Just past halfway through the 2017-18 season, it’s that time of year again where we begin to see midseason awards voting. The award that generally generates the most conversation is the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL’s most valuable player. It’s easy to make a case for plenty of players. Nathan MacKinnon is probably the frontrunner, with John Tavares, Nikita Kucherov, and some of the league’s other top scorers trailing just behind. However, I think there is one sleeper pick for the Hart Trophy: Artemi Panarin. There are 3 main reasons for this, so let’s dive into Panarin’s results and you will see what I mean.
1) Panarin Has Great On Ice Results
The first thing a player must have to hang in the MVP conversation is obviously great on ice results. When evaluating a player’s results, we usually begin with points. Panarin has 38 points in 47 games, tying him for 43rd in NHL scoring. These totals are pretty good, but leave something to be desired for a Hart Trophy candidate. Luckily it’s possible to be an elite offensively without crazy point totals. To do this, the player must be an elite play driver. This is done by generating tonnes of shots and scoring chances ensuring the puck is going in the net even when they’re not picking up points. This describes Panarin to a tee because he is an elite shot generator at 5 on 5. Visualizing this is easy when we look down at his heat map from hockeyviz.
On this map, red represents where shots are coming at an above league average rate and blue is where the shots are coming at a below average rate. These results are impressive, to say the least. With Panarin on the ice, the Blue Jackets are an offensive juggernaut. They generate tones of volume from almost everywhere inside the offensive zone. There is a slight blimp of blue in front of the net, but after that, it’s a sea of red. With Panarin on the ice tones of shots are coming from those high danger areas in the slot and circles. On top of this, there are plenty of shots from up high. Sometimes this can be concerning, but because of all the action in the danger areas, I wouldn’t complain. Altogether he ranks 10th in shots generated per hour this year, just behind Sidney Crosby.
Pilling onto the offensive prowess is surprising shot suppression. When playing without the puck Panarin has been fantastic, boasting the 10th lowest shots against per hour in the NHL. Combine these two things, and with him on the ice, the Blue Jackets have taken 862 shots attempts while giving up 635. This shot differential of +227 is the biggest in the entire league. Indicating Panarin’s impact on goal differential goes deeper than his points.
The final area where Panarin has been driving even strength results is his penalty differential. He has taken just 5 penalties and managed to draw 11. A +6 penalty differential puts him tied for 23rd overall with players like MacKinnon and Kucherov. Penalty Differential can be a great tiebreaker between comparable players and Panarin is keeping pace with his competition. Combine the good point totals with elite shot metrics and strong penalty differential, and Panarin’s on-ice results are impressive so far. With the first reason checked, let’s transition to the second.
2) Panarin is Driving Everything
Next up, a Hart Trophy player must be the driver of those elite results. Jake Guentzel lead the NHL in points per hour last year next to Sidney Crosby, but I don’t think anyone would consider Guentzel an MVP. So let’s apply this to Panarin. He has fantastic on-ice results, but what impresses me most is he drives those results from the wing. Anyone who has watched the Blue Jackets play this season knows the puck runs through Panarin. For those who haven’t seen him play, the numbers back it up. To show this we have micro statistics from Corey Sznajder. This breaks the game down into the 3 zones. Once broken down we can identify what (if anything) players are doing to achieve their results. When we look at the early results, it’s obvious Panarin is doing everything. (Data Viz. From @CJTDevil and can be found here)
All of these metrics combine to paint a clear picture of why Panarin has the best shot differential in the NHL. Beginning in the defensive zone, his fantastic puck control starts to show. His possession exit’s per hour rank in the 97th percentile. Only 3 percent of forwards exit the zone more often than Panarin. Meaning the Blue Jackets lean heavily on him to start pushing the puck up ice. Furthermore, his possession exit percentage ranks in the 95th percentile. So not only does he exit the zone with control very often, but he is ruthlessly efficient with those exits rarely failing or dumping the puck out. Combine these two things and Panarin is elite at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and into the neutral zone, which is our next area.
Once in the neutral zone, we see a similar story. Panarin’s possession entries per hour rank in the 95th percentile. Showing us that once the Blue Jackets (often Panarin himself) get the puck into the neutral zone, it’s on Panarin to carry it over the blueline. Additionally, he does not waste many entries. This is shown by his possession entry percentage in the 93rd percentile. Again meaning he rarely get’s stuffed at the line or is forced to dump/giveaway the puck, but consistently carries it in himself with control. Panarin’s efficiency in the defensive/neutral zones ensures he lives in the offensive zone, where he is at his best.
Once in the offensive zone, Panarin drowns opposing goalies in a wave of shots. Now we can really see how Panarin lights up that heat map. He shoots the puck himself more than 85 percent of forwards, but passing is his bread and butter. His shot assists per hour rank in the 99th percentile. He is primary puck distributor on his line and makes everyone around him better. All these shot assists can help explain why Josh Anderson is magically a stud volume shooter next to Panarin.
Combining the shots with the shot assists, and Panarin directly contributes to shots more than 99% of forwards. To help people understand how crazy this is, Sidney Crosby and Nikita Kucherov are some comparables who contribute to shots within the same percentile. Again this indicates Panarin is an even better offensive player than points suggest. Altogether, Panarin is tasked with exiting his own zone, entering the offensive zone, and distributing the puck once it’s in the offensive zone, and he is amazing in all three areas. This is why he generates tonnes of shots and goals while surrendering very few. With the first 2 boxes checked, let’s look at the final argument he has going for his Hart Trophy hopes.
3) The Blue Jackets Need Panarin
In my opinion, this final box gets overlooked sometimes. I don’t think someone can’t truly be the most valuable to their team if the team is amazing with and without them. Look at Nikita Kucherov this year for an example. He has been fantastic, but because of the murderer’s row behind him in Tampa, the team still kills it with him off the ice. This is why I wouldn’t call Kucherov the MVP in spite of his amazing results. I consider the Blue Jackets a strong team too, but it’s largely because of Panarin.
This becomes obvious with a simple on/off split. With Panarin on the ice at 5 on 5, the Jackets have controlled 58% of goals and 57.6% of the shot attempts. Think the present day Tampa Bay Lightning but even better. Without him, the Jackets control 48% of goals and 48% of the shot attempts. Think the present day Detroit Red Wings. The Jackets play like a dominant cup contending team with him and a lottery team without him. Even the Avalanche break even in goals without MacKinnon, so this big of a gap is unmatched by other Hart Candidates. The Jackets clearly need Panarin more than most teams need their top guy, which strengthens his MVP case.
So in summary, Artemi Panarin is the primary driver behind the Blue Jackets in all 3 zones. He has great results that might get even better. And the Blue Jackets are not a great hockey team without him. Panarin’s points may not be among the best, but make no mistake, he is a sleeper for the Hart Trophy.