Panarin takes ‘Leave of Absence’ due to smear campaign from former Russian coach, how losing Panarin impacts the Rangers

In a earth shattering story Larry Brooks of the New York Post broke early on Monday that became headline news, Artemi Panarin has taken a ‘leave of absence’ from the Rangers to deal with a horrible rumor spread by a former Russian coach who doesn’t have much credibility.

The rumor was started by former NHL goon Andrei Nazarov, who coached Panarin while he played with Vityaz Chekhov of the KHL. He accused the Russian star of physically assaulting an 18-year old girl as a 19-year old. Based on the lack of evidence which excludes a victim as part of the accusation that mentioned Panarin paying off $40,000 Euros to keep the rumored girl silent, it sure sounds strange.

The alleged ‘incident’ was supposed to have took place in Latvia. But Nazarov might’ve gotten his timeline wrong according to hockey reporters close to the situation. He also said it happened in Russia. It sounds like a made up story by a bitter former Russian coach who supports Vladimir Putin.

Panarin has been very vocal that he doesn’t like Putin, even posting a photo in support of potential Presidential candidate Alexi Navalny on his Instagram last month.

To be honest, I don’t care about any of this stuff. I think it’s unbelievable that a pathological liar like Nazarov can make up some ridiculous rumor about the Rangers’ best player. What makes it worse is that his false accusation has been shot down by the media close to the situation. We’re talking about something that likely didn’t happen from a decade ago.

Furthermore, Brooks added to his original story that this has nothing to do with Putin. It was all Nazarov, who not only was the definition of an NHL scrub, but a total washout as a coach in Russia. He sounds deranged and probably should be in a mental asylum.

The truth is Brooks is good at his job. So too is Mollie Walker as many hockey fans are discovering. By far, they do an outstanding job covering the sport for The NY Post. Of course, there have been times where I didn’t see eye to eye with Brooks. But he is willing to put himself out there. He went the extra mile to shoot down the garbage the disgraced NYR blogger put out about Tony DeAngelo on a despicable site that has lost every ounce of credibility. A fictional piece from start to finish that used terms I won’t repeat.

I feel vindicated that I challenged that lunatic and haven’t followed that blog for a long time. I’m glad K’Andre Miller played the role of peacemaker in the altercation between former Blueshirt DeAngelo and Alex Georgiev. It also was predictable that the whole phantom puck story about Miller’s first NHL goal that DeAngelo collected and gave to the team staff, blew up in their faces. Even though I don’t follow them, I’m well aware that there hasn’t been a peep since. That is a positive development for the blogger and social media community.

I’ve said before that Brooks can be a polarizing reporter. But when push comes to shove, he is well connected to the Rangers organization. He wouldn’t just make something up. That’s why I have to laugh at the fools who went after both him and Walker for discovering the truth on the DeAngelo situation with the team. He actually was well liked by some teammates due to his character.

Not the one that management dealt with. I don’t think he was handled correctly after they gave him that contract. It seemed like David Quinn never liked him or knew quite how to handle the controversial offensive defenseman. But it is what it is. I can report that he’s kept a very low profile on his Instagram account since.

My thoughts on the Panarin situation are different because they’re way more serious circumstances. The fact he needs time away from hockey due to the silly nature of this crap speaks to how concerned he is about his family back home. From all accounts thus far, nobody has a bad word to say about the 29-year old superstar who finished third for the Hart Trophy last year. I’ll be blunt. When you look at how bad the Rangers are when he misses games, there’s no way the Bread Man shouldn’t have won league MVP.

I could care less how many goals and points Leon Draisaitl put up. He’s great. I would rate him ahead of Connor McDavid due to being more complete. McDavid is the greatest skater I’ve ever seen in transition. He can do things at such a high level that it’s mind boggling. Special players are the Oilers duo who still must prove it in the playoffs.

As for Panarin, he isn’t as big in stature. However, the way he can create space and find open teammates is a special gift. Just imagine if he increased his shooting more like he did in his return versus the Flyers. He finished with eight shots in 16 attempts. He works extremely hard and is a proven performer who does it in a more quiet fashion due to the language barrier.

It’s a shame fans won’t get to see him for an undetermined amount of time. But family comes before everything. Especially making sure they’re all safe back home. Nobody truly knows what is going on. Russia is very different from America. Even if I see things that are happening here that I don’t agree with, it pales in comparison to what goes on in Russia.

It makes me think back to my childhood when I was afraid of the former Soviet Union. Those were scary times. I’m instantly reminded of Sting’s memorable song, “Russians,” where he sings about how he hopes they love their children too. There are some great lines in it. None better than this part:

There is no monopoly in common sense

On either side of the political fence

We share the same biology

Regardless of ideology

It came out in 1985. It still was very relevant. Especially during the era of President Reagan’s second term. How he handled the seriousness of foreign policy and the relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev led to the end of the Cold War. The fact they were on such good terms bode well for the future of democracy. Eventually, the Berlin Wall was finally no more by 1989. Something nobody believed would ever happen.

