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Top 25 Under 25: #13 Richard Panik

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What was supposed to be a breakout year for the entire "Top Gun Line" saw two-thirds nominated for the Calder Trophy and Richard Panik sent back to Syracuse at one point. So what went wrong?

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

If you looked at the young right wingers at training camp and in preseason games last fall in a vacuum, it'd be tough not to end up at the conclusion that Brett Connolly deserved to stay in the NHL.

It's not that Richard Panik played poorly; but Connolly was fantastic, and when Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Panik were kept on the main roster together, it was pretty clearly in an effort to translate preexisting line chemistry straight to the NHL.

For whatever reason, Johnson and Palat took off, and Panik lagged behind. While the year-end totals for the three players are obviously out of balance because of a good chunk of the season for Palat and Johnson spent with Martin St. Louis, even before the Stamkos injury and that realignment happened Panik wasn't quite on the same NHL page as his linemates.

Panik finished his NHL season with just 13 points in 50 games played, falling well short of expectations set after a very promising junior and AHL career. Here's how the panel ranked him:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clare Austin Mike Gallimore Clark Brooks
13 14 11 15 13

Last Year's Rank: 5

That's the real story here. After finishing last year as a Top 5 player in our inaugural Top 25 Under 25 series, Panik has tumbled down eight spots, more than any other player ranked a year ago.

The bottom line was simply not good for Richard Panik in what should have been his first year as a full-time NHLer; he was demoted back down to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL before the Olympics (where he did score 11 points in 13 games) and when he was up with the Lightning it was usually in a non-scoring role on the 4th line or as a 13th forward.

When players struggle so noticeably, it's easy to attribute the lack of success to a few different factors; is the player motivated properly, either by himself or with good coaching? Is he committed to putting in the effort required to be a successful NHLer? Is he playing poorly (bad process) or just plain unlucky (bad results)?

Ultimately, Richard Panik suffered the ignoble fate of bad process coupled with bad results; bad play and bad luck simultaneously. This is the kind of rut professional athletes hit from time to time, and it's reductive and insulting to the player to blame his effort or his commitment for his struggles. He didn't play well, but he probably deserved a few more bounces than he got:

Richard Panik has good touch around the net and on the rush. He is emphatically a scorer and a finisher -- over three AHL seasons (120 games), he scored 41 goals on just 220 shots (18.6% shooting percentage). That's probably a little high even for the AHL, because no one -- not even Steven Stamkos -- is an 18+% shooter in the NHL, but the 14.6% he shot in 2012-13 in 25 NHL games is probably closer to his true talent. Even somewhere around league average -- 8-9% or so -- would be twice what he actually shot in 2013-14, a woeful 5.4%.

His on-ice percentages suffered similarly; just 5.36% of Tampa Bay shots went into the net with Panik on the ice at 5v5 and Lightning goalies stopped a staggeringly low 86.54% of shots at 5v5 with Panik on. Through very little fault of his own except some natural (but still vicious) variation, Panik's Goals For% and his plus/minus fell into a bottomless pit from which he never really recovered. If you felt like Panik was always getting the short end of the stick or just missing on converting some nice scoring chances, you're right. He's a fair bet to rebound and score more in 2014-15 if he can find a spot in the top-9.

Therein lies the rub, however. Looking ahead, the same battle Panik faced a year ago faces him when training camp rolls around next month: there are handful of young, talented wingers all competing for the same spots, particularly on the right side. He won't have the added benefit of chemistry with his AHL linemates again, as Johnson and Palat proved to be more than capable with whomever they played. As Managing Editor John Fontana pointed out:

The fact is there are only so many opportunities to be had with the 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning, and the general opportunities for Richard Panik and Brett Connolly to achieve a lasting place with the club may be wearing down to a precious few.

A one year extension signed earlier this year will be enough time to find out if Panik can carve out a permanent spot in the Lightning line-up. If he can't, he might not be on this list come next summer.