CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Top line right winger Evgenii Dadonov has been a model for production and consistency since making his triumphant return to the Florida Panthers.
Signed as a free agent three summers ago for his second tour of duty in Sunrise, Dadonov arrived as a far cry from the 22-year-old that Florida traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in the final year of his Entry Level Contract back in 2012.
Following three seasons of back-and-forth between the Panthers and their affiliates in the American Hockey League, Dadonov had no intention of signing up for more of the same, instead electing to continue his career back home in Russia.
Five years of seasoning in the KHL helped mold Dadonov into a quiet but confident leader, a role he's embraced among his Panthers teammates.
His second go-round in South Florida has elevated the seemingly unknown 31-year-old into an offensive weapon with a growing reputation around the league, one whose skills will be highly coveted when the offseason arrives.
Dadonov has scored at least 25 goals in each of the past three years, averaging over 60 points during his latest tenure with the Panthers.
A mainstay on Florida’s top forward line and first power play unit, Dadonov has proven himself to be anything but a one-trick pony.
"Dads gives us a dimension with his quickness, and his speed and versatility on the rush," Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville said following Wednesday's practice. "On the power play, he's very effective as well. His quickness can really back teams off."
Florida will need Dadonov firing on all cylinders when the team opens its best-of-five Qualifying Round series against the defensive-minded New York Islanders. Game 1 is scheduled for Aug. 1 at 4 p.m. with the Panthers planning to travel up to the Toronto quarantine bubble on Sunday.
Dadonov, who won the Gagarin Cup twice with SKA St. Petersburg during his time in the KHL, is anxious to experience the enormity that is the Stanley Cup postseason.
"I'm actually really excited to taste the playoffs," he said Wednesday. "Even though it's a play-in round, I think it's already like the playoffs."
Another Panthers player looking forward to feeling the intensity of the postseason for the first time is defenseman-turned-forward Mark Pysyk.
The man coined ‘The Prius’ due to his success as a right wing after playing almost his entire life on the blue line is ready to skate beyond the regular season for the first time in his eight-year career.
"There's an excitement in the room," said Pysyk. "Who knows what would've happened in the (end of the) season, but now we're one series away from making the playoffs."
Pysyk and Dadonov remained in South Florida with their families during the leaguewide stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic, both taking part in Phase 2 workouts at the Ice Den in Coral Springs.
While at the rink, Pysyk split his time between playing forward and defensemen in order to stay as sharp as possible at both positions. With no coaching staff allowed inside the rink during Phase 2, Pysyk wasn't sure where his services would be needed after the pause and wanted to be ready to play anywhere he was asked.
At the end of the day, Pysyk just wants to get into the lineup, something he's been happy to admit all season.
"It's a lot more fun playing than sitting and watching," he said, reiterating a message he's conveyed multiple times throughout the year. "If it's forward, defense, whatever it is, (being) in the lineup is a lot of fun."
Said Quenneville: "I think he's had a great camp. He really developed himself in both areas during the season."
If anyone has been a fan of Pysyk’s during this roller coaster of a season, it’s been his head coach.
Quenneville watched Pysyk's understanding of the forward position grow as the games went by, nurturing him and lending a hand along the way. As Pysyk's offensive skills became more prominent, they enhanced his all-around game by leaps and bounds.
"I can't say enough about how hard he's worked," said Q. "Every day, he comes with a great attitude. He's excited and enjoys the game, and is having fun with the position and situation we're in right now."
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
Something else that Dadonov and Pysyk have in common is that both are playing on expiring contracts.
Regarding Pysyk's status as a pending free agent, it's interesting to think how much his value has increased since October, when he went from a defensive healthy scratch to a versatile, responsible winger with a surprising scoring touch.
“Evaluating his skill level and skill set, it puts him in a different perspective when people are going to be considering a free agent,” Quenneville explained. “You have to commend him on where he is and where he was. He took advantage of a situation that not too many guys have had.”
Q added that the Panthers "certainly like him as well in a lot of ways," indicating that there could be an effort to retain the hybrid's services when the offseason arrives.
For his part, Pysyk has had nothing but good things to say about playing for Quenneville and his staff. He seems genuinely interested in keeping a permanent South Florida address.
"That stuff was all sort of pushed to the back burner," Pysyk said of his contract situation. "In talks with my agent, there's been nothing really said. We've just said take care of what we can take care of here."
His last comment on the topic:
“It’s awesome here in Florida, I absolutely love it, but we’ve got a job to do here so that’s definitely where the focus is.”
As for Dadonov, the only permanent home he's known in the United States has been in South Florida. With a wife and young children at home, he had more to say about missing his family during the postseason than he did about his contract situation.
"The first week will probably be hard," Dadonov said of being away from his family.
Ultimately, the only thing Dadonov wants to focus on right now is the task at hand. He's not thinking free agency, he's thinking playoff run.
"I'm not worried about it at all. I'm going to play and do my job," said Dadonov. "There's going to be enough time to talk about a new contract (after the season). Right now, I'm just ready to play."
EXTRA-SPECIAL STANLEY CUP?
There is no denying that the 2019-20 NHL season will end up as one of the most memorable and talked about years in league history when all is said and done.
From Commissioner Gary Bettman hitting the pause button due to the coronavirus pandemic to the 24-team playoff, traveling to a quarantine bubble for an unknown amount of time, playing postseason games in empty rinks…there are so many reasons why this could end up the most difficult and exhausting Stanley Cup run a championship team will ever have endured.
Quenneville was asked on Wednesday if there might be an added sense of accomplishment for whomever ends up winning the Cup.
His answer turned out to be so thoughtful and interesting that it didn't make sense not to include the entire thing.
"It will definitely be the most talked about, the most memorable and probably the most challenging. When you look at how some teams will have to win an extra round to get in, with that many teams having an opportunity to play for a Cup, it's going to make it even more challenging.
"The focus, the attention, the stoppage and the restarts, recapturing the competitiveness that was basically in place, and trying to get back to that place, is going to be extra rewarding for that team that finds a way to get through it.
“It’s going to be a great story for a team, knowing what happened (with the pause) and knowing that you had to go through what you had to go through to win a championship, that’s going to be the one championship that nobody is going to forget.”