Top 25 Under 25: #5 Richard Panik

This one, perhaps more than any other article in this edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning Top 25 Under 25, really shows you how much can change in a few short months. Richard Panik comes in at number 5 in our list in spite of what has been a very rocky start to his full-time NHL career.

Next year, the schedule for the Tampa Bay Lightning Top 25 Under 25 will be planned ahead a little bit more than it was for the 2013-2014 season.

Typically, these lists are something that SB Nation sites do to assess the young players on their teams. But let me pull back the curtain for you a little bit: they're also to engage the community during the offseason and to have something to blog about during the hockey season's downtime.

My addition to the staff at Raw Charge came a little late in the summer last year, and there simply wasn't enough time to plan this series out and execute it before the puck dropped on the season in October. Next year, that won't be a problem, but for this year, as you can see, the series has bled much too far into the regular season, making some of our rankings look quite silly along the way. Of course, that's the case with any prognostication, particularly one involving something as affected by random variance as sports, but the fact remains, we got some stuff wrong.

Like putting Richard Panik at #5 on our list.

Panik, the Slovakian forward selected in the 2nd round (52nd overall) by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, had a terrific 2012-2013 with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL as part of the so-called "Top Gun" line, the first unit for Jon Cooper's team that returned to the Calder Cup Finals before losing in 6 games to the Grand Rapids Griffins. Alongside fellow Lightning rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, Panik formed what was arguably the best line in the entire AHL just a short year ago before making the Lightning out of training camp alongside his linemates to start this year.

Here's how the panel ranked Panik:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
6 5 4 7 6 7

That ranking now seems absurdly high given Panik has scored only 2 goals and 9 assists in 38 games this year for the Lightning. He also sports a team-worst -8 rating and is the only Lightning regular who is not even or better.

Clare Austin had good insight on Panik when he was named to Team Slovakia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year:

Another Tampacuse guy, Richard Panik, was named to the Slovak team, despite his struggles here in North America this season. It will be interesting to see how this recognition affects his play in the NHL. Will he have more confidence? Will he finally "get" whatever it was he needed to "get" to earn ice time? What will the story be? In any case, I find it fitting that most of the sentences about Richard Panik right now end in question marks.

After starting the season alongside Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat as the Lightning's third line, injuries and on-ice struggles have forced head coach Jon Cooper to tweak the lineup, as always happens with an NHL roster. That's left the struggling Panik down as an extra forward, often skating around 10 minutes per game all at even strength with Ryan Malone and whichever forward double shifts, since Cooper has opted for a 11F/7D set-up on most nights.

Fortunately for Panik, he's got a lot more to offer as a player that, for whatever reason, just hasn't translated to the NHL -- yet. In two full AHL seasons, he scored 82 points in 115 regular season games (0.71 PPG), and his career stats coming up through the European and North American junior leagues show his scoring prowess at lower levels:

He's a big body that's been known to throw it around to wreak havoc in the offensive zone, which has already led him to one phone call from Brendan Shanahan and the NHL Department of Player Safety earlier this year for boarding Karl Alzner of the Washington Capitals. Unlike many "power forwards", however, Panik is an above-average skater that isn't limited to net-front play and board battles. While he has the size and strength to play that way, he's also got enough speed and skill to create offense off the rush, making him a unique forward amongst a stable of young skill wingers that mostly lack size and the ability to play effectively down low.

This year with the Lightning, he's run into a bit of rut. But all the blame doesn't necessarily rest on his shoulders, as he's been tremendously unlucky, too. Panik currently has the lowest PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) of any Lightning skater (minimum 36 games played) at 95.5. His on-ice shooting percentage is second lowest on the team (4.9%) and is well below the league average. Only B.J. Crombeen's is lower for the Lightning. And in spite of the league-leading goaltending the Lightning are getting out of Ben Bishop, Panik's on-ice save percentage is a team-worst 90.6%, which is downright pedestrian and is at least partly to blame for his plus/minus rating, though he has very little (if any) control over the play of the goaltenders while he is on the ice. The Lightning score just 1/3 of all goals while Panik is on the ice, significantly lower than the next Lightning skater (45.6% for Eric Brewer) and mostly due to randomness in shooting and save percentages.

Eventually, Panik's luck will turn and he will get another shot in the top-6 for the Lightning. For now, maximizing the small amount of 5v5 time he is getting will be key until he earns another look. It wouldn't be surprising to see Panik down in Syracuse again at some point this season, as he has 1 year or 75 games left before he becomes subject to waivers. Some more time on a top line playing as an offensive engine rather than a 4th line passenger might help to get him back on track. Playing in Sochi in Russia this February with Team Slovakia might also be a nice confidence booster for the young winger. In the case of any young player, the best development usually happens with the most minutes, so expect something to change over the second half of the season as Steve Yzerman and Jon Cooper find a way to coax more out of the promising forward.

Which Lightning rookie do you think has the best chance of being a long term, high-impact NHL contributor in their role?

Tyler Johnson29
Ondrej Palat32
Radko Gudas39
Andrej Sustr4
Nikita Kucherov109
Richard Panik6
J.T. Brown5
Mark Barberio8
Alex Killorn11