Rangers Weekly Preview: The strangest season continues without Artemi Panarin

Perhaps it’s for the best that I got lazy and didn’t get around to writing this week’s preview until Monday night. Luckily, Dave is a pretty lenient boss. Originally I intended to dive into the simmering David Quinn debate for a few paragraphs before briefly looking ahead to this week’s slate of games against the Flyers and Bruins. Then the Artemi Panarin leave of absence from the Rangers story happened, so you’re all spared my Quinn takes… for now.

In a normal year, one of the NHL’s best players taking a leave of absence from the NY Rangers would qualify as Earth-shattering news. In 2021 – which frankly just feels like a continuation of 2020 at this point – the story feels equal parts absurd and appropriate.

While we don’t know all of the details, it’s pretty clear that Panarin was subjected to a politically-motivated hit piece in a Russian tabloid stemming from his support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The piece alleged that Panarin beat up a woman in a bar in Latvia in 2011, though that allegation has already been mostly debunked as false. Panarin took leave from the Rangers, presumably to make sure that his family was safe and to deal with any potential fallout from this story. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported that Panarin is not planning to leave the United States.

There are still many details to confirm, and plenty of layers to this story. While the Rangers released a very strong statement, I wouldn’t expect to hear much from them, MSG Networks, or our trusty stable of beat reporters (sarcasm!) moving forward. Luckily, there are some great journalists that cover the KHL and the intersection of Russian politics and sports, such as Slava Malamud and Aivis Kalnins. Give them a follow, as there will be more to this story in the coming days.

From a hockey standpoint, this is yet another setback for a Rangers team that has already dealt with a full-season’s worth of them. The team has battled admirably through off-ice drama, injuries, COVID-protocol problems and down years from key players. They stand at 6-7-3 after two strong, potentially season-saving wins last week. Unfortunately, the road ahead gets bumpier for the Rangers without Panarin for the foreseeable future, due to his leave of absence.

Game 17 @ Philadelphia Flyers (8-4-3) – Wednesday February 24

The Flyers just got shellacked by the Bruins, who are clearly separating themselves from the rest of the East Division. Six Flyers remain on the NHL’s COVID Protocol List, including Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny. Unfortunately for the Rangers, Kaapo Kakko landed on the COVID list on Saturday, and the Blueshirts are dealing with plenty of injuries and absences as well. Two shorthanded teams means that we could end up with another game that David Quinn would describe as “no Picasso.” Expect a close and scrappy affair that could come down to a late power play.

Games 18 and 19 vs. Boston Bruins (11-3-2) – Friday February 26 and Sunday February 28 (12:00 PM)

The Bruins are good at everything. Defense, goaltending, (just enough) scoring. They are clearly the class of the East Division, and it’s not particularly close. The Rangers played Boston close in the last two game series, winning 55% of the 5v5 expected goals share across the two games. The Rangers’ improved team defense gives them a chance in these tight-checking games, but with so much top-end talent missing, a split of these two games would be just fine.

On a positive note, Friday night’s game marks the return of fans to Madison Square Garden. It’ll be interesting to see what the atmosphere will be like with about 1,800 people in the stands.