DENVER —At some point in the next four months, should the Blackhawks be fortunate enough to play that long, Artemi Panarin’s body might start to give out. After all, Tuesday’s game in Colorado was Panarin’s 54th of the regular season — already matching his career-high during his five full seasons in the KHL.
From now on, every game he plays is basically uncharted territory. But Panarin thinks it’s just mind over matter.
“I was more tired in the KHL, maybe because this is my first season, and it’s a lot of emotions,” Panarin said through an interpreter.
Those emotions have carried him to a remarkable season so far. Despite having never played in the physical NHL, or on the smaller North American rink, or even in training camp because of an injury, Panarin has been defying conventional wisdom all season for the Hawks. Not only does he lead all rookies in goals, assists, and points, he’s 12th overall in points, and 10th in assists. He’s played a significant role in Patrick Kane’s monster season, and has become one of the most important players in the Hawks lineup.
Every year, rookies hit the proverbial wall. Drained mentally and physically as spring approaches, their play suffers during the most critical part of the season. And any drop-off in Panarin’s play could have a ripple effect across the lineup. But Panarin’s not a typical rookie. He’s 24 years old, and while KHL seasons are shorter than NHL ones, he’s a seasoned professional. And last season, his team in St. Petersburg won the Gagarin Cup, with Panarin playing 20 of the 22 playoff games before posting five goals and five assists in 10 games for Russia in the World Championships. That adds up to 84 games, which is only 21 shy of the Hawks’ total during their Stanley Cup run last season.
Factor in how much easier travel is in the NHL compared with the far-flung KHL, which features teams spread out over more than 6,000 miles, and it’s easy to see why the Hawks are less concerned with Panarin than, say, a standard 20-year-old rookie.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Patrick Kane said “He’s pretty focused on keeping his body feeling good and staying in shape for when these games do come along. He’s still a young kid. Even last year, after his season, you saw him in the World Championships, and he was pretty dynamic there, too. He’ll be fine going into the latter half of the season.”
He certainly doesn’t look like he’s having any trouble adapting to the NHL grind. At practices and morning skates, he’s among the peppier players, goofily over-celebrating goals and staying on the ice late to work on his one-timers and stickhandling. And in games, only Jonathan Toews and Kane are averaging more ice time among Hawks forwards than Panarin’s 18:45.
Panarin even spent some of his All-Star break practicing on his own, preferring to stay on the ice as much as possible.
“It was good for me, just to get ready for the next games,” he said.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville will keep a wary eye on Panarin, as he does all rookies. But he doesn’t sound worried at all.
“He’s been pretty good so far, and very consistent,” Quenneville said. “As a team, we’re pretty conscientious of rest, and implementing it at the needed time for certain guys. His play will dictate that.”