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Rangers Land Panarin & Add 'Electrifying' Piece to the Puzzle

by Michael Obernauer

Start spreading the news: The Bread Man is coming to Broadway.

The NHL opened its free-agency pool at noon on Monday, and the Rangers jumped in with a cannonball, signing a deal with Artemi Panarin and in doing so, grabbing the pearl of the free-agent season and fitting the best player out there with a Blueshirt for years to come.

Panarin, a righty-shooting left winger just 27 years old, has been among the NHL's most creative and consistent scorers since coming into the League, and winning the Calder Trophy, with the Blackhawks in the 2015-16 campaign. He has averaged 80 points per season (29 goals, 51 assists) in that time - he is one of only four players over the last three decades to top 74 points in his first four NHL seasons (Sergei Fedorov, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are the others) - and he has been right at a point per game both in the regular season and in his four trips in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (26 points in 27 games).

Panarin led the Blue Jackets in scoring in each of the past two seasons; he was second only to Patrick Kane in each of his two seasons in Chicago.

Now he arrives in New York with the potential to become one of the most dynamic wingers the Rangers have ever had.

"Today is obviously a big day for us," General Manager Jeff Gorton said. "As you look at free agency, there's very few players that we looked at that would be part of what we wanted to do and accomplish. This is the guy that we set out to acquire. Thankfully, it all worked out."

"It's a perfect fit," said John Davidson, the new Rangers President who knew Panarin well from his time in the same job with Columbus. "I'm ecstatic about getting Panarin here to join this group. I think he falls right into our plan."

Tweet from @NYRangers: 👀 @9Artemi#NYR

The move adds the 27-year-old Russian to a roster that finished the 2018-19 season as the youngest in the NHL. In between the season finale and the Panarin signing, Gorton has either signed or acquired via trade five players with an average age of 23 - and that is to say nothing of the addition of eight 18-year-old prospects at the NHL Draft.

The Rangers - who hosted and got to know Panarin last week once teams were free to begin speaking with unrestricted free agents - believe they have not only one of the League's most exciting and productive players, but also a young veteran who will be instrumental in bringing their core of young players along.

"It's something we thought about a lot over the last week or so, about the effect on the entire group," Gorton said. "Obviously we have some Russian young players coming into pro hockey here, and some that have been here. I think it'll be positive. From what I know, and talking to JD and everybody else about the player, he's a guy that's an infectious personality. He makes players better, and he's going to help us in a lot of ways."

"These are pieces that fit a puzzle," added Davidson, "and we're trying to get that puzzle completed in the proper way as quickly as possible."

Gorton has wasted no time this offseason in wrangling some major pieces, and the GM has taken all different avenues to find them: on the trade market, at the Draft, and now via free agency. In the span of two weeks in April and May, he brought in a pair of high-end righty defensemen, acquiring and signing 21-year-old Adam Fox from Carolina, followed by 25-year-old Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg. In between those deals, he locked down contracts with top-tier prospects Vitali Kravtsov, the team's 2018 top pick, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin. Then two Fridays ago he used the No. 2 overall Draft choice on Kaapo Kakko, who the Rangers feel can be a cornerstone winger going forward.

Now Gorton and Co. have landed another cornerstone on the wing. Like Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers' 26-year-old No. 1 center, Panarin is coming off a career year, with 87 points (28-59--87) - although he has produced consistently at that level since breaking into the League with the Blackhawks as an undrafted 23-year-old. Panarin has surpassed 80 points in each of the last two years, and twice in his career has hit the 30-goal mark while never scoring fewer than 27.

In all, Panarin has 320 points (116-204--320) in 322 games over his four seasons; only seven players in the League have more points in that span, and Panarin's total eclipses the likes of Ovechkin, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Nathan MacKinnon and others. Only three players have more than Panarin's 240 points at even strength. All the while, the 5-11, 168-pound winger has proven his durability by playing in all but six games over his four-season NHL career.

"Artem is a very well-conditioned athlete, he trains hard," Davidson said. "He plays the game the right way. He's not only a goal scorer, he can dish the puck very, very well. … There's really no maintenance to him.

"Also, I think when you see him play, the fans are going to enjoy it, because of the style he has to his game," Davidson added. "He can be electrifying."

Ranger fans have come to know that firsthand over the years: Of his 116 career goals, 12 of them, along with six assists, have come in 12 games against the Rangers - that includes eight goals in six games at Madison Square Garden, where he has both of his career hat tricks and where he clearly loves to play.

The last time Panarin stepped onto Garden ice came in the Rangers' home finale back on April 5, with Columbus needing a victory to clinch a playoff berth. He put the Blue Jackets ahead with a brilliant goal in the third period, and then, after Pavel Buchnevich had tied the game with 7 seconds to play, scored the lone goal in the shootout to wrap up the postseason spot. Alexandar Georgiev, the Rangers' goaltender that night, could only shake his head about Panarin afterward. "Pretty unreal shooter," Georgiev said that night of his countryman.

"There's something special about Panarin and the way he plays the game," said Davidson, who saw that game in person, having been the Blue Jackets' President at the time. "Artem's the type of guy that loves the stage, he loves big moments in games. He's that type of player."

Now Panarin has found a home on the biggest stage of all. Now the Bread Man is coming to Broadway. "Now he's a New York Ranger," Davidson said, "and we couldn't be happier."

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