GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Artemi Panarin said he feels less pressure with the New York Rangers than he did when he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets more than two years ago.
"When I was traded from [the] Chicago [Blackhawks], I put pressure on myself," the left wing, who signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the Rangers on July 1, said through a translator Saturday. "I don't feel that pressure here."
That's bucking the typical trend for professional athletes who sign lucrative long-term contracts with teams in New York, but Panarin's mentality comes from the feeling of finally being settled in the NHL four years after making his debut as a 23-year-old rookie with Chicago in the 2015-16 season.
He spent his first two seasons with the Blackhawks after signing with them May 1, 2015. Those seasons were about proving himself, which he did almost instantly by winning the Calder Trophy voted as NHL rookie of the year in 2015-16, when he had 77 points (30 goals, 47 assists) in 80 games.
The Blackhawks rewarded Panarin with a two-year contract extension midway through the 2016-17 season, when he had 74 points (31 goals, 43 points) in 82 games. They then traded him to the Blue Jackets on June 23, 2017.
Panarin set the Blue Jackets' single-season record with 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) in 81 games in 2017-18 and broke it with 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) in 79 games last season, when he also helped them get to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.
Video: Panarin lands at No. 8 on the Top 20 Wings list
It all set him up for his big July 1 payday and the chance to feel like a long-term solution for the first time in his NHL career.
"Everything is better than I had expected," said Panarin, who arrived in New York three weeks ago.
The next challenge for Panarin is to gain chemistry with his expected linemates, center Mika Zibanejad and right wing Pavel Buchnevich, a fellow Russian who doubles as Panarin's on-ice and on-the-bench translator.
The Rangers' new top line was on display in the first of three practice sessions Saturday. They didn't do much in the way of line rushes, but there was a lot of communication between them.
"It's important to build that chemistry on a hockey level," Panarin said. "We have everything we need for that."
Zibanejad said he already knows he likes Panarin's wide-open playing style and feels it can mesh with his, especially because he thinks it will allow him to set up and shoot more often instead of trying to be a playmaker.
"He's good at holding the puck and finding those little areas to make the plays," Zibanejad said. "I think for me, it's kind of treated a little bit like playing with [Mats Zuccarello] last year. He's a great passer. He has a great shot too, so I think for me it's just to kind of get open and put myself in maybe more of a shooting role."
Video: Top five plays of 2018-19: Panarin
Zibanejad had NHL career highs of 30 goals, 44 assists and 74 points last season.
"Everyone loves to score goals, and if you get a guy like [Panarin] and you have a guy like [Buchnevich] making those plays, you got to make sure that you put it in the back of the net," Zibanejad said. "I don't mind scoring the goals as long as we win."
Other than the language barrier, Zibanejad said the challenge of playing with Panarin is always expecting the unexpected. He said he's learned that just by playing against him.
"He's unpredictable," Zibanejad said. "You just don't really know what he's going to do. He can really shoot. He can pass. He can take you on 1-on-1. It's hard. And I think playing with him, you always have to be ready. He doesn't always show when he's going to pass or rarely, so just be ready for that and be ready for the shots and the rebounds that are going to come out."
If the top line's chemistry pans out the way the Rangers expect it will, coach David Quinn said it will take pressure off New York's younger forwards like teenage rookie right wings Kaapo Kakko, 18, and Vitali Kravtsov, 19, and 20-year-old center Filip Chytil.
Chytil and Kakko began camp on the second line with left wing Chris Kreider .
"To have Panarin here from the get-go gives us a true first line," Quinn said. "When you have a line like that, it certainly lessens the load for the other three lines. They take an awful lot of pressure off the other three lines."
Panarin is also expected to be a culture driver in New York because of his competitiveness and his intelligence, two areas specifically mentioned by Rangers president John Davidson, who was the Blue Jackets president the past six seasons.
Davidson indicated players in New York will gravitate to Panarin because of each.
"Really competitive," Davidson said. "In big spots in games, he likes to find a way. He's, I would term, a no-maintenance guy. In other words, he's a guy who is going to show up for work every day. You don't have to worry about him."
Photo courtesy: Nick Homler/NYRangers.com