It’s hard to express in words what a relief that was. It’s ironic that during the same time period, Russian hockey players started coming over to play in the NHL. They included Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Makarov and several others who made an agreement to still represent their country. However, a much riskier proposition was the first ever defection when future star Alexander Mogilny left to play in North America. A great player who deserves his place in the biased Canadian Hockey Hall of Shame Fame.

In these times where Putin rules with an iron fist, you can never be certain what’s going on. However, a lot of stuff that’s expressed is spread mostly by North American media, who like to blame Russia for everything. It’s utterly ridiculous. I highly doubt they’re coming after Panarin because he isn’t as loyal to Putin as Alexander Ovechkin. Slava Malamud raises a strong point about how differently Panarin is being treated as compared to Ovechkin. It is hypocritical.

Regardless of him speaking the truth about a complex situation, here’s what I think. You better believe that miscreant Nazarov pulled this stunt intentionally to try to sabotage Panarin as part of some psychotic plan to keep him off the Olympic team next year. That’s assuming the Winter Games are on by that point. We haven’t even had a Summer Games that was supposed to take place last year. Something they’re still planning for later this year.

Is that with masks and social distancing or are we ever going to get back to some semblance of normalcy? Don’t count me among the group celebrating the ‘return of fans‘ to arenas. That’s a joke. Just from a cost standpoint without considering the risks or PR factor, it’s cringe worthy.

There’s still so much that must be accomplished in regards to the COVID-19 vaccination they’re promoting. It isn’t so easy to get it for everyone. How can it be? It’s so great a population that it’s no wonder things are the way they are. I can only hope and wish for the health and safety of everyone. It’s pretty scary.

The pandemic also makes it harder for players to return. Filip Chytil just was taken off COVID Protocol, which means he’s finally getting closer to returning for the Rangers. They sure can use him. However, he and Kaapo Kakko remain out for Wednesday’s return match against the Flyers.

How will that affect Panarin? I pretty much have concluded that he’ll miss at least two weeks. That could mean six to seven games. But will he have to also do a 14-day quarantine? If that’s the case, then he could be gone for a month.

At 6-7-3 with 15 points and only four wins in regulation, the Blueshirts have to start consistently winning games. They’ll have to do it without Panarin. A tall order unless the leadership that includes Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and to a lesser extent Ryan Strome get going. Strome has been better than both. He also is very vocal including in support of Panarin after the Rangers released a statement.

For the time being, they’ll have to do it without their meal ticket. Zibanejad, Kreider, Strome, Pavel Buchnevich and Adam Fox are the names who must pick it up. I included Fox because he’s been stuck on seven points for a while. In fact, the heavily relied upon Fox has no points in six with a minus-three rating. He’s getting over 25 minutes a night which includes power play and penalty kill while matching up with partner Ryan Lindgren most of the time against opponents’ best scoring lines. Without Jacob Trouba, more has been asked for out of K’Andre Miller, Brendan Smith, Libor Hajek and Anthony Bitetto, who finds himself on the second power play unit.

Without Kakko, Quinn decided to split up Buchnevich and Kreider. Buchnevich will start with Zibanejad and rookie Alexis Lafreniere. Kreider will flank Strome and Colin Blackwell. The third line should comprise Kevin Rooney centering Brendan Lemieux and Julien Gauthier. However, Jonny Brodzinski is expected to play. Brett Howden could wind up with Phil Di Giuseppe and Gauthier. Igor Shestyorkin is the confirmed starter for the Flyers game.

The challenging part is they don’t know how long Panarin is gone for. Even with early indications that things are okay, nobody knows how much time he needs away from the rink. He doesn’t like missing games. But this is a special circumstance. The Rangers’ top scorer who’s posted 18 points (5-13-18) in 14 games despite missing a pair due to an upper-body injury, came back in and immediately contributed to two straight victories at the Flyers and Caps. He’s that important.

If they’re a good team, they’ll prove it. The last time they faced Philadelphia, they were still without Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, Jakub Voracek, Scott Laughton and two other regulars. They just got embarrassed by the Bruins in the second game at Lake Tahoe on Sunday. Carter Hart was brutal and has struggled so far. It will probably be Brian Elliott in net.

Following that game, the Rangers finish February with two versus the Bruins. Considering the fireworks we saw in the last game that was a Boston shutout at MSG highlighted by Buchnevich taking on Jeremy Lauzon and Lemieux fighting Trent Frederic, it could have a lot of nastiness. Don’t forget lone Boston goalscorer Nick Ritchie bumped Shestyorkin, who didn’t take kindly to it. There are two games to respond.

Here’s the thing. This team must learn to win without Panarin. They haven’t yet in the few games he’s missed since joining the team. It’s time for that to change. Maybe a little adversity can motivate them further. There’s an opportunity for the rest of the roster to step up.

We’ll see if they’re up to the challenge.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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