One of the more interesting questions for fans of the Blackhawks this offseason is how Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin will fare now that they’ve been separated by the reality of the business. There’s not a lot of information on how Panarin has fared in the NHL without Kane, so naturally that’s piqued the curiosity of hockey people.
We have a lot more info to work with on Kane, who is entering his 11th year in the NHL. It’s kind of remarkable to think it’s already been a decade for No. 88 in the black and red, a testament to the idea that time flies when you’re having fun and winning Stanley Cups.
"I think I'd be sitting here lying to you if [I didn't say] my first reaction was pretty emotional," he said. "A little bit of disappointment, too, because obviously we had that chemistry the past couple years."
Part of the concern on Chicago’s side in the wake of the Panarin-Saad trade is what becomes of the second line. We know Saad will probably go on the top line next to Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. The second line presumably features Kane, Artem Anisimov, and ... well, that’s the part they haven’t figured out yet.
What does this all mean for Kane? Over the past two seasons, he’s won a Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, and made the All-Star team twice. Here are the leaguewide point total leaders for that time frame:
- Patrick Kane, 195 points
- Sidney Crosby, 174 points
- Jamie Benn, 158 points
- Nicklas Backstrom, 156 points
- Erik Karlsson, 153 points
It’s basically Kane, then Crosby, then everyone else.
In the seasons prior to the Panarin acquisition, Kane was already a superstar with a stellar playoff track record. This was a new level of raw point production that pushed him above and beyond everyone else. It’s understandable to recognize this period coincided with the arrival of Panarin, and wonder whether it can continue now that he’s gone.
With that in mind, I thought it’d be worth looking at just what the loss of Panarin means for Kane entering next season. He’s still the Blackhawks’ best player by practically any measure, but can he still be near the top of the NHL points leaderboard without his partner in crime? Maybe not, even if that’s not necessarily his fault.
A new level of production — but what’s the real cause?
So as noted above, it’s commonly accepted that Kane’s boost in raw production over the past two years primarily stems from the addition of Panarin. That’s a reasonable conclusion given the importance of quality of teammates and the apparent chemistry they’ve shown in torching opponents over the past two years.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that durability has been one of Kane’s biggest assets over the past two years as well. From 2012-13 through 2014-15, he played only 177 games due to the lockout and injuries. His per-game point production over those years was a healthy 1.06, albeit not at the 1.19 level he established during the past two seasons.
So that part in itself makes his point explosion seem greater than in actuality. The other key factor here is ice time. Kane played 19:49 per game in the three seasons before Panarin. In the past two seasons, as Joel Quenneville has adjusted to a thinner roster, Kane has played 20:54 per game. That’s an increase of over a minute per-game, which gives him a lot of extra time to accumulate numbers.
When you see he hadn’t had more than 69 points in a season in the four years before Panarin, then 106 and 89 points in the two years after Panarin, playing time accounts for a lot of that.
Kane also had a ridiculous year on the power play in 2015-16 that fueled his MVP season. That year, Kane scored 17 power play goals on 71 shots, which is a 24 percent success rate. He actually only scored three fewer points at even strength in 2016-17, he just lost a big chunk of goals with the man advantage.
Here’s what Kane’s per-60 point production looks like over the past five seasons: 3.5, 3.1, 3.2, 3.8, 3.0. It’s a similar pattern if you limit just to 5-on-5 numbers: 2.4, 2.3, 2.2, 2.6, 2.3. His MVP year stands out as the best of his career, but last season his production was fairly ordinary for his standards. The only difference was that Quenneville played him more than ever to account for having fewer scoring options.
This is important context to start off with because it says pretty bluntly that Kane will be fine next season. He’ll always be used in an offensive-minded role that suits his talents, and if he’s with some guys who can drive possession and get him chances to finish, Kane will be the same superstar he’s been over the past five seasons. If anything, the idea of an injury or aging seems like a bigger concern that Panarin’s departure leading to some great fallout.
Some reasons for concern, but with important context
Now that we’ve covered that, there are some numbers that might be reason to worry for Hawks fans. There’s important context that needs to be included here before jumping to any grand conclusions, but it’s worth digging into to understand where Kane is at as a player.
