From a hockey standpoint, St. Louis Blues star Tarasenko had no doubts that Panarin, 23, would eventually succeed in the NHL for the Chicago Blackhawks after spending his entire career in Russia. Tarasenko was confident Panarin's offensive game would translate well to the North American game. But Tarasenko was concerned everything else would -- sometimes literally -- have to be translated for Panarin. He believed Panarin's inability to speak English would make his adjustment rocky early on.
"He's one of my best friends," Tarasenko said in early September. "He's a good player. No English, though. I think it's going to be hard for him the first time."
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had similar apprehensions.
"I cautioned people over the summer," Bowman said Wednesday. "This kid is really talented. I'm not concerned about his hockey ability. We just got to give him a chance to transition his life."
That transition has been smoother than most people expected. Panarin might still only have a few English phrases down -- he recently joked that "What the f---" was one of his favorites -- but he's been eager to learn the language and has ventured into his new environment with a positive outlook. As he's embraced his new surroundings, the hockey part has taken care of itself and he has quickly established himself as a Calder Trophy candidate.
"I can only imagine if I went to Russia," Bowman said. "There's so much of your daily life spent away from the rink. That's not a simple transition. He's a pretty resilient kid. I think the thing I love about him is his attitude and approach. He's got a smile on his face every day. It's almost like a new adventure to him. Whereas some people could be homesick or be wanting a familiar situation, he seems to embrace everything that's new."
Bowman did his best in the offseason to make Panarin feel somewhat at home by adding Russian forwards Artem Anisimov and Viktor Tikhonov to the roster. Tikhonov and Panarin had been teammates for two-plus seasons with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL.
Panarin has leaned on Tikhonov, Anisimov and a Russian family in Chicago both on and off the ice since he arrived in mid-August. Tikhonov and Anisimov have translated what is said by teammates and coaches for Panarin on the ice. Tikhonov, grandson of the legendary coach, who was born in Russia and grew up in the United States, has done most of the translating for Panarin with the media.
Panarin has been taking an English course through Skype and recently moved into his own place, but he's been grateful for all the assistance.
"I would have probably left in a week to go home" without that support network, Panarin said through Tikhonov after a recent practice.
Anisimov has been the go between for Panarin and Patrick Kane as the trio has shared a line this season. Kane joked he has already consistently pushed one phrase onto Panarin.
"That's what we got to get him to understand, 'Pass to 88,'" Kane said with a laugh. "I've said that a few times to him. He kind of laughs, brushes it off and keeps shooting. Hopefully we'll get him to understand."
Kane might laugh, but opponents aren't finding the Blackhawks' new second line funny. Through four games, the line has combined for four goals and five assists in 5-on-5 play. Panarin scored his first NHL goal in his debut and has two goals and four points on the season. Panarin's agent and former NHL assistant general manager, Tom Lynn, has dubbed them "The Fun House Line" because of their tendency to deceive the opponent with their play-making skills.
"It's one of those things where we both like to play a certain way," Kane said. "Whether that was a way we were brought up playing hockey or just the way we play the game, I think that's one of our best parts so far, especially in the offensive zone kind of spreading the ice out, moving the puck side to side and when there is trouble we have support behind the puck, and there's a lot of speed there too. These days I think the toughest thing for defenders is when you do something different."
One NHL Western Conference scout got his first look at Panarin against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday and came away impressed. The scout described Panarin's right-handed shot as a poor man's Kane left-handed shot.
"Good player, high-end skill, smart with the puck, very shifty and quick," the scout wrote in a text. "Doesn't waste possession very much, makes plays and wants the puck, can shoot it too."
An Eastern Conference assistant general manager also recently gave Panarin a favorable review.
"He sees the ice extremely well," the assistant general manager wrote in a text. "He has the vision to make plays. He can really skate. He certainly has offensive upside, and he's creative."
Growing up in Russia, Panarin didn't always receive such glowing reviews. He often heard he was too small (he's now 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds) to make it at the highest level and was passed over for junior national teams early in his career.
