During Tuesdays’s game, Artemi Panarin got himself a goal, which gave him 138 points in his first 100 games as a Ranger. That surpassed Mark Messier’s 137 points in his first 100 games. Panarin has been worth every penny the Rangers gave him two offseasons ago, and then some. And the question has come up. Is Artemi Panarin the best Rangers free agent signing ever?
First – The Exlusions
It’s a tough question to answer, but it gets easier when you eliminate a few people. Messier and Jaromir Jagr, who are numbers 2 and 3 on this list, were both acquired via trade. A lot of the best players in Rangers history were drafted too. Those include Brian Leetch, Brad Park, and Henrik Lundqvist.
We get into murky waters when we talk Original Six free agency. Technically guys like Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle were signed as free agents. However that was the only way to get rookies at that time. The NHL Amateur Draft was first implemented in 1963. I believe that should be the first date we use as the modern free agency era.
Naturally the landscape has changed tremendously since that first draft. However using that as our start date helps level the playing field. Every NHL player prior was recruited via free agency, thus it did not set anyone apart. After 1963, players were drafted and rights held by teams for a predetermined period of time.
Apologies to Gilbert, Ratelle, and Andy Bathgate, but they are excluded here.
So Who’s Left?
At first I was going to go through every single free agent signing in Rangers history. That was going to take a while. Instead I went through the Rangers record books. While Panarin is not in the record books, he likely will be by the time that contract is up. Especially if he keeps up this 1.38 PPG pace he’s on.
That leaves a few players:
- Adam Graves – restricted free agent signing in 1991
- Walt Tkaczuk – signed as free agent in 1963
- Marian Gaborik – signed as free agent in 2009
- Joe Sakic – restricted free agent signing in 1997
I’m sure everyone here is twitching over Joe Sakic, so let’s just scratch him off the list.
Gaborik was a much better signing than he gets credit for in New York. He only spent four years with the Rangers, all of it with John Tortorella. Torts and Gaborik hated each other, as Tortorella wanted a two-way game, which included much more defensive zone play. That’s great in theory, but didn’t play to Gaborik’s strengths. Gaborik wound up with a line of 114-115-229 in 255 games with the Rangers. That included a pair of 40+ goal seasons. He was one of the best pure shooters the Rangers ever had. It’s unfortunate it never worked out.
Tkaczuk is up there in the Rangers record books. He’s also a career Ranger, something no one on this list has. In 945 games over 14 seasons, Tkaczuk put up 227 goals and 451 assists. His 678 points is 6th in Rangers history. and 451 assists 5th. He has a great Rangers history. But does he compare to the impact Graves or Panarin had on this team? Doesn’t look like it.
Graves or Panarin?
Panarin’s impact was immediate. If not for him, the Rangers aren’t getting into that awkward play-in round of the playoffs last year. He single handedly carried the team and was snubbed a Hart Trophy. He was a finalist, losing to Leon Draisaitl and finishing behind Nathan MacKinnon. But make no mistake, without Panarin the Rangers are awful that year.
Panarin is again putting up huge numbers in this shortened season, with 13-30-43 in 31 games. He’s the true game breaker the Rangers have needed in the lineup for so many years. They tried with Gaborik ad Rick Nash, but they found it in Panarin. He’s easily the Rangers MVP last season and this season.
Graves’ impact on the ice likely doesn’t compare to Panarin’s. Over 10 seasons and 772 games in New York, Graves put up 280 goals (3rd in Rangers history) and 227 assists for 507 points (10th). He also set a Rangers record for goals in a season with 52 in 1993-1994. That record held for 12 years until Jaromir Jagr broke it in 2005-2006.
But Graves’ impact off the ice is everlasting. It’s almost impossible to quantify what he did for the team and community off the ice during his playing days. It’s even harder to quantify what he does today. But he is easily one of the most beloved Rangers of all time. The reaction when Brian Leetch announced his jersey retirement still gives goosebumps.
Graves is also the only player on this list with his number in the rafters.
How do you compare the two? I don’t think you can. When it comes to on-ice impact, Panarin is the clear pick. But how can you ignore what Graves did off the ice? There’s a reason why he got the reaction he did. Artemi Panarin may be the best signing in Rangers history on the ice. But is it wrong to say that when you look at the whole picture, Graves is tied? Or is it just sentimental?