Artemi Panarin is taking a leave of absence from the New York Rangers in response to a story being reported in Russia alleging he had a physical altercation with an 18-year-old woman in Riga, Latvia, in 2011.
"Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story," the Rangers said in a statement Monday. "This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events. Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team. The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations."
Panarin has been vocal through social media in his support of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Russia against President Vladimir Putin.
The allegations are being made by former NHL forward and current Kontinental Hockey League coach Andrei Nazarov, according to reports. Nazarov was Panarin's coach for Vityaz Podolsk in the KHL during the 2010-11 season at the time he alleges the incident occurred.
Panarin leads the Rangers with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 14 games this season.
The 29-year-old scored an NHL career-high 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in 69 games last season, tied for third in the NHL, and was a finalist in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
The NHL said it is supportive of Panarin and the Rangers, and it will continue to monitor the situation.
Panarin is in the second season of a seven-year, $81.5 million contract he signed with the Rangers on July 1, 2019.
"I know there's going to be a lot of questions on Artemi and we made a statement as an organization and there's not much I can elaborate on that other than the fact that he's someone we care an awful lot about and it goes way beyond hockey," New York coach David Quinn said. "We're here to support him. We're here as a team. These guys care for each other on and off the ice. This organization does a phenomenal job supporting everybody that works for it. We're going to help Artemi through this difficult time."
The Rangers practiced Monday after receiving the news on Panarin. Quinn said it was a good practice and that he was proud of the way the players handled it even though center Ryan Strome called it a "pretty hectic morning."
"[Panarin] knows how much we love him, how much we care for him, how much we appreciate him," Strome said. "You guys [in the media] get to see a small glimpse of what he does for us, but we see him behind closed doors every day and the personality, the way he carries himself, his character, his attitude, he's just an all-around unbelievable person. For us, just give him his time, give him his space. Whatever happens, whatever the timeline may be, we'll welcome him back with open arms."
The Rangers have played two games without Panarin this season and lost both; 1-0 to the Boston Bruins on Feb. 12 and 5-2 to the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 16. Panarin missed each game with a lower-body injury.
"This is a unique season in a lot of ways and a lot of things happen that you can't control, there's a lot of unexpected that happens," Quinn said. "This certainly is unexpected, something you can't plan for, but you have to continue to unite as a team. It's hard to overcome losing a player like Artemi from a hockey standpoint, but we've got to find a way to do it and our guys realize that."
The Rangers have won two straight games, including a 4-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Saturday, when Panarin had two assists. They are sixth in the MassMutual East Division with 15 points (6-7-3) and seventh in points percentage (.469).
New York is scheduled to visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN).