TORONTO — Turns out, Artemi Panarin at age 6 was a lot like Artemi Panarin at age 24.

“Always a smile on the face,” said former schoolmate, linemate, and World Cup teammate Evgeny Dadonov. “Always. Since he was a little kid.”

It wasn’t just the happy-go-lucky attitude, that goofy charm that so enraptured Chicago in his first year with the Blackhawks. Back then, as now, Panarin was a little smaller, a little faster, and a little better than just about everyone else.

And now everyone knows it. After his remarkable first NHL season, in which he had 30 goals and 47 assists, helped Patrick Kane to the best season of his career, and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, Panarin is now among the world’s elite. And Dadonov, who’s been there since the beginning, isn’t surprised.

“I knew he could play in the NHL, for sure,” said Dadonov, who was Panarin’s KHL linemate in St. Petersburg, Russia, after playing 55 NHL games in three seasons with the Florida Panthers. “He’s a great player — good skill, good speed. He’s always been small, a tiny guy. Maybe that’s why NHL teams didn’t seem him as a [great] player earlier. But I knew he was strong enough to play [in the NHL]. I’m probably [just] a little surprised he started to play so well so fast. I thought he needed time — to learn the language, the country, a different style of life. But he got through it pretty quickly.”

So what does Panarin do for an encore? Will there be a sophomore slump, or can he get even better? After unplugging for four months back home in Russia, Panarin — who said he lost his phone and basically was out of contact with Kane and Chicago all summer — is trying to look forward, not back.

“I already forgot last season,” Panarin said through an interpreter (his English has come quite a long way in one year, but he’s still more comfortable doing interviews in his native tongue). I’m moving forward and have new goals and new challenges ahead. I’m just getting ready for a good fresh start.”

Last season, Panarin missed most of training camp with an injury and was an unknown commodity heading into the regular season. This year, he’s jumping right into high-level action, too, with Russia in the World Cup of Hockey. He’s been mostly in a bottom-six role for the high-powered Russians, and has one shot and one assist in two games heading into Thursday’s must-win game against Finland. But Panarin thinks the high level of play — Niklas Hjalmarsson justifiably deemed it “the most competitive tournament in the world,” thanks to the two super-teams of Europe and North America — will benefit him when the puck drops at the United Center on Oct. 12.

“It’s a great experience for me, and I feel I’ll be ready,” Panarin said. “It seems that the NHL level could be a little bit weaker, but this is a great experience to play with the best players in the world. I’ll be well-prepared.”

Panarin will turn 25 on Oct. 30, so while he’s entering just his second NHL season, he’s also entering his prime. And with the Hawks thinner than ever up front, with several prospects likely to be thrust into major roles, they’re going to rely even more heavily on Panarin and Kane. And that’s saying something, given how often the Hawks looked like a one-line team last season.

He’ll also be playing for a contract. Panarin’s a restricted free agent this summer, and the cap-strapped Hawks have had only preliminary talks about an extension. But both sides are optimistic that he’ll be in Chicago for the long term. He’s too good of a player, and Chicago’s too good of a fit.

As Panarin’s star has risen in Chicago, it’s also risen back home. Already a fan favorite after putting up 62 points in 54 games and leading SKA St. Petersburg to the Gagarin Cup, Panarin came back to Russia a household name.

As Dadonov put it, while the KHL is the second-best league in the world, not every star player in Russia manages to become a star player in North America. Plenty have, but plenty have flamed out, failing to even make a team. So those that make it in the NHL tend to become even more beloved back home.

“He was already a star, but now he’s even bigger,” Dadonov said. “Huge.”

Those closest to him say his breakout season hasn’t changed him, though. He’s still kind of small, he’s still really good, and he’s still always smiling.

“He’s the same person he was in Russia,” said Blackhawks linemate and mentor Artem Anisimov. “And he’s the same person as last year. He doesn’t change.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus