Artemi Panarin is officially back in the fold for the New York Rangers after a two-week absence that came on the heels of a malicious attempt to smear his reputation — returning to the team over the weekend before snagging an assist in his first game back on Sunday against the Boston Bruins.
Toward the end of February, Panarin’s former KHL head coach at Vityaz, Andrei Nazarov, claimed that Panarin physically assaulted a young woman in Latvia 10 years ago. A lack of corroboration from potential witnesses and authorities from that time only proved that Nazarov’s claims did not have much of a foundation, but it was more of an attempt to drag Panarin down.
The Rangers star opposes Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, instead voicing his support for one of the regime’s largest rivals, Alexei Navalny. Following Navalny’s imprisonment in January, Panarin posted a photo of the political figure on Instagram with the caption “Freedom for Navalny.”
The 29-year-old’s return to the Rangers could not have come any sooner as the Blueshirts struggle to claw their way out of the cellar of the eight-team Eastern Division in which they currently sit in sixth; seven points out of fourth place, which is the final playoff spot available in the division.
But the hit piece sparked by Nazarov and the ensuing worry about the well-being of Panarin’s family in Russia might not have been the only reason why the winger took that leave of absence.
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported on Monday “not to discount injury as one of the reasons he stepped away.” Panarin apparently has been dealing with a back issue that has lingered for the last few seasons, which was a reason why he missed two games earlier in February.
“Perhaps he felt some pressure to return too soon, considering the pressure and microscope the Rangers are under this season,” Kaplan wrote.
She added that both general manager Jeff Gorton and head coach David Quinn are not “on the strongest ground,” in terms of job security as they’ve been tasked to lead a Rangers rebuild that catapulted well ahead of schedule last season when they snuck into the playoffs following the regular season’s suspension due to COVID-19.
Despite losing in the qualifying round to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Rangers still came away with the No. 1 pick of the draft, snagging the highly-touted forward Alexis Lafreniere — who was only expected to further build the organization’s standing as a legitimate postseason contender each year. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
With the season past its halfway mark now, there’s a ton of work to be done if that perception wants to change — meaning there will be plenty of pressure put squarely on the shoulders of Panarin to carry the team the rest of the way.
One would certainly need a healthy back for that.