Rangers’ Panarin Eases Into New York City Life, Stardom

Want the most definitive example of how comfortable Artemi Panarin is with the New York Rangers, how seamlessly he has slipped into NHL life under the white-hot spotlight of Gotham? It might not be his excellent start in his first season in a Blueshirt, the kind of beginning that has eluded so many stars imported to the Big Apple from elsewhere.

Rather, it could be his apparent ease with an often-intimidating form of New York City transportation, one that for some that can take years to fully master.

The native of Korkino, Russia so looks the part of a New Yorker here (including engaging in the distinctive New York straphanger practice of standing far too close to the tracks) that he might not have even been noticed on this ride, be it to Madison Square Garden or elsewhere. That’s good because even at NYC prices, Panarin can afford a lot of MetroCards these days.

The way things are going for the 28-year-old, however, remaining anonymous on a Seventh Avenue Line train to the Garden probably isn’t going to happen for much longer.

Panarin wanted New York as the top free agent on the market last offseason and got it. Unlike so many other stars who thought like him, however, Panarin was correct in his self-assessment that he’d be a perfect fit.

Panarin Seems Made for the New York Spotlight

Panarin’s transition to his new city and its sports scene, which has proven so traumatic for so many, has been so natural and easy that maybe it wouldn’t be surprising if he started sporting a New York accent any day now.

“I feel I have more responsibility here,” Panarin said. “It’s for every reason. They took me in here to be a leader, so that’s what I am trying to do and am trying to be better in everything.

“I try not to think too much about (the contract) or really anything. It’s better not to think about those kinds of things.” (from ‘Rangers’ Artemi Panarin Is Making Us Forget About the $81 million’, New York Post – 11/21/19)

The contract that he doesn’t want to think about, $81.5 million over seven years, isn’t on the minds of Rangers fans either. That’s what happens when someone makes his salary seem like a bargain right off the bat.

The former undrafted free agent scores in his sleep. Two more goals in an exhilarating 4-1 win over the NHL-leading Washington Capitals on Wednesday pushed his total to 11 on the season, to go with 14 assists. Panarin recorded 7 goals and 12 assists during a career-best 12-game point streak that concluded with the contest against the Caps.

New York Rangers Artemi Panarin
Artemi Panarin celebrates a goal with Rangers teammates (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

Superstars are either built for New York or they’re not, and the Rangers in particular don’t have the best history of high-profile free-agent signings. If the bright lights and massive media presence don’t suit an athlete, those elements will more often than not swallow that player up and spit them out (Most recently, Sonny Gray and the Yankees, anyone?). Part of Panarin’s comfort with it all, perhaps, is due in part to his understanding and embracing the expanded role the Rangers bestowed upon him in bringing him into the fold.

Panarin seems to relish his role as a leader, as he said. There’s more, though. He was fully aware that he was arriving in the midst of a rebuilding project, and that his new team wasn’t going to be competing for the Stanley Cup right away. Despite that, he was eager to shoulder the burden of the biggest task the Rangers expected from him in his first season: providing cover.

As planned, Panarin’s offensive burst out of the gate has eased the pressure on the talented youngsters that dot the roster, especially Kaapo Kakko. Thanks to Panarin’s production, the second-overall pick in the 2019 draft hasn’t had to be forced onto the top line and has been able to develop on the third forward unit. After a slow start to his NHL career – one that certainly would have been more noticeable under the glare had the 18-year-old been relied heavily upon to score right away – Kakko has started to find his stride and confidence, recording three goals and two assists in a three-game point streak that also ran through the Washington game.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
Rangers rookie forward Kaapo Kakko (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The efforts of the Rangers’ new superstar have also quashed much of the concern surrounding highly-touted forward Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth overall draft pick in 2018 who looked ready to contribute in a key role this season. Kravtsov instead failed to make the team out of camp, struggled when he was sent to the American Hockey League for more seasoning and returned to the Kontinental Hockey League in late October for the time being. Panarin’s presence helps give Kravtsov, 19, some breathing room in his development after it became apparent that he wasn’t ready for the NHL level.

