2019 NHL free agency

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Panarin scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

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.

Oilers’ Puljujarvi, Stars’ Honka won’t play in NHL this season

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With Sunday’s RFA deadline having passed, neither Dallas Stars defenseman Julius Honka nor Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi will play for any NHL team during the 2019-20 season.

Both Finnish players are plying their trade in Finland’s Liiga this season. Puljujarvi’s play has been particularly tantalizing, as the big winger has 24 points in 25 games so far for Karpat. (Honka has six points in 15 games for JyP HT Jyvaskyla.)

Of course, things feel more fraught with Puljujarvi because of the stakes. The 21-year-old was the fourth pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, and it was a surprise to most that he didn’t go third overall. While Pierre-Luc Dubois has been a find for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pulujuarvi’s development has been bumpy with the Oilers, skewing more toward the Nail Yakupov route than that of, say, Leon Draisaitl.

Time will tell if Puljujarvi can prove that he actually isn’t a bust, but either way, it at least feels like he won’t suit up with the Oilers again. That said, Ken Holland has pointed to instances during his time as GM of the Detroit Red Wings where players seemed like they wouldn’t suit up again for Detroit, only for them to return — at least sometimes. (Jiri Hudler’s a decent example.)

It’s difficult to tell what Puljujarvi’s ceiling or floor really is, but it feels like he should at least be able to help an NHL team, so it feels like a waste. There are certain signs that he could at least be someone who brings something to the table, such as his Hockey Viz heat chart via Micah Blake McCurdy:

Solid enough. One could picture Puljujarvi giving the Oilers a much-needed boost beyond Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, if only new Oilers management could find a way to earn a clean slate (or maybe Holland would’ve needed to pony up some more money?).

To a less dramatic extent, Honka has been one of those players whose underlying stats make you think that he should be helpful … if nothing else, at least as a bottom-pairing defenseman, as the bar isn’t especially high at that level:

Alas, neither one could really stick in lineups, whether they weren’t quite ready for the NHL, found their way into coaches’ doghouses, or some combination of factors.

Both situations seem wasteful, even if each player might only be capable of fairly average results. Oh well, maybe we’ll see them in the NHL next year — wherever they might play?

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.

Zuccarello ready for fans’ reception ahead of MSG return

Mats Zuccarello wasn’t surprised that his nearly decade-long relationship with the Rangers ended at last season’s trade deadline, he just wishes the lines of communication between his camp and the team were a little better.

“It was tough to accept because you were passionate about your team and and you felt like you gave everything,” Zuccarello said via the Pioneer Press. “Then suddenly they don’t want you anymore or whatever. They go in a different direction.”

The 32-year-old Norwegian spent nine seasons with the Rangers and quickly became a fan favorite for his work ethic. It was clear how much he meant to the organization just by hearing how emotional Henrik Lundqvist was following the trade.

As the franchise decided to move toward a younger look, Zuccarello’s pending free agency made it clear he would be moving on from Broadway at some point. Then came last February when he was dealt to the Stars for their playoff push. When free agency opened on July 1, he signed a five-year, $30 million deal to join the Wild, a contract that was never going to come from the Rangers.

After a slow start in Minnesota where he was critical of himself, Zuccarello’s offense has picked up. He enters Monday’s game with a three-game point streak and four goals and 11 points in 19 games this season.

Hard feelings are in the past now, but Zuccarello isn’t sure just how emotional his return will be when he steps on to Madison Square Garden ice for the first time as a visitor.

Editor’s note: Need tickets to see his MSG return? Click here

“I came there young and kind of grew up there,” he said. “That’s where I’m living almost my whole 20s. Obviously it’s a big part of me. So yeah, I don’t know if it’s going to be emotional.”

While he may not think it’s going to be emotional, it will be for the fans inside MSG, who will give him an extended, roaring ovation when the time comes. It will be a thank you for his years of service to the franchise, which were appreciated by the franchise.

“The fans, they did so much for me and helped me and supported me all those years,” he said. “So that’s going to be special, for sure.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Puljujarvi excelling in Finland as NHL future remains uncertain

The clock is ticking for Jesse Puljujarvi and the Edmonton Oilers.

By the time the calendar turns to Dec. 1, 2019, the Finnish forward will know his fate for the remainder of this season. Come that Sunday Puljujarvi will either be with the Oilers, on a new NHL team, or knowing that he will be playing with Liiga’s Karpat through the end of the 2019-20 campaign.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement states that Puljujarvi, a Group 2 free agent, has until Dec. 1 to sign a contract or he will be ineligible to play this season. An unsigned restricted free agent, the 21-year-old has excelled since signing a one-year deal — which features an NHL opt-out clause — with Karpat while waiting to see how his future unfolded.

In 17 games Puljujarvi has 11 goals and 18 points and doing everything the Oilers hoped he would. Those that watch him play on a regular basis say his game has improved, according to Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. His play has also earned him a call up to the Finnish national team for the upcoming Karjala Cup, which general manager Ken Holland will be attending.

Now come the questions for Holland: Do you bring him back over? Do you look to make a trade if a return to Edmonton isn’t in the cards? Or do you let him build his confidence for a season at home and re-visit the situation in the off-season?

Holland has the leverage in this situation with Puljujarvi’s RFA status, and given the player’s struggles in his first three NHL seasons, between injury and finding it difficult to carve out a regular spot in the Oilers’ lineup, option No. 3 is probably the best for all parties. Let him stay in Finland to continue improving his game and figure out a plan in the summer. If he still wants to move on then a strong season with Karpat would encourage other NHL teams to make their interest known. If he’s open to re-signing, then the Oilers would certainly welcome him back considering their need for depth scoring up front.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.