First impression: pretty good.
Throughout the 17-year history of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the number of players who could be described as “electrifying” is relatively low.
They’ve had great players wear the sweater. All-Stars, Olympians, Calder Trophy winners, Rocket Richard winners and Vezina Trophy winners. Terrific leaders and ambassadors of the game both in the central Ohio community and beyond. But they’ve historically lacked players who can break a game open and, just when things feel like they’re headed in the wrong direction, have the ability to reverse the tide.
With the addition of Artemi Panarin, they’re confident that the aforementioned group of players has grown by one.
“Game-breaking” was the term used by Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen to describe Panarin’s skill set. The 25-year-old Russian forward was formally introduced to the Columbus media on Wednesday at Nationwide Arena, and many wanted to know how Panarin would be utilized with his new team — a team that wants to change its own definition of success.
Panarin was part of a stout Blackhawks team in Chicago, has represented his native Russia on the largest stage and, still only 25, has two consecutive 70-point seasons under his belt. The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs three times only to be eliminated in four, six and five games in those appearances, and with the bulk of their core group under contract at affordable cost for the next two seasons, they’re aiming to maximize this window of opportunity.
Now, with Panarin, that opportunity may never be more ripe.
“He brings that game-breaking, 1-on-1 skill that you never have enough of,” Kekalainen said. “Guys who want the puck on their stick when the games are on the line, guys who can score that goal when it counts the most. Anywhere he’s been, he’s been a first-line player. He’s a guy who wants the puck at all times and wants to score — that’s the type of player we were looking for.”
The Blue Jackets lost 18 goals from Sam Gagner, 13 from Scott Hartnell, and in the transaction that brought Panarin to Columbus, lost 24 goals from Brandon Saad. They need offense. They need potent weapons to keep up in the Metropolitan Division, a division marked by its members’ relentless push to contend with the Washingtons and Pittsburghs.
Coming off a 31-goal season and with his best years ahead of him, Panarin is one of the more notable additions in the Metro. It’s a sizable coup for the Blue Jackets, who don’t want to keep up with the division’s top dogs — they want to pass them.
“Artemi is going to give us another weapon and is going to give the coach options,” Kekalainen said. “You’ve got to have good options and have good top players. We have a great young group with a couple of the best young defensemen in the game, we have a great goaltender, and we have top offensive talent developing as well. He’ll fit in perfectly with what we’re looking for.”
Panarin didn’t directly address a question that asked about his desire to help the Blue Jackets slug it out with the Penguins, but he’s no stranger to wearing a target. The Blackhawks were the class of the Central Division, another of the NHL’s dens of doom, constantly pursued by the Predators, Wild, Stars and others.
Often times, he could be found elevating his game to match the occasion. Sure, he played a boatload of minutes alongside Patrick Kane, which has caused some pundits to wonder whether Panarin can stand on his own in Columbus — but as Kekalainen quickly pointed out, Kane had two of the best seasons of his career while paired with the guy known affectionately as “Bread Man.”
“I want to continue progressing and want to prove myself,” Panarin said through his translator, agent Dan Milstein. “I’m not going to think about (the references to Kane benefiting him). I’m going to show up every game and play the best game. Throughout my career, including in Russia, people always say I’m playing (well) because of somebody else. I’m used to it and I’m not going to pay attention to it.”
If all goes as planned for Panarin and the Blue Jackets this season, they’ll have plenty of folks paying attention to them.