First, here are Kane and Panarin’s 5-on-5 on-ice goal numbers for last season:
Kane+Panarin together: 52 goals for, 38 against, +14
Panarin without Kane: 11 goals for, 7 goals against, +4
Kane without Panarin: 13 goals for, 18 goals against, -5
Not great! Together, Kane and Panarin were fantastic. But when separated for brief periods of time last season, Panarin still had some success. Kane, however, struggled badly as teams piled up goals with him on the ice.
Here are Kane’s individual numbers with and without Panarin for last season:
Kane goals/60 with Panarin: 0.96 (16 goals in 996 minutes)
Kane points/60 with Panarin: 2.47 (41 points in 996 minutes)
Kane shots/60 with Panarin: 8.92 (148 shots in 996 minutes)
Kane goals/60 without Panarin: 1.14 (7 goals in 369 minutes)
Kane points/60 without Panarin: 1.79 (11 points in 369 minutes)
Kane shots/60 without Panarin: 8.62 (53 shots in 369 minutes)
So first off, Kane was straight up less effective without Panarin last season. He scored more goals per 60, but had significantly fewer assists and a slightly lower shot rate. The team didn’t do well when he was on the ice in those situations.
It’s worth digging into what Kane’s non-Panarin situations consisted of, though. A large chunk came in a failed experiment with Toews on the top line, in which Kane put up just 1.4 points per 60. The Blackhawks got outscored, 15-11, when Kane and Toews were together at 5-on-5. He got minutes with a bunch of other players, too, as Quenneville used him liberally to prop up the offense late in games.
This leads to some notable patterns in Kane’s usage with and without Panarin. In 996 5-on-5 minutes with Panarin last season, they took 80.9 percent of their zone starts in the offensive end. That’s some of the most extreme usage you’ll find in the whole league.
In 342 minutes with Toews, the offensive zone start percentage was 63.3 percent. In 133 minutes with Tanner Kero, 38.1 percent, and in 74 minutes with Marcus Kruger, an incredible 10.6 percent.
More than anything, that may sum up why Kane’s numbers look so wildly different with and without Panarin. Yes, it was part quality of teammates, but it was also about how wildly different Kane’s role was depending on WHO his teammates were. If he was with Panarin, they were getting the cushiest treatment possible to rack up goals. If he was grabbing minutes on the fourth line with Kero or Kruger, that meant battling from the defensive zone with playmakers who pale in comparison. It’s a confluence of factors that would hinder the production of any player, even one as great as Kane. It’s also more complicated than merely limiting the discussion to quality of teammates.
Of course Kane’s numbers would look better with Panarin. They’d look better with Kane and Kero getting 80 percent offensive zone starts than they do at 40 percent, too.
This also makes his goal differential numbers look much less worrisome. Yes, on its face you’d naturally be concerned with Kane struggling in minutes away from Panarin. But as you dig deeper, you’ll see that those minutes either came with Toews or when he was double-shifting in a defensive-minded fourth line role. If anything, these numbers should make you wonder how Toews and Kane could’ve had such poor chemistry, but that’s not necessarily something to worry about if they’re on separate lines most of the time anyway. It’s a question for another day.
So what does it all mean, Basil?
Kane looks ready for another big season with the Blackhawks, but I think there will be an interesting dynamic if his overall point production is down. One of the first things you’ll want to look at is playing time, because there’s a chance Quenneville will want to ease off his star player after pushing him so hard the past two years, only to get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
Fewer minutes in each game may be the likeliest cause for Kane to back down from his perch as one of the game’s absolute most productive scorers, even if his per-minute impact remains similar. As long as the Blackhawks continue using him in an offensive-minded role with solid talent like Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz, or Patrick Sharp, he should remain the team’s offensive leader.
This is part of why the Blackhawks made the Saad-Panarin trade over the summer. Yes, the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line was incredible, but it was also fueled by aggressively offensive-minded coaching tactics. Now the Blackhawks can be confident in their first line with Toews and Saad reunited, and they have reason to be hopeful in their second line because Kane scores when you put him in an offensive role, whether that’s with Panarin and Anisimov or Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg.
If you’re playing fantasy hockey, maybe it’s understandable to be weary of Kane’s raw production next season. Anyone expecting him to challenge Connor McDavid, Crosby, and company for the Art Ross Trophy should probably understand the factors going against him, which are more complex than simply, “He’ll miss Panarin.”
The Blackhawks enter next season with high expectations despite all that activity, and Kane is a big part of that. We may have lost the most electric line in hockey, but there’s a method to the madness.