Rangers make Panarin NHL’s highest-paid winger

Artemi Panarin, arguably the top free agent this offseason, has chosen the New York Rangers.

Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the Rangers, general manager Jeff Gorton confirmed. The 27-year-old was reportedly also pursued by the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers.

“We know he definitely wants to be here in New York, specifically with the Rangers,” team president John Davidson said. “It’s a perfect fit.”

Panarin now has the highest average annual value for a winger in the league, surpassing his old teammate Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks ($10.5 million).

“There’s something special about Panarin and the way he plays the game, the way he looks at the game, and the way he thinks about the game,” Davidson said. “I’m ecstatic about getting Panarin here to join this group.”

The Rangers have been in the midst of a rebuild, but it has accelerated. They drafted forward Kaapo Kakko No. 2 overall and made a trade for top defenseman Jacob Trouba.

New York also agreed to terms with forwards Greg McKegg and Danny O’Regan. McKegg had six goals and five assists in 41 games with Carolina this season, and the 25-year-old O’Regan has totaled one goal and four assists in 25 career games with San Jose and Buffalo.

After Panarin said he wouldn’t talk about a new contract until the offseason, the Columbus Blue Jackets were pushed into an awkward position: get what they could for the star Russian at the trade deadline or make a playoff push and possibly get nothing after the season. They chose to go for it this year, and that decision ended with a second-round loss to the Boston Bruins.

Panarin received a number of public pleas to stay via billboards in Columbus, including one from a distillery offering him free vodka for life if he re-signed.

He spent the past two seasons with the Blue Jackets after the Chicago Blackhawks traded him during the 2017 offseason. He had been a reliable presence for both teams, missing a combined six games over his four NHL seasons.

He had 28 goals, including eight winners, and 59 assists in 79 games this season. He went on to produce 5 goals and 6 assists in 10 playoff games.

Panarin’s previous contract had an average annual value of $6 million. The Blackhawks signed him to a two-year bridge deal in December 2016 after he won the Calder Trophy for his 77-point rookie season.

“He was obviously a player we coveted and wanted,” Gorton said, adding that the Rangers didn’t find out Panarin’s decision until just after the start of the free-agency period at midday.

After Panarin put up 74 points in his second season, the Blackhawks traded him to the Blue Jackets to get the cost certainty of Brandon Saad’s contract, knowing Panarin would get a huge raise.

Ahead of trade deadline in 2018, the Rangers released a letter to fans announcing their intent to rebuild, and then dealt forwards Rick Nash and J.T. Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh for young players and draft picks. The purge continued at this year’s deadline with the departures of Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes.

There were a lot of ups and downs for the Rangers in the first full season of the makeover. They were 32-36-14 in the first season under coach David Quinn, getting just five wins in their last 21 games (5-10-6) to finish seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division — 20 points out of the last wild card in the East for the second straight year.

“The idea of a [rebuild] is to get picks, and Jeff did a good job,” Davidson said. “Then, you go through the draft and you go through the development. As you do this, you try your best to find ways to try to make it all happen even quicker and better. … It’s all falling into place.”

Shortly before reports of Panarin’s signing, the Rangers dealt forward Jimmy Vesey to Buffalo — leaving Chris Kreider, Vladislav Namestnikov and Jesper Fast as potential unrestricted free agents next year.

Information from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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