COLUMBUS, Ohio — If someone has an idea of what Artemi Panarin is going through, it’s Rick Nash. And even from the perch of his new gig in the Blue Jackets’ front office, the recently retired Nash understood the lure the brought Panarin to Broadway.
I can’t blame the guy. The Rangers are such a good organization,” Nash told The Post before Panarin made his first return on Thursday night in the arena he called home for two seasons, having signed a seven-year, $81.5 million free-agent deal with the Blueshirts this summer.
“Playing in New York, playing in MSG,” Nash said, “I wouldn’t trade my six years in New York for any hockey experience.”
When Nash came to the Rangers, it was in a trade (that he initiated) in the summer of 2012, and he was supposed to be the missing piece that made the Rangers Stanley Cup contenders. He struggled to stay healthy — a series of concussions forced him into retirement a year ago, and he still occasionally deals with the aftereffects — and he never quite had the postseason performances that the club was hoping for.
Still, Nash was a big part of the run to the 2014 Stanley Cup final, and he had a huge year when the team won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2014-15. It was one of the most successful runs in franchise history — it just never resulted in a Stanley Cup.
Now, the club is rebuilding, and Panarin is a centerpiece — if not the centerpiece. Championship aspirations are still far in the distance, but that hardly means that individual expectations don’t exist when a player like him comes in.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Nash said. “It can be tough. The media can be demanding. The fans can be demanding. The boo birds can come out pretty easily. They expect a good product on the ice, and you can’t blame them.
“But he’s answered the critics pretty fast, huh?”
Panarin surely has, with the 28-year-old Russian leading the team with 12 goals, 21 assists and 33 points through the first 26 games. His smile is infectious, and his jaw-dropping talent has already made his arrival on Broadway one to remember.
Nash joined the Blue Jackets organization in the middle of last season, so he spent only a little bit of time around Panarin as the team won its first-ever playoff series before losing to the Bruins in the second round. From one elite player to another, the talent is undeniable.
“As a player, his game speaks for itself,” Nash said. “He creates so much on the ice, makes the players around him so much better. It shows in his numbers and the scoring chances. It’s not the kind of player you can pick up out of nowhere — it takes a special situation.”
The situation was that Panarin always wanted to play in a big city, and as much as he enjoyed his time in Columbus, the Big Apple was always on his mind. He never misled anyone regarding his intentions, which didn’t make his departure any easier.
“He accomplished a lot when he was here,” Nash said. “He’s obviously a world-class player, and it was tough for the city to lose a world-class player like that. But everyone is appreciative of what he did here. With the run we had here last year, everyone was appreciative of his work. He was always honest with everyone here. The Rangers got a great player.”
The Rangers got a great player in Nash, too. After 674 games with the Blue Jackets, who took him with the No. 1-overall selection back in 2002, Nash played parts of six seasons with the Rangers, putting up 145 goals and 252 points. But as part of the rebuilding process, they traded him to the Bruins at the 2018 deadline, where he finished his career without much of a fuss.
He contemplated continuing to play that summer and into the season, but announced his retirement last January and took a job working with Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalaninen. It was tough for them to lose Panarin, but if anyone can explain why, it’s Nash.
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