If you really want to be precise, Artem Anisimov is trilingual. He speaks Russian. He speaks English. And he speaks Boston.
“Who told you that?” he laughed through his heavy Russian accent. “Oh, my gosh. I played in Hartford [in the AHL], and Boston was close to us. Somebody taught me with the Boston accent. It’s true.”
Fortunately for Anisimov, only his two primary languages are needed in Chicago. But he’ll certainly need them both to make the Blackhawks’ new-look second line function. On Anisimov’s left is Artemi Panarin, who is working on his English with a teacher via Skype, but whose vocabulary is mostly limited to “What,” “Maybe” and “Thank you.” On Anisimov’s right is Patrick Kane, whose Russian is limited to the few words he picked up at the Olympic Village in Sochi.
Viktor Tikhonov, raised in California, is Panarin’s unofficial interpreter for reporters. But Anisimov has to make sure his two dynamic wingers’ talent translates into on-ice chemistry.
“You’ve got to be one side Russian, one side English,” he said.
It’s just another wrinkle to watch for on the Hawks’ most intriguing line combination. Panarin, the supremely gifted 23-year-old winger who came over from the KHL, has missed the entire preseason with a lower-body injury. He returned to practice on Friday, and could play in Saturday’s preseason finale against the Dallas Stars. Ready or not, when the puck drops at the United Center for real on Wednesday, Panarin, Anisimov and Kane will have to work it all out on the fly.
After getting a good look at Panarin’s flashy play on Friday, Kane thinks they’ll be just fine.
“You can tell he’s very skilled,” Kane said. “He’s got a nice little quick release, and [he’s] also a very good stickhandler and skater. So you can tell the skill’s all there. It’s top notch, as far as I’m concerned.”
As for Anisimov, Kane has played with at least a dozen centers over his career, and nearly every one has had to learn to be at least a little bit selfish. The temptation is to defer to Kane, to constantly feed him the puck and let him do his thing. But Anisimov is a gifted scorer in his own right — he had a career-high 22 goals in 2013-14 before injuries and inconsistency led to a seven-goal campaign in 2014-15 —and Panarin has a world of potential. It’s always a fine line to walk for Kane’s teammates; you want the puck on his stick, but you don’t want to force it.
Ideally, Anisimov will be a net-crashing power forward for Kane and Panarin to bounce pucks off of. At 6-4, 198 pounds, he has the size to do it.
“I have two good wingers, and I can pass either way and they can make the plays,” Anisimov said. “But I can make plays, too. … I need to shoot the puck [like I did in 2013-14]. If I have a chance to shoot it, I’m going to shoot it.”
Panarin needs to learn the North American style of play, and to deal with the physical and mental rigors of an NHL season. Anisimov needs to adapt to Joel Quenneville’s defense-first system, which puts even more responsibility on centers. And Kane needs to get used to two brand-new linemates for the first time in years. The ceiling is extremely high, but three good players don’t automatically make a good line. It can take time.
Panarin acknowledged that there likely will be growing pains as both an individual and as a line —“[I] know they’ll definitely help [me] out,” Panarin said through Tikhonov — but Anisimov thinks they’ll figure it out pretty quickly. After all, they all speak the universal language of hockey.
“We are all good players,” he said. “We’ll just see on the ice. Just play the game, and the chemistry’s going to come. Eventually.”