First-year jitters behind him, Artemi Panarin ready for playoffs

It’s easy to imagine Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman sweating out the last few games of the season as coach Joel Quenneville eagerly (and successfully) tried to ensure that Artemi Panarin would finish in the top 10 among forwards in points and secure his $1.725 million bonus — one that will count against the team’s salary cap next -season.

But Bowman wasn’t sweating it. He was expecting it.

“When we come into the season, we assume he’s going to get the bonus,” Bowman said. “Then if he doesn’t, we readjust. So we’re not really caught off guard. My preparation for next year — that’s what we’ve been planning on all year. We talked to Panarin at the end of last year, and he said, ‘I’m going to be even better next year.’ And we expected that to happen.”

Panarin doesn’t think about his bonus, point total or his standing in the league, because he says it can get his head and affect his play. When asked Thursday if he views himself as a top player in the league after his second consecutive 30-goal, 70-point season, he demurred, saying via an interpreter than he is “always trying to keep my feet on the ground.”

Artemi Panarin (right) had 31 goals and 43 assists in 82 games this season. (AP Photo)

But as he enters his second career Stanley Cup playoffs, he’s more comfortable and more confident than ever. And even after posting two goals and five assists in a seven-game first-round loss to the Blues last spring, he’s expecting more from himself this time around.

“I was probably a little bit more nervous last season, in my first playoffs,” he said. “I feel better now than last season. … I’m not nervous. I know what to expect from the game. I know the game is going to be more physical, more provocative. I’m ready for it.”

Panarin’s comfort level is growing off the ice, too. He can converse relatively well in English, though he still conducts interviews in Russian. And he’s taken to Twitter in recent weeks. It’s his agent, Dan Milstein, however, doing the actual tweeting. But Panarin made it clear that all the comments are his own.

Panarin’s transition from the KHL has been incredibly successful (and between his two years worth of bonuses and his two-year, $12 million contract that starts next year, wildly lucrative). He said he was “grateful that my life is going this way.”

So is Bowman, no matter the effect on the cap.

“He did something pretty special here, to come in two years in a row and get 70 points, 30 goals a year,” Bowman said. “That just doesn’t happen. It’s really hard to find players who are able to do that. We couldn’t be more happy for Artemi.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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