"I always thought it was because all my coaches were telling me to eat more, go to the gym, gain weight," Panarin said through Tikhonov. "I was always eating more. I was eating everything but the silverware and the plate. All my life, I've been kind of fighting it. Now, it's gotten to the point where I'm over it. I can play without the heavy weight and size. Those coaches that told me I couldn't play without size, I wanted to prove they were wrong."
Panarin also flew under the radar for NHL teams at the time and was passed over in the draft. He wasn't bothered he wasn't selected. He wasn't thinking NHL then.
"It wasn't really in my plan," said Panarin, who carries with him a folding icon of Jesus and Mary to place in his dressing room stall. "I never played in the national teams. It was always kind of too far away for me to think about. It didn't really come to mind. I saw Tarasenko and they were already up there playing big roles, and I felt at that time the difference between my game and to theirs was like walking to China."
Panarin began to trim that distance in 2011 when he played with Tarasenko for Russia in the World Junior Championship. His confidence and his play began to improve after that. He was traded to SKA St. Petersburg late in the 2012-13 season and flourished the following season as he had 20 goals and 20 assists in 51 games. It was then that he caught the Blackhawks' eye.
Bowman and his scouts followed Panarin closely throughout last season and began pitching him and Lynn about playing for the Blackhawks. Barry Smith, the Blackhawks' director of player development, also happened to be a former head coach of SKA St. Petersburg from 2007-10. He still had connections there and helped sell the Blackhawks to Panarin.
"I told Artemi, 'You can play in the NHL. It's about [a good] fit for you,'" said Lynn. "The first thing I did was go through the teams that needed offense and need his type of play and looked who historically supported and who could be frustrated by a player like this. Chicago made our shortlist from the start. The record of the Blackhawks not only taking players like him, but supporting them on and off the ice was very strong. We went back to Chicago in the end."
Panarin finished last season tied for fourth in KHL scoring with 62 points in 54 games. He had another five goals and 15 assists in 20 playoff games. After the season, Panarin signed a two-year deal with the Blackhawks. He has an $812,500 cap hit and can make an additional $2.575 million in bonuses. Neither Panarin nor his agent would say what other NHL teams they considered.
Panarin sat out most of the Blackhawks' preseason after aggravating a previous back injury. Despite Panarin playing just one preseason game, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had seen enough to place him alongside Kane on the second line. After just one regular-season game, Quenneville nicknamed Panarin "Bread Man," playing off Panarin's ability to carry the puck and the similarity of his surname to the restaurant chain Panera Bread.
Panarin's recent rise has put him in a different spotlight in Russia. He was selected to the country's World Championship team in May and will be a candidate for Russia's team at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.
SKA St. Petersburg assistant coach and Russian national team assistant coach Sergei Zubov has enjoyed witnessing Panarin's growth as a player. Zubov, who spent most of his NHL career with the Dallas Stars, has been sure to catch Panarin's NHL highlights the past few weeks.
"He's obviously with the Blackhawks, but even if he stayed here he would be recognized as one of the best offensive forwards," Zubov said by phone Thursday. "No doubt. He's talented. His understanding of the game and hockey sense will take him a long way."
Panarin has begun showing some of his lighthearted personality to the media. When asked through Tikhonov if he had a nickname in Russia, Panarin paused, smiled and said "Snake" in Russian. Tikhonov knew better and said, "I think he made it up."
Panarin's new teammates are also beginning to learn more about him. Despite the language barrier, he's attempted to fit in in the dressing room and be engaged with his teammates. His effort is something that hasn't gone unnoticed.
"We know he's got a little ways to go as far as learning English, but we're trying our best to maybe learn a few Russian words to show that that effort is somewhat mutual," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "He's a happy kid. He's always smiling. You can tell he's having fun. He wants to be a part of the chatter in the room, even though he doesn't understand what's going on most of the time. It's fun to see that personality come out of him no matter what."