Artemi Panarin’s ever-present smile and polished scoring prowess are now firmly part of the Rangers.
With 12 goals and 21 assists in his first 25 games with the team, Panarin has been the high-scoring star with electric skills and a cheery demeanor that the Rangers wanted when they signed him as a free agent to anchor an exceptionally young, rebuilding team.
“In my lifetime as a center, he’s the best winger I have played with,’’ said Ryan Strome, 26, who has resurrected his career with the Rangers since a trade from Edmonton early last season. “Just the skill, how long he has the puck and holds on to it. He’s a game breaker.”
Panarin, 28, provides the Rangers with a brand of offensive firepower they have not had in years, since Marian Gaborik and his two 40-goal seasons almost a decade ago and Rick Nash’s 42 goals in 2014-15.
He was the marquee off-season signing of the Rangers’ new team president, John Davidson, who came from Columbus, which Panarin led in scoring the past two seasons.
He is on a pace for 108 points over 82 games. The Rangers have not had a 100-point scorer since the Czech superstar Jaromir Jagr in 2005-6, when he scored a team-record 54 goals and accrued 123 points.
Panarin has points in 16 of his last 18 games, including a 12-game points streak from mid-October to mid-November. He has often played on a line with Strome and Jesper Fast while also skating on the team’s top power-play unit. His dynamic play has been one of the few constants on the Rangers, who improved to 13-9-3 with Saturday’s road win against the Devils. The Rangers are 5-1-1 in their last seven games after an inconsistent first six weeks of the season.
David Quinn, the second-year coach who has the task of melding a roster that on several nights has dressed seven players 21 and younger, has needed a player of Panarin’s stature, especially with the first-line center Mika Zibanejad missing most of the past month with an upper body injury.
“Every time this guy is on the ice, it’s fun to watch,” Quinn said of Panarin, who, similar to his Russian countryman Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, positions himself at the top of the left circle, waiting to strike. “He’s so elusive. He’s got such great vision, such a smart hockey player. He’s feeling more and more comfortable. He’s just in a really good place.”
Part of that good place is the New York life Panarin is crafting with his girlfriend, Alisa Znarok, and their Jack Russell terrier, Riziy, which means “redhead” in Russian. That includes a home in Greenwich, Conn., and a Manhattan apartment near Central Park, where Riziy can playfully confront squirrels and pose for photos for his own Instagram account.
“I love dogs,’’ Panarin said with a broad grin. “Maybe more than humans.”
Panarin grew up in Korkino, a coal-mining town of about 40,000 people about 1,100 miles east of Moscow. He was adopted and raised by his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was an infant.
His grandfather Vladimir Levin, a former amateur player, supported and motivated young Artemi. His earliest ice lessons were at the Traktor ice hockey school in Chelyabinsk, about 25 miles from Korkino. Panarin eventually played parts of seven seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, including a 2015 championship with SKA St. Petersburg.
“There is nothing like, ‘O.K., I’m just going to stop here and this is O.K. for me,’” Znarok said of Panarin. “He puts pressure on himself to get better and better. It makes me proud.”
At 23, Panarin signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, with whom he won the Calder Trophy as the N.H.L.’s best rookie in 2015-16 playing alongside Patrick Kane. After two seasons each with the Blackhawks and the Blue Jackets, Panarin was an unrestricted free agent last summer, and one distinct option emerged.
“I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it, and my heart told me that New York would be the better place for me,” Panarin said after signing a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the Rangers in July. “I dreamed of playing for the Rangers. I like the people here. I feel the energy.”
Panarin, after being in the shadow of Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago and lacking national news media attention in Columbus, has embraced the spotlight in New York. He even criticized President Vladimir Putin of Russia in an interview published in July, shortly after he signed with the Rangers.
Few Russian sports stars have waded into those waters. In the wide-ranging interview, Panarin said it is unfair that Putin’s government has been focusing on economic development in Moscow and St. Petersburg at the expense of the rest of the country, including his home city.
After games, Panarin prefers to speak through an interpreter, even as the scrums of reporters grow along with his point totals. After a two-goal outburst in a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals on Nov. 20, he spoke briefly about his impact on the Rangers’ roster.
“I am confident,” he said. “I try to play hard every game. Nothing changes. I do what I do every day the same.”
Znarok, whose father, Oleg, had a lengthy hockey career playing in Latvia and Germany and then coaching the Russian national team and in the K.H.L., is looking forward to the day Panarin’s grandparents see him play at Madison Square Garden during what would be their first visit to the United States.
“I have a deep feeling of respect for them and what they have done for Artemi,’’ she said. “I will probably be crying for the whole game.”