Artemiy Panarin should be in the Hart Trophy conversation

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When Artemiy Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the New York Rangers this summer, there were critics who immediately screamed “OVERPAID.” Just four months into the deal and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Panarin is a bona fide superstar and he is leading the rebuilding New York Rangers in goals and assists. Furthermore, no matter who he plays with, the man just keeps upping his game. Panarin is everything the Rangers could’ve hoped for and if he keeps this pace up and drags the Rangers into a wild card spot, he deserves to be in consideration for the NHL’s Hart Trophy.

Since the moment Panarin put pen to paper on his massive deal, the pressure has been on. A full-blown ad campaign that lit up momentous screens around MSG and Times Square proclaimed “He’s A Game Changer. And He’s Ours.” Panarin became the second-highest-paid player in the league on July 1st with an average annual value of $11.6 million; right behind only the generational superstar of the Edmonton Oilers, Connor McDavid. When you get paid that kind of money, expectations are bound to be sky-high. Panarin had to show the world that the Brinks truck that arrived at his house wasn’t a mistake.

Over the summer, Panarin became embraced by the Rangerstown faithful. From the Instagram posts with his adorable dog Mr. Riziy to the famous picture of him at the airport with a hoodie on reading “New York or Nowhere” and more, Panarin showed the New York faithful that he was here and ready to perform for the Garden Crowd. 

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See, this was a guy who went undrafted. Who entered the league as a 24-year-old with the Chicago Blackhawks and showed the entire world that he was here and ready to light the league on fire. He won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie and a season later was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. His star was skyrocketing; did he shrink away from the spotlight? No, he left small-town Columbus, Ohio and signed one of the biggest deals in NHL history with the Rangers of New York City. The biggest city in the world. It was Panarin’s time to take center stage on Broadway and he wanted nothing less than a standing ovation. 

Game One: October 3rd, 2019. Madison Square Garden. The New York Rangers were set to take on the Winnipeg Jets in their home opener in front of a packed house at the World’s Most Famous Arena. After a first period that saw the two teams trade chances, the score was tied 1-1 after goals from Marc Staal and Mark Scheifele. Early in the second period, the Breadman would make his presence felt for the home team for the first time in his Rangers career. Mika Zibanejad lasered a shot on net and the massive rebound found Panarin in the high slot. Panarin would rocket the puck past Connor Hellebuyck and send the Garden crowd into a frenzy. The Rangers would win 6-4 in an offensive showcase that gave fans a glimpse of just how dangerous this team could be. Panarin made his mark in his first act on Broadway.

Since that first game, Panarin has done nothing but continue to impress and make the case for his MVP candidacy. He currently has 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in 27 games. He had the fourth-most points in the NHL within the month of November behind only the aforementioned Connor McDavid, the Oilers’ other superstar, Leon Draisaitl, and his former teammate Patrick Kane. He sits 10 points above the second place point leader on the Rangers, Ryan Strome. He has consistently produced no matter who his linemates are and he always has a smile on his face. He ranks tenth in assists per game, tied for sixth in power-play goals, tenth in the NHL in assists, and tied for sixth in the NHL in points. He’s doing this all on a rebuilding team that has the youngest average age in the league with consistently shifting linemates as head coach David Quinn shuffles things up to find a winning combination. The Breadman has done nothing but deliver. 

The Rangers are building towards becoming a consistent Stanley Cup contender and Panarin was brought in not only to lead the team offensively but to be a role model to the young kids like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox. To show the rookies what it takes to be a top player in the NHL night in and night out. His infectious attitude and his all-world play have made a big impression on his teammates as they consistently point out in interviews that playing with him has been something of a godsend. 

The debate over the “Most Valuable Player” is very heated among sports fans. Should it always go to the best player in the league? Should it go to the player who’s individually most valuable to his respective team? In my opinion, it shouldn’t just go to the league’s best player; otherwise, the NHL is better off re-naming the Hart Trophy the Connor McDavid Trophy for at least the next decade. The Oilers are taking the next step this season in their own rebuilding plan and there is no doubt what McDavid is doing is impressive but the fact of the matter remains: the Rangers were not expected to do much of anything this year from the hockey world. Many had them pegged for another bottom-five finish. That may end up happening, but right now this team is 14-10-3 and only a few points out of a wild card spot. Panarin is the driving force behind this team.

He is tied for sixth in the NHL in points since he debuted with the Chicago Blackhawks and, to add to that, he’s second in even-strength assists and third in even-strength points. Panarin is a superstar. He’s been paid to be the leading man on this iteration of the Broadway Blueshirts, and since the moment the puck dropped on the 2019-20 season, Panarin has been a man on a mission. If the New York Rangers get into the playoffs, Artemiy Panarin deserves to be in the Hart Trophy conversation.