Rangers coach David Quinn couldn’t seem to stop smiling on Tuesday. Quinn was at Madison Square Garden helping to introduce his team’s newest acquisition, Russian forward Artemi Panarin, whom the club signed to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract Monday, moments after the NHL’s free agent signing period opened.
“When you see him, and you meet him, you feel the electricity in his personality,’’ Quinn said of Panarin, who scored 28 goals and 87 points in 81 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. “So, not only are we getting a great player, we’re getting a guy that’s got an electric personality, and is going to bring a little bit of personality to the locker room… And that’s something we needed.’’
Of course, personality isn’t the only thing that Panarin, 27, brings to the Rangers. His elite skating, playmaking and finishing skills provides a major talent upgrade to the roster.
“He’s as dynamic a player as there is in the league,’’ Quinn said. “He’s a winger, but he does a lot of things a center can do; he controls the play on the ice, he does a great job carrying the puck through the neutral zone and entering the offensive zone, and boy, when he’s on the ice, you’re going to know he’s out there, because from an offensive perspective, he creates every time he’s out there.’’
Panarin spurned the Islanders, Florida Panthers and his old Blue Jackets team, taking less money than he could have made elsewhere to sign with the Rangers. Playing on a big stage, in a big city, was something he openly craved, and the Rangers were the team he’d been focused on as he approached free agency.
“I dreamt of playing for the Rangers,’’ he said Tuesday through a translator. “They’re in the Original Six, and my heart has been here.’’
According to Quinn, the plan right now is to play Panarin, a right-handed-shooting left wing, together with Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers’ No. 1 center, who led the team in scoring in 2018-19 with 30 goals and 74 points. Panarin’s other value will come in the form of his being a mentor of sorts to the young Russian players in the locker room, like Pavel Buchnevich and Vitali Kravtsov, as well as a role model the other young players, like Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil.
With the Rangers already having a banner offseason, adding defensemen Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox and Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall in the NHL draft, and bringing Panarin into the mix has people wondering if the Rangers’ rebuild, which famously began with that letter to the fans in February 2018, has been accelerated.
Quinn was asked Tuesday about the higher expectations that will no doubt face the Rangers this season. He laughed, and didn’t shy away from them.
“Listen, we embrace it,’’ he said. “This [adding Panarin] isn’t going to alter our course of action. We’re going to continue to try to get better.
“Obviously, we want to win every game, and we want to compete for the playoffs,’’ he continued. “This is … another step in that direction.’’
Panarin, who will wear jersey No. 10 [the No. 9 he wore in Columbus is retired by the Rangers in honor of Adam Graves and Andy Bathgate] spoke to the media mostly through a translator, but wanted to say something in English at the end of his media session.
“I want to thank [the] Rangers organization,’’ he said. “I appreciate (the) opportunity. And especially thank you to Mr. Jim [Dolan]; J.D. [Rangers president John Davidson]; Jeff [Gorton], and Coach ‘Quinnie.’ So, thank you everybody. I’m really happy.’’
Notes & quotes: The Rangers announced that U.S. women’s hockey Olympic gold medalist Amanda Kessel will serve as the team’s official ambassador to Junior Rangers Girls Hockey, a new program the team has created to get girls playing hockey and grow female participation in the sport.