Artemi Panarin scored a goal on opening night in his first game as a Ranger, and that success carried all season long in 2019-20, leading Panarin to become a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.
As he embarked on his second season as a Blueshirt, with the Rangers opening their 2020-21 season Thursday night at the Garden against the Islanders, the question for Panarin, a newly minted alternate captain for David Quinn’s club, is simply this:
Can he do it again?
"It will be difficult, but I want it as badly as you do,’’ Panarin said Thursday, after the Rangers’ first morning skate of the season, at their practice facility in Tarrytown.
Panarin had career highs in goals (32), assists (63) and points (95) in just 69 games in his first season with the club, before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NHL to cut its season short in mid-March. The points led the Rangers and were tied for third-most in the league.
Expectations for Panarin a season ago were high, after he signed a seven-year, $81.5 million free-agent contract with the Rangers, spurning a more lucrative offer from the Islanders. But he certainly met those expectations, if not exceeding them. And so he was asked if Year 2 will be easier or harder, as far as expectations go.
"I believe the pressure will be lower this year,’’ he said, through interpreter Nick Bobrov, the Rangers' director of European scouting. "I think I dealt with it last year successfully, partly attributed to luck, partly attributed to my great partners [mostly Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast] that I played with. I believe I will continue to play with a lot of effort and enthusiasm because I have very high goals for myself. And I will reach them.’’
Quinn was asked if there is a next level that Panarin, 29, can reach this season.
"Well, I think every player is striving to get to another level, no matter how much success you've had, and I think he certainly fits that mold,’’ Quinn said. "I think he's a guy that's always looking to get better. Obviously, statistically, last year, he had a phenomenal year, not only from an offensive perspective, but also plus-minus standpoint. But he and I've talked about some of the things that we think he can do a little bit better to put himself in a position to be the player that he's ultimately capable of being.’’
One of those things, Quinn said, is stealing the puck from opposing players when the Rangers are defending.
"I don't know if I've seen a player who's got the ability to pick people's pockets the way he does,’’ Quinn said.
There will be adjustments to be made, of course. Eighteen of the 22 players on the Rangers’ roster entering this unique, 56-game campaign, were on the team at the end of last season. One who did not come back was Fast, who was allowed to leave as a free agent and sign with Carolina. Fast’s spot on the second line, with Panarin and Strome, was taken by 19-year-old second-year player Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall by the Rangers in 2019.
Panarin said he has noticed the improvements in Kakko from last season.
"The attitude and work ethic were always there,’’ he said of Kakko. "He always was the hardest worker, he stayed on the ice the longest amongst all teammates. So that was never an issue. I think he came back mentally stronger. He is adding technical improvements, bit by bit, but his mental strength is clear.’’