Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

Aside from no-brainer cases such as Nathan MacKinnon being paid essentially half of his on-ice value (maybe less), it can be tricky to say that an expensive free agent signing is “worth the money.” Especially since the New York Rangers have been worse than their 13-10-3 record would indicate.

So … maybe you’d argue Artemi Panarin hasn’t been worth every dime of his $11.64M AAV, but I believe emphatically that he’s at least justified the hype as the rare superstar to actually hit unrestricted free agency.

Thursday serves as a momentous occasion to consider that decision, as Panarin is playing against the Blue Jackets for the first time in Columbus since deciding to leave for the Rangers. Let’s look at this situation from a few different angles.

Still a superstar

As the headline suggests, Panarin remains a dynamic talent.

Even with a two-game pointless drought coming into Thursday’s game, Panarin has been producing, generating 12 goals and 33 points in 26 games. If Panarin managed to maintain this pace over an 82-game season, he’d set new career-highs with 39 goals, 67 assists, and 106 points.

He might not be able to maintain it. While Panarin’s shooting percentage isn’t totally out of order, his playmaking might cool ever so slightly (his on-ice shooting percentage – a decent way to see if a player’s assists might be a touch inflated – is very high at 15.6 percent, compared to a career average of 10.8).

Even so, if Panarin stays healthy, he’s off to a hot enough start that he might beat his career-high of 87 points.

Most importantly, Panarin is still extremely good, and brings more to the table than just the highlight reel passes and goals.

By most underlying numbers, Panarin is more or less the same player: a dynamic offensive presence who doesn’t seem to hurt his team defensively. Maybe you can chalk that up to the notion that the best defense is to not have to play defense because you have the puck all the time, but either way, he’s remarkable. Check out the past three seasons of his heat maps via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

(As a reminder, lots of red and a positive number up top, in the offensive side is great, and not lots of red and a negative number in the bottom [defensive] half is also great. So, basically, Panarin ruled and still rules.)

Via the Point Hockey’s stats, Panarin is tied with Mathew Barzal for the lead in offensive zone puck possession (1:12 per game) and Panarin’s 72 completed passes to the slot ranks fourth overall.

At this point, it’s not about if Panarin is still an elite player, but where he ranks among the cream of the crop.

Not downplaying the meaning of the game

Plenty of people involved with the Rangers acknowledge that Thursday’s return to Columbus means a lot to Panarin. Panarin himself admitted as much on Wednesday, as the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports.

“I’m pretty excited. It’s not going to be a regular game for me,” Panarin said. “It’s going to be a different game, I’m going to try to show the best I can.”

Via The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello (sub required), current Rangers and former Blue Jackets executive John Davidson believes that Panarin might be a “little apprehensive” about how he’ll be received. Going to the Rangers was basically Panarin’s first full-fledged choice (his options were limited when he came to the Blackhawks from the KHL, and it wasn’t his call when Panarin was traded to Columbus), so here’s hoping that Blue Jackets fans are as understanding as 1st Ohio Battery’s Chris Pennington recommends.

Breadless

So far, it’s been an up-and-down season for Columbus, who have lost two in a row and sit at 11-12-4.

While Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bloated contract and rocky start make his departure seem like a possible blessing in disguise, it’s tougher not to miss Panarin.

In particular, I’ve been curious to see how Pierre-Luc Dubois has fared without Panarin. He’s been glued to Panarin for the first two years of his career, making it difficult to tell just how good he is. (We knew PLD was a very useful player, but a star like Panarin can really shine you up.)

So far … mostly very good. Like Panarin, is heat maps look strong as ever:

With 18 points in 27 games (thanks to a dry spell of one assist in his last five games), Dubois isn’t quite on last season’s 61-point pace, but he’s not so far off, and has a shot at his first 30+ goal season.

Sure, Dubois proving himself doesn’t totally soothe things for a Columbus team facing ups and downs, yet it’s something they can hang their hat on as Panarin comes back to town.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

    Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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    ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

    General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

    Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

    The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

    Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.

    Rivals Crosby and Ovechkin relish being All-Star teammates

    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have played dozens of regular-season and playoff games against each other since breaking into the NHL together in 2005.

    The longtime rivals and respective captains of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have also shared the ice at All-Star Games before. But with each superstar in his mid-30s, they know this trip could be their last together.

    They took advantage of it, with Ovechkin setting up Crosby for two goals Saturday in the lone game of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament their Metropolitan Division team got to play.

    “I think we have fun to play together, not against each other,” Ovechkin said, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “Right now, we was on the same team, and it was pretty special, pretty good moment.”

    Crosby, who also had the secondary assist on Ovechkin’s goal, did not expect to get the puck back. That’s not unreasonable given Ovechkin has built a career on scoring and is only 82 goals back of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career record.

    “I was thinking I just did my job: gave it to him,” said Crosby, whose career numbers are so close to Ovechkin’s that he has just five more points overall. “I thought he was just going finish it, but he was kind enough to send me a couple back. We had some nice goals there.”

    Not enough to win the 3-on-3 semifinal against the Atlantic, which beat the Central in the final. Ovechkin lamented not scoring more and took some jabs at his goalie teammates for a day: fellow Russians Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers and Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders.

    “Obviously goalie could play better,” Ovechkin said.

    Crosby and Ovechkin being together at All-Star weekend for the first time since 2018 was one of the themes of the weekend, given how they shared the stage as faces of the NHL for much of their careers. But they don’t want this to be a Sid and Ovi swan song and could do this again as soon as next year when the festivities are in Toronto.

    “You try to go out there have fun and stay in the moment,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, it’s not our last one. That’s the best way to approach it.”

    HOMETOWN HEROICS

    The introductions for Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk were saved for last.

