Just a few years ago, he was a kid from Korkino, Russia who went undrafted. Today's, he's one of the very best three players in the entire National Hockey League, according to his peers.
What a journey for Artemi Panarin.
Day 2 of Phase 3 workouts began with the welcome news that the first-year Ranger, who set career-highs in goals (32), assists (63) and points (95) in just 69 games this season, is one of three finalists for the award, which recognizes the most valuable player in the league as voted upon by the NHLPA.
"I'm obviously very happy to be here," Panarin said, "and I'm very thankful that guys voted for me to be here."
Panarin led the league with 71 even-strength points this season, was tied for second in assists and tied for third in points.
"When you're third in the league in scoring, lead the league in 5-on-5 points, and you're plus-36 - which is a colossal difference between all the other guys that he's measured up against - I think his stats really speak volumes to the type of season he had," said Rangers Head Coach David Quinn. "He comes here every day with a smile on his face. practices with passion and enthusiasm, doesn't have many bad days, if any at all. Guys want to be around him. He's a great teammate."
When you think Panarin, you instinctively think offense. But he brings so much more to the table than goals and points, Quinn said.
"I remember putting him on the ice when we were up by a goal early in the season, 6-on-5, and he looked at me like I was crazy," Quinn said. "I thought, I want you out there because I know when the puck's on your stick, you're going to do something good with it. You may not sprawl out to block a shot, but you're going to put yourself in a great position where a puck might come to you.
Panarin has always been great. But there seems to be a consensus that this year, he took it up a notch - on the biggest stage imaginable, in a place in which it's not always easy to flourish, where pressure is often at its heaviest.
How did he do it? Panarin said he did two things: surrounded himself with a solid support system, and tried to pay less attention to what was being said about him in the press and on social media.
"I always try to play 100 percent," he said, "and often can't play better than I'm trying to play; maybe subconsciously I allowed myself to relax a bit and maybe that was one of the big turning points."
From Day 1 in New York, Panarin has proven to be a hit on and off the ice - less because of the points he puts up, and more because of his personality and his commitment to winning.
"He's not overly loud in the dressing room, but when he says something, he's got a very dry sense of humor," said Chris Kreider. "He's witty, he's a little bit sarcastic and he's sharp as a tack. He's a very good teammate. He competes like a dog on the puck in games. He wants to win. He's highly, highly competitive. He wants the puck; he doesn't want anyone else to have it. But off the ice, a very good teammate, a very good friend, one of the happiest people you'll ever meet. Just a great all-around human being."
Kreider Feeling 100 Percent
The last time we saw Chris Kreider, it was a Tuesday morning in Dallas, and he was taking the ice at American Airlines Arena - no equipment, no pads, just skates - for the first time since breaking his foot in a game against the Flyers on Feb. 28.
"I think I might have been pushing a little more than I should have to come back, a little earlier than I should have," Kreider said with a smile on Tuesday. "It certainly didn't feel good putting the boot on for the first few minutes when I was first getting on the ice, but it started to calm down a little bit once I got out on the ice."
That was March 10, a mere 11 days after he suffered the injury. Fast forward four months, and Kreider is as good as new.
"A few weeks into quarantine, I just all of a sudden woke up and felt pretty good," he said. "But at the same time, I needed to do a decent amount of rehab, just kind of working up the chain there starting from where the break was on the foot, up the calf and the shin there - working on the hip and just basically everything up that chain because everything kind of fatigues. Just walking a few days in a walking boot can kind of mess with your gait a little bit and make things a little bit awkward. So there was a little bit of rehab and a little bit of weakness initially, but it feels 100 percent now."
Now, the Rangers have regained one of the most crucial components of their top six - and their most senior forward at the ripe old age of 29- as they prepare for their playoff push.
Kreider said it's hard to know what kind of game shape he's in; he hasn't played a full one since just after the trade deadline. But judging from the pace of the first two practices of Phase 3, he feels good - not just physically, but mentally as he prepares to lead this young team into a qualifying round series vs. Carolina.
"I think we really believe in the group that we have and the style of play, the structure, the way that we play and the way we were playing before the extended break," he said. "So I think there's a ton of belief in our room right now, but at the end of the day, we've got to follow the old cliche and take it one game at a time. Can't look past Carolina, can't look past the first game against Carolina. So we're just continuing to prepare every single day, but I definitely think we believe that we can make some noise and sneak up on some people."
Miller, Hajek Join Main Group
The look of Tuesday's session was a bit different from Monday's: Defensemen K'Andre Miller and Libor Hajek joined the main group to give Quinn some extra D's to deploy during a scrimmage.
"It's just hard to scrimmage with three D on each team, so it gave a little bit more of a game-like feel with four D on each team," Quinn said. "The first scrimmage today - there were a lot of holes in it, a lot of times that you want to blow the whistle and stop it down, but it was way more about these guys starting to continue to get in game shape. Best way to do it is to play a game."
How did Hajek and Miller stack up?
"They didn't look out of place - I do know that," Quinn said. "I'm not surprised by that. So, it was good to get them out there and get them in that environment."
While this marks Miller's first experience skating alongside Rangers roster players, Hajek has played 33 games with the big club over the last two seasons, 28 of which came early this season.
Quinn is confident that, if called upon, Hajek can make an impact for the Rangers in Phase 4.
"Hajek was certainly going in the right direction as the season came to an end," he said. "Libor's a real good player, and he's going to have a great future in this organization. I know when guys gets games and an extended-period look up here, and then they go back down [to the AHL], I know people kind of frown upon that or take that as a big negative; we certainly don't. I just think it's the continuing development of a young defenseman in the National Hockey League, and like we told all the extras that we have here, if we make the run, some of those guys are going to play, so we're fortunate to have people like Libor here who we feel comfortable with, if his number is called."
"I think Kakko has a little more jump in his step. He's smiling a little bit more. I think he's really looking forward to getting the season going again, and we're really going to need him if we're going to reach our ultimate goal." - Head Coach David Quinn on whether the extended layoff has benefited rookies like Kaapo Kakko
Through Our Eyes