Artemi Panarin. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Stuck with a batch of brawlers in the KHL, Artemi Panarin couldn't find a groove. Four years later, he's an NHL scoring sensation with the Blackhawks.
By Dan Marrazza When the 2012-13 lockout ended, the effects went way beyond the NHL, NHLPA, players and fans. They were felt as far away as Russia, where Artemi Panarin was languishing in anonymity on HC Chekhov Vityaz, the KHL’s version of the Bad News Bears. Chekhov’s leading scorer during a good portion of Panarin’s four seasons with the team was ex-NHL enforcer Chris Simon. One of his coaches was former NHL goon Andrei Nazarov, whose KHL coaching career has been marked by a series of ugly incidents, including when he attacked an opposing team’s fans with a stick and hospitalized his team’s doctor following a physical altercation in the dressing room. Panarin never had more than 12 goals in any season while playing for Chekhov, based in the Russian industrial city of Podolsk. He bounced back and forth between his team’s top scoring lines and its bottom six, as Chekhov finished at or near the bottom of its conference four straight years.
Soon after the lockout ended, however, Panarin went from the outhouse to penthouse when he was dealt to St. Petersburg SKA after the KHL extended its trade deadline because of the exodus of players back to the NHL. St. Petersburg had lost its two biggest offensive stars in Ilya Kovalchuk and Vladimir Tarasenko after they were returned to their NHL teams and were in desperate need of adding some scoring. For Panarin, the trade was a turning point in his career. He helped St. Petersburg to the conference final before losing to eventual KHL champion Moscow Dynamo. The next season, Kovalchuk left the NHL and returned to St. Petersburg – and that’s when Panarin’s game really took off. Playing with Kovalchuk was the trigger that turned Panarin from a virtual unknown on both sides of the Atlantic into one of the KHL’s elite scorers – and now into one the NHL’s hottest rookies. “Even in Russia, I wasn’t really known when I was 18,” he said. “Then I got to the right place. Ilya Kovalchuk was there. I was watching him, and I grew my game because of that.” Viktor Tikhonov was teammates with Panarin for two years in St. Petersburg and most recently with the Chicago Blackhawks, before being claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes in early December. He witnessed the change in Panarin after the trade, first as an opponent and then as a teammate. “To be honest, I don’t remember noticing him playing against him with Chekhov,” Tikhonov said. “I remember that team having a lot of big guys, and they used to like to fight a lot. They were a team where if they don’t have a fight, but the team wins, the fans go home disappointed. If the team is losing, but there’s a fight, they’ll be clapping…In Chekhov, they had guys practicing with punching bags, and that’s what he was learning. That’s not his game. He has a ton of talent.” Panarin had hardly played in a big game or with elite linemates until his trade to St. Petersburg. There he got to play a classier brand of hockey alongside the likes of Kovalchuk, Tikhonov and Roman Cervenka. And Panarin flourished, nearly doubling his previous career high in his first full season in St. Petersburg, with 20 goals and 40 points to tie Kovalchuk for the team lead in scoring. Last season, he finished with 62 points in 54 games, usurping his mentor as St. Petersburg’s scoring leader and leading his team to a KHL championship. “(Kovalchuk) told me all about the NHL,” Panarin said. “He told me to be myself, play my game and don’t lose my confidence. He told me to play like I know how to play.” As much as Panarin proved his mettle in the KHL, success in Russia doesn’t necessarily translate to the NHL. There are countless examples of high scorers who have excelled in the KHL, only to see their production dwindle when faced with the tighter checking and smaller ice surfaces in the NHL.
In fact, when Panarin arrived in North America before this season, he was one of three marquee free agent scorers to arrive in the NHL via the KHL. And he’s the only one to have made a successful transition. Sergei Plotnikov, a 25-year-old winger who starred for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl last season, has zero goals and only three assists in 37 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Arizona Coyotes after a deadline-day trade. Steve Moses, an undersized American-born winger who set a KHL record by scoring 36 goals with Jokerit (Helsinki) last season, signed with the Nashville Predators and didn’t even make the team in training camp. He continued to struggle with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals and has since returned to the KHL after scoring only twice in 17 minor league games in North America. Panarin, meanwhile, has nearly been a point-per-game player in the NHL. The Blackhawks, who he chose from a long list of suitors, have eased his transition. He's been given a chance to play on a line with Patrick Kane and centered by countryman Artem Anisimov. He found instant chemistry with Kane, who at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds is almost the same size as Panarin and plays a similar, smooth-skating, puck-possession style. “We’re on the same wavelength,” Panarin said. “He understands me, even when I don’t speak English.” That chemistry between the two has carried the Blackhawks’ offense. With the exception of Kane and Panarin, most of Chicago’s forwards were having subpar individual campaigns. Marian Hossa could finish with fewer than 40 points. This is all occurring as neither Teuvo Teravainen nor Andrew Shaw have developed their offensive games as expected, and the Hawks never quite finding a power forward to replace Brandon Saad. And there was cause for concern that the production from Chicago’s newest dynamic duo might drop off. Coming into this season, Kane’s points-per-game average for October, November and December was 1.12. For January, February, March and April, it was 0.88. Yet, he continues to lead the league in scoring and looks like he will run away with the Art Ross Trophy. While Panarin has yet to experience the full grind of an NHL season – KHL seasons are 60 games long – and will soon enter unchartered territory. But Kane isn't worried. “The way we want to play is similar,” Kane said. “The more he gets experience and the more he gets confidence, his game is only going to grow. He has a bright future.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the February 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.