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Artemi Panarin following in Vladimir Tarasenko’s footsteps

ST. LOUIS — When the season began, Vladimir Tarasenko went out of his way to catch a few early Blackhawks games. But the dynamic Blues winger wasn’t really scouting his team’s biggest rival. He was actually kind of rooting for them — well, for one of them, at least: Artemi Panarin.

“He’s doing pretty good,” Tarasenko said. “I’m not surprised. I knew what he could do on the ice. And I knew he could do it here. It looks like he has a pretty good line, a good chance for him. I wish him the Calder Trophy.”

Considering another rookie-of-the-year candidate, Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, has a locker stall just a few feet away from Tarasenko’s, that could be considered a controversial statement. But Tarasenko and Panarin are old friends, and former teammates on the Russian national team (they won gold together at the World Juniors in 2011). They go back years, and caught up over dinner on Friday night in St. Louis.

“We don’t see each other too much,” Panarin said through interpreter Viktor Tikhonov. “Mostly just keep in touch on the phone. We were happy to see each other.”

Tarasenko is sort of the model for Panarin, which is a little strange considering the Hawks rookie is about six weeks older than his Blues counterpart. Like Panarin, Tarasenko came to the NHL with five years of experience in the KHL, making him technically a rookie, but with a significant leg up on your average 18- or 19-year-old coming up out of juniors.

Tarasenko had a better pedigree than Panarin — he was a first-round pick in 2010, while Panarin was not drafted— but they have a similar flair on the ice. Tarasenko came to the NHL after the lockout in 2013, and scored eight goals in 38 games. The following season, he had 21 goals. Last year, he broke out with 37, and is now one of the league’s biggest offensive stars.

It took Panarin a little longer to get there, but he’s following in Tarasenko’s footsteps by making an instant splash in the NHL. After Saturday’s 4-2 Hawks win at Scottrade Center, Panarin leads all rookies with 12 assists and 17 points through 17 games while playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov.

Tarasenko’s success both motivated and inspired Panarin.

“I knew that sooner or later, I would be able to [play in the NHL],” Panarin said. “He bloomed a lot sooner. I wasn’t very surprised that he came over sooner. You always heard his name around, and knew that he was a big player.”

Panarin’s becoming one, too. Quickly.

“Vlad told us about this guy three years ago,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “[As a newcomer to the NHL], you’re always wondering if you can intimidate him physically, is he going to want to pay the price. But he more than wants to do that. He’s a player that has great patience and you have to learn how to defend those guys. So us practicing against Vlad every day helps us play guys like Kane and Panarin, and even [Teuvo] Teravainen, too. They’re hard guys to play against, because it’s not them that’s the most dangerous player, it’s the players away from the puck, because they have eyes in the back of their head and they can find people away from the puck. I think that’s what makes Panarin so dangerous — he knows where Kane is on the ice. He knows where his linemates are on the ice. So he’s not only the dangerous one, it’s the people that are playing with him that are just as dangerous.”

At 24 years old, with five years of professional experience overseas, Panarin doesn’t really like being thought of as a rookie. But with Connor McDavid injured, Panarin is the early front-runner for the Calder Trophy. And that’s something even Tarasenko didn’t get.

“Playing in the KHL, they have a little bit of that experience to come over and play at a high-end level,” Kane said. “Both have been very impressive. Especially [Panarin], to start the season. I think we all knew how good he was and what he could do with the puck, but I think he’s probably surpassed a lot of people, and what they expected from him.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus