BROOKLYN — In a cramped corner of the visitor’s locker room at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Blackhawks rookie Artemi Panarin tried to keep a straight face. He was sitting and conducting an interview with Russian media. To his left, teammate Artem Anisimov had a smirk and an idea. First, he blocked the camera with his head. Then, he pulled gently on the blond wisps of a beard forming on Panarin’s chin.
Such is life for the next rookie sensation. Panarin, who scored a goal in his NHL debut Wednesday night against the Rangers, doesn’t speak much English, relying on Anisimov and teammate Viktor Tikhonov to translate. That leaves him to do one thing, something he does pretty well—score goals.
Panarin, 23, spent the past two seasons as a KHL superstar. Playing for St. Petersburg, he scored 26 goals and had 36 assists in 62 regular season games—outscoring teammate and former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk—and tacked on another 20 points in 20 postseason matches.
“I think he can be an All-Star in the NHL,” says Blackhawks winger Viktor Tikhonov.
Tikhonov would know. He played with Panarin the past two seasons in Russia and watched him evolve from a 20-year-old trying to crack a star-studded lineup—that team had Kovalchuk, Tikhonov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Petr Prucha, Maxim Afinogenov and Evgeny Artyukhin, along with Sergei Bobrovsky in goal—to one of the best players in the KHL.
“I’ve always loved watching [Panarin] play,” Tikhonov said. “You could just tell that he had something special. He can make plays in corners. He’s going into a one-on-two and he comes out with the puck every time. There’s not many players who can do that. He can see the ice; he flies [on the ice]. I’ve always loved watching him play. He has all the tools to be a big offensive threat in the NHL.”
The 5' 11", 170-pound Panarin is starting for the Blackhawks on a line with Anisimov and Patrick Kane. Through Tikhonov’s translation, Panarin says he’s already learned what his main priority is.
“Kane told me the most important thing is to find No. 88 on the ice and that’s what I’ve been doing,” Panarin said with a laugh.
In his first game, the Russian quickly showed his skill, launching a rifle of a wrist shot past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. It was only his second game in North America, after playing in just one preseason game.
“He was good,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He can play. There’s a little chemistry [with Kane]. There’s certainly some nice upside to his game.”
Panarin scored again in his third game of the season, on a feed from behind the net from Kane. Alone in front, he blasted the puck past Islanders goalie Jean-Francois Berube. In three games this season, the rookie has two goals and two assists.
“He’s going to impress everybody with a couple more games, once he adjusts to the style of play,” Anisimov said.
Panarin gets lost in the McDavid-Eichel rookie hype shuffle, and is overshadowed on a defending champion’s roster that is studded with superstars. But he’s quickly making an impact on the second line, learning English and impressing teammates.
For now, though, he’ll joke around with Anisimov and Tikhonov in a Russian triumvirate, laughing as he embarks on a path to NHL stardom.