CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks forward Viktor Tikhonov sat in front of his locker stall and smiled.
He was being asked about Artemi Panarin, his friend and teammate. Questions about Panarin have been frequent for Tikhonov since he and Panarin decided to leave SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League and join the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Is Tikhonov surprised by how smoothly Panarin, a 5-foot-11, 170 pound left wing, has transitioned to the NHL?
"No," said Tikhonov, the grandson of the legendary former Russia national team coach of the same name. "You know, I hate saying, 'I told you so,' but I've been telling a lot of people the last two months that this kid's going to be really good and I guess you can kind of see the results. He's only going to get better and I think everyone should be really excited that he's here."
The Blackhawks certainly are happy. The 23-year old rookie wasn't drafted, likely because of his size, but he's developed into an elite player. Prior to coming to the NHL, his skill and style in the KHL drew comparisons to Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane.
"I always thought [about my size], because all my coaches were telling me to eat more, go to the gym, gain weight," said Panarin, via Tikhonov's translation. "I was always eating more. I was eating everything but the silverware and the plate. All my life I've been kind of fighting it. Now it's gotten to the point where I'm over it. I can play without the heavy weight and size. Those coaches that told me I couldn't play without size, I wanted to prove they were wrong."
Panarin has accomplished that goal.
He's found a steady spot at left wing on the Blackhawks' second line, opposite Kane. Entering the Blackhawks' game Monday against the Anaheim Ducks (8:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, SNE, SNO, SNP, PRIME, FS-SD, CSN-CH), Panarin has two goals and eight points in eight games. He's never rattled with the puck on his stick, thinks the game at a high level and isn't a defensive liability.
"[Panarin] just goes to the right areas," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "He knows where to go to get the puck. And when he gets it, he's responsible. He thinks on his feet incredibly well. That's one of the most remarkable aspects of his game, on top of what he can do with the puck."
And Panarin has excelled at a relatively low salary, which is key for the Blackhawks; according to war-on-ice.com, Panarin's two-year contract has an average annual value of $812,500.
Panarin drew contract offers from a list of NHL teams, but the Blackhawks were the best fit.
"I chose this team because it really fits my style," he said. "I like to play with the puck a lot. My heart fell upon Chicago right away [and] I stuck with that choice."
The Blackhawks previously had one Russian player since coach Joel Quenneville was hired in 2008-09, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. But after signing Panarin they signed Tikhonov to a one-year contract and acquired center Artem Anisimov from the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of the Brandon Saad trade.
Tikhonov, a lanky 6-2 forward, wasn't assured of a roster spot. His fluency in English and close friendship with Panarin might have played a role in him starting the season in Chicago, but his play earned him a closer look.
Left Wing - CHI
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 8
SOG: 19 | +/-: 4
Quenneville has tried him at left wing on the top line with Toews and right wing Marian Hossa
, and he's determined to stay there. Taken by the Arizona Coyotes
with the 28th pick of the 2008 NHL Draft, he played 61 games with the Coyotes in 2008-09. But this is the first time he's been in the NHL since then; he's spent five of the past six seasons in the KHL.
"I had a little taste of it here years back and I think I might've even taken it for granted a little bit," he said. "I wouldn't say it was easy getting [to the NHL]. That was obviously a tough journey. But you kind of start to relax, like, 'Oh, you've made it.' And all of a sudden the next year you're not there anymore. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of hard seasons [in other leagues], and this year I'm definitely not going to let the opportunity get away from me."
Anisimov, playing for his third team, is making a good impression as well. The day of the trade with the Blue Jackets, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman gushed about acquiring the 6-4, 198-pound Anisimov to center the second line.
Playing between Panarin and Kane, Anisimov hasn't disappointed, with three goals in eight games. He retrieves pucks, buzzes the net and translates for his linemates during stoppages. His only struggle thus far is describing what it's like to play with such elite talent.
"[They] see what's going on, on the ice, and just react to the situation," Anisimov said. "In the offensive zone it's two guys who are like ... I don't have words for this."
Others will find the right words if that line helps the Blackhawks make another long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the meantime, the Blackhawks are just enjoying their new comrades.
"They're great hockey players and great guys; my type of guys, I guess," said forward Andrew Shaw, whose humor has helped bridge the language gap with Panarin. "We've tried to make it an easy transition for [Panarin], and he's opened up. He's a funny guy. All of them are actually quite hilarious. So we look forward to playing with them all year."