Can Richard Panik improve upon his breakout 2016-17 season?

He nearly doubled his career goal total in one season

Entering the 2016-17 NHL season, Richard Panik had played 181 games and scored just 25 goals. But something clicked for the 26-year-old Slovak winger last year, as Panik erupted for 22 goals and 22 assists while playing the first full 82-game season of his career. Now we’ll find out whether last season’s emergence was an anomaly or something we can expect for a former Toronto Maple Leafs waiver claim who was traded to Chicago for Jeremy Morin.

Panik’s hot/cold stretches

The first noticeable thing about Panik’s 22-goal season is that they often came in bunches. Panik caught everyone’s attention with a hat trick on October 15 against the Nashville Predators, half of the six goals Panik scored in the first six games of the season. After that span, though, he wouldn’t score again until November 29 and that was his only goal from games 7-31. Panik had another hot streak in February, posting six goals and six assists over a nine-game stretch and also scored five times during eight games in late March. The main parallel in those stretches is that Panik was often skating on the top line when he was lighting the lamp more frequently.

Inside the numbers

Panik’s shooting percentage last season was 14.2%, which isn’t significantly higher than his 12.7% career mark — a difference of only two goals based on his 155 shots on goal last year. His possession numbers weren’t great, actually, with his 49.6 CF% falling 1.2% below the team rate, which is not a number you’d expect out of a player who spent so much time on the top line. Panik had a perfect 50/50 split between his offensive and defensive zone starts, so he wasn’t given any special treatment from Joel Quenneville in terms of his on-ice utilization. His PDO number was 103.2, which could suggest some puck luck. But how much faith you’re willing to put into that metric is up for debate. Panik also led the team with 147 hits, if that does something for you.

What does it all mean?

Excellent question. For Hawks fans, the correct answer to the question presented in the headline is: “I sure hope so.” Looking at the numbers above, there’s nothing to suggest that Panik’s 2016-17 season was a fluke. It’s quite possible that a former second-round pick simply figured out how to produce at the NHL level as he crossed the 200-game plateau in his career. Playing on a top line certainly helped Panik’s numbers, but giving Q’s penchant for line juggling, it’s hard to argue against Panik having to earn his promotion to the top line and then maintain a high level of play to keep from being demoted. And if Panik can maintain his spot as the Hawks’ No. 1 right wing, there’s a good chance his below-average possession numbers will improve thanks to the addition of Brandon Saad on the opposite wing of that top line.

And if the numbers don’t do it for you, here’s an eye test:

There are two things about this goal that are impressive. First, of course, is the execution of an incredibly skilled movement of the puck in a relatively tight space along with a well-placed shot. Second (and more impressive, I’d argue) is the thought process. How many NHL players would even consider doing this in a game? How many NHL players have the creativity to perform that maneuver at any point, let alone against one of the best players on a team that’s won consecutive Stanley Cups? That’s the type of move that wouldn’t even make it to the mind of most NHL players during game action. Not only did Panik think about it, he performed it. Puck-handling creativity like that isn’t granted to everyone who makes the NHL.

Combine that eye test along with the math test above, factor in the addition of the possession-driving Saad as a linemate, and I’d  be willing to wager on another season with a goal total in the mid-20s and a point total hovering in the low-50s for Panik.