The chemistry on Chicago's top scoring line almost took a serious hit this summer. Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane was trying to stay in touch with left winger Artemi Panarin in Russia, but his texts were going unanswered. Trouble in paradise? Hardly. Panarin lost his phone, so while those smiley-face emojis died lonely deaths in the ether, the relationship between the two didn't actually take a hit.
And that's good news for the Hawks, because the salary cap once again dictated some tough decisions in Chicago. This year, Chicago will need the Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Kane line to be huge again, as the team folds in a ton of rookies while still attempting another charge at the Stanley Cup. Luckily, while Panarin is the reigning Calder Trophy winner, he's not dealing with the same sophomore jitters as many past winners.
“I've already forgot last season," Panarin said through a translator. "I'm moving forward with new goals and new challenges ahead. I'm ready for a fresh start.”
In case you hadn't heard, Panarin was a very experienced NHL rookie in 2015-16, coming off nearly five full seasons in the KHL. He turns 25 this week, making him much older than the average sophomore, but that's a great thing for Chicago, since the attention needs to shift to younger rookies such as Nick Schmaltz, Gustav Forsling, Ryan Hartman, Tyler Motte and Vince Hinostroza.
Felllow Russian and center Anisimov was a boon for Panarin last year, though Anisimov is quick to point out that Panarin had friends outside the team who lived in Chicago, so any questions thrown at the pivot were generally reserved for on-ice matters. Nevertheless, Anisimov was key to making the line with Kane work.
“I definitely love playing with him," Panarin said. "He plays both offense and defense and helps out a lot. He's a good person for me to have.”
And Panarin is a great player for the Hawks to have. His vision and puck skills are so natural, he can make difficult plays look easy. With Anisimov holding down the middle, Panarin and Kane are more or less free to wheel around the ice, dizzying opponents with their moves and torturing netminders with their finishing skills.
While Kane may have been the MVP last year, Panarin did pot 30 goals of his own.
"He's kinda like Kaner, but a righty," said defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. "He always knows what his surroundings are when he's stickhandling. He always knows what's going on around him. At the same time, he can dangle and do stuff other players can't do."
Through six games this season, the Hawks are 3-3. While that's OK (and, admittedly, a small sample size), all three wins have come at home and only Calgary has surrendered more goals overall. Coach Joel Quenneville toyed with the notion of breaking up the big scoring line in the pre-season, but ultimately kept Kane and the two Russians together. Once again, the wingers are off to a great start, with Panarin notching five points and Kane tallying seven. As an added bonus, Anisimov actually leads both of them with eight points of his own.
“It's very comfortable playing with them," Anisimov said. "Those two guys are unbelievable players and we can bring the line up another level.”
Should Chicago have any designs on a fourth Stanley Cup during this era, the line must continue to play big - even though Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith are far from 'support players.'
And now that Panarin has his phone back, there's no reason they can't be dialled in all season.