Rangers’ Artemi Panarin returns to practice after leave of absence

Artemi-Panarin

New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin. (Bill Kostroun / AP)

Artemi Panarin rejoined the New York Rangers for practice in Boston on Wednesday after taking a two-week leave of absence.

Coach David Quinn said Panarin won’t play Thursday night against the Bruins and his timeline for getting back to game action is unclear. But there’s a buzz around the Rangers that their highest-paid and best player is back.

“He walked in at breakfast and everyone was pretty happy to see him,” defenceman Jacob Trouba said. “We heard rumblings that he might be meeting us in Boston, so everyone kind of kept it quiet, but I think everyone was excited. Obviously great to have him back and happy to have him back in the locker room. I think the team’s obviously excited to have him back around.”

Panarin left the team Feb. 22 after a Russian tabloid printed allegations from a former coach that he attacked a woman in Latvia almost a decade ago, which he denies.

The team called it a fabricated story designed to intimidate Panarin for his political views. Andrei Nazarov, a former NHL enforcer who coached Panarin in the Kontinental Hockey League, said he was motivated to speak about the alleged incident because he disagreed with Panarin’s repeated criticism of the Russian government.

Panarin, 29, has been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and earlier this year posted his support on social media for opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Trouba said Rangers players talked about Panarin’s situation and welcomed him back with open arms, calling it “business as usual.”

“He’s got a great relationship with all those guys,” Quinn said. “He’s been in contact with the players all throughout this, so nobody’s wondering what was going on. These guys are fully in his corner. They understand the situation. The fact that he’s got such a great relationship with all these guys has made all of this a lot easier.”

Panarin, who was an MVP finalst last season, has missed the past eight games. The Rangers are 4-4 without him.

“Obviously we miss his production and what he brings on the ice, but there’s so many different elements that he brings off the ice,” defenceman Ryan Lindgren said. “He’s a fantastic teammate and such a nice guy, and we definitely miss him a lot.”

Panarin is in his second season with the Rangers after signing an $81.5 million, seven-year contract with them in 2019. He was New York’s leading scorer when he stepped away.

Quinn isn’t sure where Panarin will go in the lineup when he gets his legs back enough to play. Panarin was not made available as part of the Rangers’ video media availability Wednesday.

“He’s here and just getting ready to play,” Quinn. “To me, he’s all in, ready to go. He’s been off the ice for a while, so we’ve got to get him game ready.”

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