuses. Nobody should be surprised if he gets another top-10 finish among forwards in scoring and nabs that extra $1.75 million.

And tied directly to that is Panarin’s contract talks, which have been ongoing but shown no signs of reaching a resolution soon. Panarin is a restricted free agent next summer, so he won’t hit the open market, but the words “RFA” won’t make Hawks fans feel too much better after Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw left under similar circumstances. It’s hard to see the Hawks letting the same happen with Panarin, who is a legit cornerstone for this franchise. Still, as long as he’s unsigned, it’s going to be a big part of his story this season.

Second City Hockey's Top 25 Under 25 rankings

No. 1: Artemi Panarin
No. 2: Nick Schmaltz
No. 3: Gustav Forsling
No. 4: Alex DeBrincat
No. 5: Ville Pokka
No. 6: Ryan Hartman
No. 7: Vincent Hinostroza
No. 8: Tyler Motte
No. 9: John Hayden
No. 10: Mark McNeill
No. 11: Fredrik Olofsson
No. 12: Chad Krys
No. 13: Erik Gustafsson
No. 14: Luke Johnson
No. 15: Tanner Kero
No. 16: Artur Kayumov
No. 17: Carl Dahlstrom
No. 18: Dennis Gilbert
No. 19: Luc Snuggerud
No. 20: Robin Norell
No. 21: Robin Press
No. 22: Dylan Sikura
No. 23: Graham Knott
No. 24: Anthony Louis
No. 25: Roy Radke

Honorable mentions: Radovan Bondra, Joni Tuulola, Mathias From, John Dahlstrom, Lucas Carlsson