NEW YORK — The New York Rangers' rebuild just took a giant leap forward.
Winger Artemi Panarin, the top free agent available this off-season, signed a seven-year, $81.5 million deal to join the Rangers, a person with knowledge of the signing told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team didn't announce terms of the deal Monday. He reportedly turned down more money from the crosstown rival Islanders among others.
The 27-year old Russian had 28 goals and 59 assists last season while helping Columbus get the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and then beat Presidents Trophy-winning Tampa Bay to advance to the second round. Panarin, who won the Calder Trophy with Chicago as the league's top rookie, has career totals of 116 goals and 204 assists in 322 games over four seasons with Blue Jackets and Blackhawks.
He gives the Rangers the scoring touch they've lacked while missing the last two playoffs after a run of seven straight post-season appearances, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.
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 totalled one goal and four assists in 25 career games with San Jose and Buffalo.
Ahead of trade deadline in 2018, Rangers released a letter to fans announcing their intent to rebuild, and then dealt forwards Rick Nash and J.T. Miller and defenceman Ryan McDonagh. 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.
However, the Rangers have been busy improving the defence since the end of their season. They signed Adam Fox, acquired the rights to restricted free agent Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg and drafted Kaapo Kakko with the second overall pick in the draft.
The Rangers also hired John Davidson as team president — bringing back their former goaltender and broadcaster — after he stepped down from the same role following seven seasons in Columbus.
New York also signed two Russians they drafted in previous years — forward Vitali Kravtsov (first round, 2018) and goalie Igor Shesterkin (fourth round, 2014) — to entry-level contracts.
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.