Hartnett: Panarin's Scoring Ability Accelerates Rangers' Rebuild

By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

The Rangers continued an impressive offseason transformation by landing top free-agent target Artemi Panarin. In the days leading up to free agency, the Florida Panthers were considered favorites to sign the 87-point wing. On the eve of free agency, the rival Islanders emerged as a serious contender for the 27-year-old’s services.

July 1 came, and Panarin was signed, sealed and delivered in a Rangers uniform. Make no mistake about Panarin’s talent; he’s an elite scoring and playmaking wing. Every bit of traditional statistics, analytics, microstats, evaluation graphs and the good ol’ eye test point to him continuing to be a top-tier NHL wing.

The surprise was that the Rangers were able to ink the career 0.99 point-per-game man without being the highest bidder. Panarin put pen to paper on a reported seven-year, $81.5 million contract.

He desires the big stage and bright lights. His high level of skill will excite the Garden faithful, so should the fact that he left money on the table – and declined income tax-free dollars from the Panthers because of the prospect of winning in Manhattan.

Artemi Panarin USA TODAY Images

How important is Panarin’s arrival and how much of a difference-maker can he be? He’s played just a shade below or above a point-per-game rate no matter whether Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov or Pierre-Luc Dubois was his center. In his two seasons in Columbus, Panarin elevated his output to 1.06 points per game. His 28 goals and 59 assists in 79 games last season were good for 1.10 points per game.

For comparison, Jaromir Jagr was a 1.15 point-per-game player over 3½ seasons with the Rangers.

Since Panarin entered the league, he ranks eighth overall in points. Only Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Blake Wheeler, Brad Marchand and Johnny Gaudreau have recorded more points.

Panarin has been trending on an upward curve into his prime years and will be teamed with a talented primed-aged center in Mika Zibanejad. Rolling out Panarin, Zibanejad and either Pavel Buchnevich or second overall pick Kaapo Kakko on the top line alone will energize Madison Square Garden.

With Panarin, Kakko and top-pairing defenseman Jacob Trouba added to the mix and the potential of several young players such as Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden and Libor Hajek improving, there’s a real optimism ahead of the new season.

I know a lot of fans want to know if the moves made by general manager Jeff Gorton put the Rangers into position to be a playoff team in the upcoming campaign. It’s difficult to provide a definitive answer at this stage. There are plenty of offseason decisions still to be made regarding the likes of Chris Kreider, Vladislav Namestnikov, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith and others.

Jimmy Vesey was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for a third-round pick in the 2021 draft as part of a cap-clearing move that saves the Rangers $2.275 million. This will make it easier to sign restricted free agents Trouba, Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Lemieux.

Again, this current Rangers roster isn’t a finished product. Depth forwards Greg McKegg and Danny O’Regan were also signed on Day 1 of free agency. I suspect that the Blueshirts will complete higher-profile signings in the coming days.

This offseason has brought franchise-altering changes to the Rangers in terms of front-office personnel, player recruitment and long-term roster-building strategies. Gorton and team president John Davidson have built a foundation for success in an offseason of large forward strides.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.