Off the radar: Grigori Panin

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Grigori Panin’s name might be familiar to some hockey fans. Currently playing for Ak Bars Kazan of the Kontinental Hockey League, Panin is a product of the famous Lada Togliatti school, a very good academy that put into pro hockey the likes of Alexei Kovalev and Viktor Kozlov, and more recently prospects like Igor Grigorenko (DET) and Alexander Bumagin (EDM).

After being unexpectedly not drafted back in 2004, Panin has progressed to being considered for the National Team by Russia’s and CSKA’s head coach Vyacheslav Bykov. His good performances didn’t pass unobserved and his inclusion in the preliminary list for the first Euro Hockey Tour round is a certainly a strong sign that of consideration that his success has been not just the teams he’s played for.

A defensive, hard-nose type of player, Panin is mostly used by former Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov on a line with the Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Alexei Emelin, a player to whom he is very familiar with as they are both from the Togliatti team, playing together for years. They form Ak Bars’ top shutdown defensive pair and they are iced whenever their team requires a strong back line.

But Panin of course hasn’t always been so highly regarded as now. Despite having a strong season back in 2004-05, his first one fully played in Lada’s main team, in which he scored two points in 50 regular season and playoffs matches, he wasn’t drafted in the NHL. Prior of climbing up to Togliatti’s main team, he spent one season in Russian High League with Lada’s partner CSK VVS Samara, where he had a very good year with five points in 26 games.

Now it seems questionable that no NHL team gambled on him, especially considering that many players who lately accomplished close to nothing were ranked above him. What explains this? There are several reasons behind his low rankings. First of all he didn’t play too much with the national team, skating in only one World Junior Championship, the 2005 edition won by Canada in American soil. In that tournament, he played rather well in the third defensive unit, paired with teammate Emelin, clinching a silver medal after losing to Canada 6-1 in the finals.

Other reasons are some flaws in his game, one being his shot. Without having a good shot, he has never been considered good enough on the offensive side of the game. His slapshot was, and to some extent still is, below average, his wrist shot too. On top of that, he wasn’t thought to be a defensive defenseman as he is now, but a bit more offensive and that probably hurt a bit his stock as people were expecting points from the wrong kind of player.

If in the 2004-05 season, the famous lockout year in which RSL was arguably the best league in the world, Panin had a very good rookie year, then the 2005-06 campaign was his breakout season. He stayed on a tight defensive team led by the former Team Russia WJC Head Coach Petr Vorobiev that helped many players on having good years, one of them being Vasili Koshechkin (TB). Panin’s good, aggressive defensive play ensured him a regular spot in the main lineup for the seasons to come as he was expected to be part of the future core of the young players.

But then something went wrong: Lada Togliatti’s main sponsor, the Avto Vaz car manufacturers had to gradually cut off his financing and the team’s best players – including the Capitals’ superstar Alexander Semin – left for richer teams. Despite having played for the Lada system in all his career, Panin was no exception and after 20 games in the 2007-08 season he transferred to Ak Bars Kazan, to go playing for one of Russia’s top teams. In this move he followed his former teammates Emelin and Koskechin, who did the same during the offseason. He started playing under a different coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who plays a way more offensive style than Vorobiev, but he trusted Panin since he arrived, playing him even on the first defensive pair with Canadian defender, former New York Islander and New Jersey Devil Raymond Giroux. Panin grew a lot under Bilyaletdinov, who plays him with Emelin now, in his team top shutdown line where he can showcase his grit style mixed with some good technique moments: he became good in bringing the puck up, when he can skate with the head up, hunting for a good pass forward.

Panin is not an offensive player and doesn’t rack up too many points, but he’s a reliable blue liner with interesting offensive instincts. Interesting for the NHL too? He would surely need some time to adjust to the different North American style, but if he’s willing to cross the ocean and a team wants to try a low-risk gamble, they could give him a chance. His shot is still only average, but there must be a reason if the head coach of the World Champion National Team wants him to protect the colors of Russia.