The seven-year, $81.5 million contract Artemi Panarin signed with the Rangers as a free agent in July 2019 looked like a bargain-bin steal after his first season on Broadway.
Not only did he lead the team with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in 69 games, which was 20 points more than the next highest contributor in Mika Zibanejad, but Panarin brought a presence to the ice that forced opponents to know where he was at all times. The Rangers were often able to take advantage of that.
Now, the Breadman will head into his second season with the Rangers with a freshly embroidered ‘A’ on his chest for the first time in his career. He is not only tasked with maintaining his production from last season, in which he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy, but with leading this young Rangers squad through an unpredictable 2020-21 season.
“It’s obviously very important, it’s a great feeling to be entrusted with such responsibility,” Panarin said of getting named alternate captain. “I will do my best and try very hard to live up to it. But I’ve always on all teams tried to do my best and play my role to the best of my ability, so I don’t think anything will change from that standpoint. But it’s great to be trusted.”
At the start of training camp, Panarin said he felt like he had a better feel for the team and his role within the organization. There was no “nervous energy.” He mentioned how he worked on the technical aspects of his game, with the hopes of making his game more “efficient and smarter without wasting a lot of energy.”
Panarin admitted he felt some pressure last season, but credited his luck and teammates for allowing him to deal with it successfully. He said the pressure hasn’t been as prominent this year, and as a result, head coach David Quinn has noticed a new-found enthusiasm to Panarin this training camp.
Although he won’t have as many games to replicate his production from last year in this truncated season, Panarin knows there’s another level to his game and he intends to reach it.
“Well, I always try to reach the next level, I always try to find new solutions,” he said Thursday before facing the Islanders at Madison Square Garden. “I believe I have a new level and I’m trying my best.”
Panarin will likely be back on the left wing of the second line next to center Ryan Strome, who built chemistry with Panarin last season and earned himself a two-year, $9 million deal to keep it up. And while Jesper Fast, who primarily skated on that line, left in free agency to join the Hurricanes, it appears Kaapo Kakko will get the first audition on the right wing.
Having Kakko, who is entering his second NHL season, on his line, Panarin will get his first crack at putting that ‘A’ to good use.
“The attitude and work ethic were always there,” Panarin said of Kakko. “He always was the hardest worker, stayed on the ice the longest amongst old teammates, so that was never an issue. I think he came back mentally stronger, he’s adding technical improvements bit by bit, but mental strength is clear.”
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