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It was one of the greatest opening acts in Rangers history, Artemi Panarin’s Hart Trophy finalist season of 2019-20, in which the free-agent signee recorded 95 points (32-63) in 69 games while leading the NHL in even-strength production and in all sorts of supplementary figures.
Now, comes Act II for the Russian Rockette, who, stunningly, did not play more than two straight seasons in either of his two previous NHL stops, with the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets. How bizarre is that?
“I feel much better [than last training camp],” Panarin said on Tuesday through interpreter Nick Bobrov. “I don’t have any nervous energy. I have a better feel for the team and I know my role on the team.”
His role is to continue producing offense on a line that, at the moment, is projected to include holdover running buddy Ryan Strome in the middle and Kaapo Kakko on the right side, filling the vacancy created by Jesper Fast’s free-agency exit to the Hurricanes.
Panarin, as skilled as they come, was a revelation in tight spaces. His board work and competitiveness in one-on-one battles was exemplary. But as he and Strome carried create-first mentalities onto the ice, Fast was the unit’s defensive conscience. And he is being replaced by a player, Kakko, who had severe issues on his own end of the ice. That will present a challenge for not only the sophomore winger, but for Panarin and Strome, as well.
Indeed, the, uh, bread-and-butter combination got a head start on life without Fast in the qualifying round, after the Swede suffered an injury on the first shift of the opening game that knocked him out of the series.
“That was a conversation I had with both Bread and Stromer in the bubble when Quickie got hurt,” coach David Quinn said. “I brought them in and said, ‘OK, if you could pick one forward that could play with you, who would it be?’ And they both looked at each other and started rattling off characteristics of a player they were looking for.
“And I said, ‘Well that’s all good and dandy, but we need you two to do more of that, as well. It can’t be one guy.’ And I think that’s what’s going to have to happen this season, regardless of who’s playing with him. Right now it’s Kakko, and he and I have talked about what he’s going to have to do, but we need it from everybody.
“We need more of an in-your-face, stay-on-top-of-people, defensive conscious approach to having success. It can’t just be one guy on a line. I don’t think those guys will have to sacrifice offense to do that, I think they’ll be just as productive offensively if they take that approach. I’m certainly anticipating how they’re going to approach it.”
Panarin has honed his approach throughout his evolution as he enters his sixth NHL season.
“The last two to three years, I’ve been working on some technical aspects of my game, on finishing the plays, whether it’s a pass or a shot. I’ve been working on cardio,” the 29-year-old said. “But overall, I’ve been trying to make my game more efficient and smarter without wasting a lot of energy. It’s different when you run around a lot and get tired and it would be very ineffective. But… [A] timely pass or goal is probably better than unnecessary hits.”
Panarin on advice he has imparted to Alexis Lafreniere: “[N]ow that he is playing at this level in men’s hockey, it’s all about mental stability, it’s all about preparation. It’s maybe no longer about skating laps but really working on your mental part of the game and your psychology.”
Panarin on his takeaway from the qualifying-round rout by Carolina, in which he had one goal and one assist: “A lot of negative emotions remained and we are working and will be working to make them into positive emotions and make the corrections we are discussing inside our locker room.”
Mika Zibanejad, Justin Richards and Keith Kinkaid remained sidelined, all three still characterized as “day-to-day.” Combinations remained intact other than Morgan Barron and Brett Howden flipping places. Barron skated between Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich while Howden played the right on the line with Brendan Lemieux and Kevin Rooney.
“For a guy who’s that size, can skate and is an honest player, and he’s got some skill to complement that, he’s got a chance to be a good player for us,” Quinn said of Barron, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound rookie out of Cornell whom the coach first took note of while he was behind the Boston University bench. “When that is, who knows, we’re going to find out, but I certainly like what I’ve seen so far.”