Looking to make the leap: Artemi Panarin

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Artemi Panarin was never drafted by an NHL club, and has never played a professional game in North America.

Yet heading into next season, there are expectations for him to be a key contributor… for the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“The real excitement is Panarin,” Chicago GM Stan Bowman said last month, per the Tribune. “He has tons of talent. We’re trying to be patient with the expectations because he’s coming to a new country, learning the language. … There’s going to be a bit of an adjustment there, but he has special ability.”

Panarin, 23, first burst onto the scene at the 2011 World Juniors, when he scored two goals — including the game-winner — in Russia’s memorable gold medal-game comeback (the Russians trailed Canada 3-0 heading into the third period, but went on to win 5-3).

From there, he turned into one of the KHL’s most dynamic scorers, finishing fifth in the league in points last year (62 in 54 games) while potting another 20 in 20 playoff games for eventual Gagarin Cup champs SKA Saint Petersburg.

Not to be outdone, Panarin starred at World Hockey Championships this past spring, scoring 10 points in 10 playoff games to help Russia win silver.

“All the Blackhawks fans are going to absolutely love him, just love watching him,” Viktor Tikhonov, who also made the jump from SKA to the ‘Hawks, told CSN Chicago this summer. “He’s always wanted to come over; he just didn’t know if he was ready.

“And just seeing him and how fast he’s developing, he was one of the best players in the KHL this year. It was the right move for him to make the jump.”

Panarin’s leap will be difficult, however.

He’s not overly big — 5-foot-11, 170 pounds — and, as the ‘Hawks learned last year, simply plunking someone into the lineup doesn’t always yield immediate results. Teuvo Teravainen, the club’s ballyhooed Finnish prospect, struggled to find his niche with the group and spent nearly half the regular season with AHL Rockford.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Panarin reportedly has an out clause in his contract, which allows a return to the KHL should he not make the Chicago roster.

That means he’s looking to make the leap — but has a pretty comfy landing spot, should he fall short.