And Panarin’s offense has helped the Rangers excel amidst the extended absence of top center Mika Zibanejad, who missed his 11th straight game Friday against the Ottawa Senators after suffering a neck injury on a hit by the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron on Oct. 27.

Panarin On Pace for Best Season

The Rangers went 6-3-1 in those first 10 games without Zibanejad, a stunning result for a young team that has at times been horribly overmatched and inconsistent this season – such as Friday, when the Blueshirts followed up the impressive effort against the Capitals with a stinker in a 4-1 road loss to the Senators. Panarin and Zibanejad – who isn’t expected to return until next week – started the season as two-thirds of the No. 1 line, a dream pairing that coach David Quinn put together during training camp.

Not missing a beat with Zibanejad out, Panarin has found chemistry with center Ryan Strome and right-wing Jesper Fast as he turned in his hottest stretch of the young season. One has to wonder, though, if Quinn could put this guy on the fourth line and he’d still bang out a seven-game point streak.

The fact that Panarin’s dynamic, electrifying style happens to put rear ends in the expensive (to put it mildly) seats at Madison Square Garden is the icing on the cake – and certainly factored into the Rangers’ interest in him. He’s a must-see talent, perfect for a team that performs on Broadway.

“Any time you add a player of this caliber everybody gets a little taller and their chest sticks out a little further, you have a little bit more swagger,” Quinn said at Panarin’s introductory news conference July 2. “If you’re going to be a great team you’ve got to think you’re great. That doesn’t mean you’re arrogant, but you have to have a little bit of a swagger to you and this guy will certainly give us more swagger.”

Four months later, those words have proved prescient, as the Baby Blueshirts have been able to weather ugly losses such as Friday’s thanks in large part to Panarin’s steady production and leadership to post a 9-9-2 mark through 20 games. The player who averaged 80 points over his first four NHL seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets (from purely a production standpoint, it remains flabbergasting that Chicago traded Panarin for Brandon Saad two years ago) is on pace to pile up over 100 points, a mark he’s yet to reach.

Panarin’s surge out of the gate might speak to the tantalizing prospect that he’s entering his prime – and thus, seasons in which he consistently surpasses 80 points could become the norm. But could his yearning for and love of Gotham, a feeling so many transplanted New Yorkers can relate to, be a contributing factor to the fast start? Count Rangers president John Davidson among those who say yes.

“He’s mentioned about Madison Square Garden to me before, asked me what it was like and all this stuff in the past because I was an ex-player who played here,” said Davidson, the former Rangers goaltender and broadcaster who got to know Panarin well as Blue Jackets president before returning to New York before this season (and whose presence likely played no small part in Panarin signing with the Rangers).

“I mean, there’s a lot of great places to play in this league, but he was interested in the big city, in Madison Square Garden and the history of the Garden. I just sense that this is something he wants to achieve and be a part of.”

As well-paid as the aptly nicknamed Bread Man happens to be, Panarin reportedly turned down more money from Columbus and the archrival New York Islanders, both playoff teams last season, to get in at the ground floor of what he and the Rangers hope will be an eventual rise to long-term Cup contention. The Blue Jackets’ offer – for eight years instead of seven, a term that only a player’s team at the time can extend – was reportedly worth $15 million more than that of the Rangers’ (from ‘Artemi Panarin turns down Blue Jackets’ late offer, appears headed to Islanders or Rangers’, The Athletic – 7/1/2019).

For Panarin, his decision turned out to be about more than the most “bread” or the best team at the time of his free agency. A longer look at his fun, easygoing Twitter feed that documents his enjoyment of New York City makes that abundantly clear.

“I’m home,” he said in English at the July news conference.

Far from just empty words spoken at a feel-good media event, Panarin is proving that he meant it.