    And of course, the two Florida Panthers stars, representing the Atlantic Division, delivered in their home arena.

    “We play regular-season and playoff games here, but with this event, it’s even more special to be here representing the Florida Panthers,” Barkov said.

    Tkachuk was clearly comfortable playing in the same arena where has amassed 66 points (sixth in the NHL) this season with the Panthers. He had seven points (four goals, three assists) Saturday, including a goal and an assist in the Atlantic Division’s 7-5 win over the Central Division to take the All-Star game title.

    Tkachuk had a hat trick and a pair of assists in the Atlantic squad’s semifinal game against the Metropolitan division – tying a single-game points record for the 3-on-3 All-Star format. Two of those goals were assisted by his Panthers teammate to give their squad a win 10-6 and advance to face the Central division the final.

    By the time Barkov and Tkachuk came out for the All-Star game final, “Let’s go Panthers!” cheers were being belted throughout FLA Live Arena.

    Barkov, the beloved Panther in his 10th season, has 14 goals this year and 33 assists. He has 234 career goals and 600 points.

    BROTHERLY LOVE

    Brothers Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk have played against each other plenty over the years. But with both players starting for the Atlantic division, they got to experience playing together as the 11th set of brothers to be All-Star teammates.

    The brothers each had a goal in Saturday’s semifinal game between the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions. And Brady assisted on his brother’s goal in the final against the Central division.

    Matthew, drafted in 2016 by the Calgary Flames, is a two-time All-Star with 177 career goals and 448 points.

    Brady, the younger Tkachuk sibling, was drafted in 2018 by the Ottawa Senators and has 110 career goals and 243 points.

    Both were All-Stars back in 2020 in their hometown St. Louis. Brady represented the Atlantic division, while Matthew represented the Pacific squad.

    WEATHER WOES

    It was 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) outside FLA Live Arena when the All-Star 3 on-3 tournament started – more than 50 degrees warmer than 2024 host Toronto. That doesn’t mean this year’s event didn’t have a weather issue.

    The NHL All-Star Beach Festival – which had areas where fans could test their hockey skills, get a photo with the Stanley Cup and check out a Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit, among other things – couldn’t open on Saturday.

    Rain in the morning delayed the opening on Fort Lauderdale Beach, and then 40 mph (64 kilometers per hour) wind gusts later in the day forced the NHL into keeping it closed and calling off a watch party for the All-Star Game.

    It was open Thursday and Friday.

    MVP Matthew Tkachuk lifts Atlantic to NHL All-Star Game win

    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk was right at home at the NHL All-Star Game.

    Again.

    Detroit’s Dylan Larkin had a hat trick, Toronto’s Mitch Marner had three assists and the Atlantic Division topped the Central Division 7-5 in the All-Star Game final.

    All-Star Game MVP Matthew Tkachuk – playing alongside his brother Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators – had seven points on the day, after a five-point outburst in a semifinal win over the Metropolitan Division. Larkin had five goals in the Atlantic’s two games.

    And for the MVP, winning in front of Panthers fans meant more than just winning.

    “It’s been an honor to play in front of them this whole year and it’s great that the other players in the league can see what a great place this is to play,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “I’m as happy as can be here.”

    Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Colorado teammates Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen all had goals for the Central in the final. Makar also had two assists.

    It was the first time the Atlantic won the All-Star Game, after six previous tries in the divisional format. The 11 players – nine skaters and two goalies – on the Atlantic roster split $1 million for the win.

    “It was so much fun,” Larkin said after the first final game hat trick in this All-Star format. “I’m proud of how we won it. What a great group of guys … it was just a great weekend.”

    Matthew Tkachuk has now been on the winning team in both of his All-Star appearances, and both times, he enjoyed the comforts of home. He helped the Pacific win the 2020 All-Star title in St. Louis, his hometown and one of the many spots that his father – Keith Tkachuk, who was in the crowd Saturday – played during his career.

    This one truly had home-ice advantage. Matthew Tkachuk – the former Calgary standout who picked Florida this past offseason, despite much speculation that he would be going to St. Louis — had three goals and two assists in the Atlantic’s 10-6 win over the Metropolitan in the second semifinal.

    It was 3-0 Atlantic after the first half of the 20-minute final; all games under this All-Star format are 3-on-3, 20 minutes in length with a brief break after 10 minutes. The lead got to 4-0 early in the second half of the final, giving the Atlantic 10 consecutive goals; it trailed 6-4 in the semifinal before closing on a 6-0 run.

    NOTES: The NHL gets right back to play on Monday with six games, including a home game for Florida – meaning it’ll be a quick turnaround for the arena. … The Central Division is now the only one yet to win an All-Star Game in this format. The Pacific has three wins, the Metropolitan has three wins and now the Atlantic has one. … Florida was supposed to host this game in 2021, only to have it canceled by the pandemic. The Panthers hosted All-Star weekend in 2023. … Attendance was a sellout, 19,250.

    SEMIFINAL 1: CENTRAL 6, PACIFIC 4

    Keller had two goals and an assist, MacKinnon scored twice and the Central moved into the title matchup. St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and three assists for the Central. Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson had two goals, while San Jose’s Erik Karlsson and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid also scored for the Pacific.

    SEMIFINAL 2: ATLANTIC 10, METROPOLITAN 6

    The teams combined for a record-tying – in the 3-on-3 era, anyway – 16 goals. Matthew Tkachuk had three goals and two assists, tying a single-game record for the format. Brady Tkachuk had a goal and three assists for the Atlantic. Columbus’ Johnny Gaudreau had three goals for the Metropolitan. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had two goals and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin had the other.

    UP NEXT

    The next NHL All-Star weekend is Feb. 2-3, 2024 in Toronto.