There isn't a hockey coach anywhere who would not be happy having Artemi Panarin on their bench, and there isn't any reason David Quinn would be an exception. Maybe it's the fact Panarin's on-ice contributions are so plain to see, but whatever the reason, when Quinn is asked about his 28-year-old left winger's contributions to his hockey club, the Rangers' Head Coach seems to speak in equal parts about the player and the person that Panarin is.
"This guy never stops smiling. He enjoys life," Quinn said after Panarin and Co. wrapped up practice on Wednesday in Westchester. "This guy enjoys hockey, he loves hockey, he loves coming to the rink. He loves getting better. And when you ask me that question, the thing I think about is some of the reactions that our players have on the bench during the course of games when he does something. I mean it's literally guys are elbowing each other like, 'Did you just see that?'
"That's the type of player he is and there aren't many players like that in the League."
Through 26 games this season, the Rangers have seen Panarin vault out to the team lead in scoring, with 33 points so far and his name on the scoresheet in all but six games. For all Panarin has done through his first quarter-plus season in a Blueshirt, come Thursday night in Columbus, his teammates feel they have a unique opportunity to do a little something for him.
"It's going to be a special game for him obviously," Mika Zibanejad said of Panarin's return to Columbus with the Blueshirts, and his first game against his former team. "And you know every guy that returns to his old team wants to win. So the guys want to win for him. It's important to us."
Panarin, now in his fifth NHL season, spent only two of those years in Columbus, but they were the two highest-scoring seasons any Blue Jacket has ever had, since the team joined the League in 2000. His 59 assists and 87 points last season both are Blue Jackets records; his 55 assists and 82 points the season before that rank second in each category. After signing with the Rangers in the summertime, his 33 points this season have him tied for eighth in League scoring, and on an early pace to eclipse 100 points for the first time in his NHL career.
Panarin said after Wednesday's practice that he hadn't been looking ahead on the schedule and only had started thinking about this game in the last day or two. Once he did, though, he admitted that he is "pretty excited."
"Not a regular game for me, a different game," he said. "I'll try to show the best that I can."
Quinn understands the kind of show Panarin is capable of putting on. Even before he became a Ranger, it was long clear how much Panarin enjoyed playing on the big stage of Madison Square Garden, part of which Quinn witnessed firsthand a season ago when Panarin had points in all four of Columbus' games against the Blueshirts, including a goal and an assist at the Garden - a rink where he has 32 points in 21 games under the bright Broadway lights.
"To me, he's a big-game (player)," Quinn said. "He loves the pressure, he loves the spotlight -- he loves the pressure and the spotlight of, 'I'm going to take my team on my shoulders and help us win a hockey game' kind of spotlight."
And so Thursday night in Columbus, Quinn said, "is just another moment for him to continue to do what he's been doing for us since Day 1."
There is, of course, a bigger picture to the game: The Blue Jackets trail the Rangers by just three points in the Metropolitan Division standings, and the Blueshirts will be looking to stretch their points streak on the road to a season-long four games (2-0-1 in their last three). "It's an important game, it's a division game," Zibanejad said. He noted that the Rangers have games in hand on most teams in the East, "but it doesn't matter -- it's a tight race and we need it.
"And of course," he added, "it would be that much more extra special to get a win for him in his first game back."
Panarin has been through a similar drill before: It was only Game 2 of his Columbus tenure when he returned to play in Chicago, the city where he broke into the League and won the Calder Trophy in 2016. After spending his first two NHL seasons as a Blackhawk, with guidance from Patrick Kane and others, "I'm a different player after that," Panarin said.
Now just two months into his fifth NHL season, his first on Broadway, the Rangers are getting a nightly glimpse of the kind of player, and the kind of person, Panarin is. And Panarin is feeling that in New York, he is exactly where he ought to be.
"I'm really happy here," Panarin said, smiling. "Every day I wake up and enjoy it."