Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was dining with his wife in Chicago on Monday night when unexpected drinks arrived at his table, compliments of his former forward, Richard Panik.
"I thought, 'How would he know I was here?' I turned around he was sitting two tables behind me with his wife," Cooper recalled Tuesday morning. "So I thought that was pretty funny."
In the days Panik played for Cooper, first with the Norfolk Admirals and then the Lightning, he struggled with inconsistency. Several years later he's improved in that area, and the Blackhawks are benefiting from it.
In 50 games this season Panik has 11 goals (tied for career best set in 2014-15) and a career-high 21 points. The points are nice, and they're part of what got Panik another shot on the top line with Jonathan Toews this season. But Panik said his all-around game is improving, and coach Joel Quenneville agrees.
"I think he's gotten better. I think he's adding some physicality to our team in his own game," Quenneville said. "Defensively, he's a work in progress but I still think he has the puck a lot more. He comes up with loose pucks with some separation going into the tight areas, and he's around the net. He's hard to play against and I think that adds to his scoring as well. But he's got a tremendous shot and just getting that shot away, he's dangerous."
Panik was one of several players who transitioned from the 2011-12 Calder Trophy-winning Admirals to the Lightning. Tyler Johnson was Panik's line mate in Norfolk and Tampa in the early going.
"It's awesome to see him doing well," Johnson said Tuesday morning. "It's tough seeing an ex-teammate, especially a guy so close, being on a different team, but you always root for him — anytime he doesn't play against us, anyways. But he's a great guy, deserves everything he's getting here. his skill and talent level, you always knew he was capable of big things and he's doing that right now."
Cooper said Panik always had all the tools to become a strong NHL player. He just had to put it all together.
"He just had to learn how to be a pro and he'd been in the process of that. It just took him a little longer than some other guys," Cooper said. "He's an electrifying player and he can do some things with the puck that I haven't seen other guys be able to do. I saw him this summer, his whole approach to the game now is pro. He probably learned a lot of that from playing here in Chicago. I'm happy for him because he deserves this."
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Panik admits those early years could be difficult. He said he was a healthy scratch early, and even after that consistency continued to be an issue. Cooper kept reminding Panik what he could do.
"I was having a major issue back then with the consistency and he was trying to make me better," Panik said. "He taught me everything, all over the game."
When the Blackhawks traded for Panik just over a year ago, it was an opportunity for the forward to get a fresh start. It took him some time to get comfortable off the ice as well as on but he's getting there. Tampa was where Panik got some great lessons on how to become a good NHL pro. Chicago is where he's applying them.
"I think I felt good in Tampa, too, because so many of us played together in the AHL and they brought us together to the big team. But this one is probably up there, you know?" Panik said. "Last year was tough because I got traded in January and it's hard to get on a team that's already going. It was hard but I battled through it. This year I felt pretty good because I was here from the beginning, since training camp. Everything feels more comfortable."