With every deft pass, every strong move to the net, every solid hit along the boards, it all seemed to make less and less sense.
Why didn’t Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock want anything to do with Richard Panik, a skilled, young player, as he started a massive rebuilding project in Toronto? Why was Panik banished to the American Hockey League after scoring 11 goals in 76 NHL games a year earlier? Why did the Leafs deal away Panik for career minor-leaguer Jeremy Morin? And before any of that, why did the Tampa Bay Lightning give up on Panik so quickly, waiving him after two partial NHL seasons?
How did a guy who couldn’t play for the worst team in the NHL find himself on Jonathan Toews’ right wing on the then-defending Stanley Cup champions?
“Consistency,” Panik said, matter-of-factly. “It’s been a problem with me pretty much every season I was in the NHL.”
Indeed, that’s always been the knock on Panik. He disappears for shifts, for periods, for games at a time. He’ll follow up a stellar game with a brutal one. He’s an intriguing player, but a maddening one. But he’s also only 25 years old. And if his four-month stint with the Blackhawks last season was any indication, he might finally be ready to shed that “inconsistent” label and become a reliable NHL player.
“I’m excited about [Panik] because there’s a lot of potential there that he really hasn’t tapped into,” assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. “We’ve talked about some of the younger players, but that happens for players who also have a few years of professional [experience] under their belt. All of a sudden, it really clicks in.”
For Panik, that happened in the playoffs, when he was one of the Hawks’ most impressive — and consistent —players during the series against St. Louis. Panik had three assists in six games against the Blues and earned the first shot at playing alongside Toews to start this season. He’ll likely begin Wednesday night’s season-opener on the top line with Toews and Artemi Panarin.
The Blues series was a light-bulb moment for Panik, who suddenly felt liberated from both expectations and doubt — comfortable in the Hawks’ system after four months, and trusted by a head coach for possibly the first time in his NHL career.
“They gave me a chance right away,” Panik said. “When I got traded here, I was in the AHL and the organization brought me right up to the first team, so that helped with the confidence and how I felt on the ice. You feel like the organization cares about you, you know? They know how you can play and they try to help you. You’ve just got to take that shot and repay them for trusting you.”
Nobody ever doubted Panik’s talent. A second-round pick of the Lightning in 2009, Panik was productive in the OHL, AHL and NHL. But he just couldn’t stick. He made the Lightning out of camp and played 50 games in 2013-14, but his erratic play cost him his job. Toronto claimed him off waivers and he played 76 games in 2014-15, but then Babcock decided he wasn’t a part of the Leafs’ future. That both bewildered and bothered Panik.
“I played a whole season in Toronto, and I felt pretty good on the ice,” he said. “Then they started to rebuild the organization. I wanted to be part of the rebuild, but I guess not. Things didn’t work out.”
Frustrating as it was, it might have been the best thing for Panik, who finally feels entrenched in the NHL, unburdened by doubt, and ready to be the player he always believed he could be.
“When you have that feeling that a coach trusts you, your game goes a level up,” he said. “You have confidence on the ice, you’re not looking over [your shoulder], you don’t think about mistakes. You just play hockey and it’s the best thing.”