Hartnett: Panarin primed to be lead dog in a young wolfpack for Rangers


October will soon turn to November, and that means that the NHL is about two months away from opening the 2020-21 regular season. The NHL has targeted a Jan. 1 start date with the aim of playing a complete 82-game season.

For Rangers fans, the upcoming season will represent a second offering of superstar forward Artemi Panarin skating under The Garden lights. Under the circumstances of a usual October start, Panarin would be playing at his typical point-plus-per-game pace and putting down a marker as an early Hart Trophy candidate.

Season one as a Ranger was an unqualified success. To score 95 points in 69 games without an A-1 linemate was quite the accomplishment. No player in the NHL recorded more even-strength points than Panarin’s 71, and only Edmonton Oilers duo Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid bettered Panarin’s 1.38 points per game.

When the NHL returns to action in January, The Garden Faithful will be expecting Panarin to replicate his dominant 2019-20 campaign – but with every passing year, “The Breadman” finds a way to surpass his previous statistical feats. No matter which team he’s playing for or which linemates he’s paired with, his stock is continuously on the rise. With every passing year, he’s built on the buzz generated by a 77-point Calder Trophy rookie season as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Panarin turned 29 on Friday. The 5-foot-11 wing is signed through the 2025-26 season with a no-movement clause in the largest media market.

It’s difficult to think of a more electrifying player in today’s NHL than Panarin, and a better city for him to write his legacy. His elusiveness, dazzling puck skills, precise shooting accuracy, telepathic passing, impactful two-way play, and ability to be a one-man possession machine makes Panarin a one-of-a-kind talent.

The Rangers have gone 26 years without a Stanley Cup victory parade. Panarin will be the go-to guy whom Stanley Cup dreams are built on. If the youth movement centered around Igor Shesterkin, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, Vitali Kravtsov, and 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere progresses quickly, Panarin will have the supporting cast required to take several runs at Lord Stanley.

In years past, the Blueshirts placed too much of their expectations on Jaromir Jagr’s stick, Marian Gaborik’s skates, or Henrik Lundqvist’s glove. Panarin can be the lead dog who sets the bar high while having a chasing pack of talented pups aiming to emulate his example.

Think about that for a moment. An all-world superstar in Panarin, last year’s second overall pick in Kakko, this year’s first overall pick in Lafreniere, a developing franchise goaltender in Shesterkin, a thriving sophomore defenseman in Fox, and a deep prospect pool to go along with prime-aged point-getters Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider, Jacob Trouba, Ryan Strome, and Tony DeAngelo.

That’s an enticing prospect for Rangers diehards and a scary thought for the rest of the league to chew on this Halloween.

Follow Sean Hartnett on Twitter: @HartnettHockey

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