SUNRISE, Fla. – As the dust settles following several weeks of trades and free agency signings around the NHL, one thing is apparent in Sunrise; the Florida Panthers have a big vacancy to fill.
Who is going to take Evgenii Dadonov’s spot on the Panthers top line?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and it’s one that we’re going to pay a lot of attention to once training camp arrives later this year.
For the past three seasons, nobody has been on the ice with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau more often than Dadonov.
In fact, since Dadonov’s return in Florida prior to the 2017-18 campaign, the only trio to see more ice time together during those three years was Barkov, Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad, and it was during that same 17-18 season.
Eventually Huberdeau replaced Bjugstad on the top unit, which worked out well for both at the time, as each went on to put up career-high totals in points that season.
Huberdeau has remained on the line and his career has continued to ascend as a result. Bjugstad has not seen the same success.
He was traded to Pittsburgh the following year, battling injuries while struggling to crack the lineup and regain his scoring touch. He’s since been traded again, this time to his hometown Minnesota Wild, so hopefully Bjugstad can turn things around before hitting the UFA market next summer.
Getting back to the Panthers, Dadonov turned out to be the right fit for Huberdeau and Barkov, and the line thrived as a result. The success came in-part because Dadonov, who proved to have the right combination of skill and hockey intelligence, understood how to excel while sharing the ice with a pair of playmaking superstars.
It probably helped that before signing with Florida in 2017, Dadonov spent the previous year winning a Gagarin Cup with the KHL’s SKA Saint Petersburg, a team that featured stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Nikita Gusev and Vadim Shipachyov, among others.
Neither Barkov nor Huberdeau is a player that would be considered a shoot-first guy, and while Dadonov wasn’t an alpha scorer by any means, he was able to amplify his talents and put up three extremely solid and efficient goal-scoring seasons in Florida (28 goals in 2017-18, 28 goals in 2018-19 and 25 goals in 2019-20).
So that brings us to the original question; who’s the best option to replace Dadonov on Florida’s most utilized, leaned-on forward group?
Here are the top candidates, in no particular order:
Patric Hornqvist – With Hornqvist, you know exactly what you’re getting. He will immerse himself in the dirty areas of the ice and create space for Barkov and Huberdeau, but his offensive capabilities in terms of shooting and passing have never been at the level of the high-end linemates he skated with in Pittsburgh. He’s also known more of a creator than a finisher, which could get him lost on that line. At the end of the day, experience and track record count for something, and on a team that’s lacking both (for a top line role), it’s possible Hornqvist gets a look.
Frank Vatrano- Vatrano has shown that he can score, which is evidenced by the 40 goals he’s potted over the past two seasons in Florida. He has plenty of speed but isn’t a great 200-foot player and has lacked overall consistency. It’s also worth noting that Vatrano has been given looks with Huberdeau and Barkov before, and he did very little with the opportunity.
Aleksi Saarela- Everybody knows about Saarela’s elite shooting ability. Putting a guy with a shot like that on a line with a pair of high-end playmakers sure sounds like a winning combination. Saarela has some sneaky ability in the offensive zone, creating space with quick speed bursts thanks to a strong lower body. He doesn’t play a great defensive game but has shown some progress in that area since first arriving in Florida; he placed a big emphasis on improving play in his own end and on the backcheck last season, and the coaching staff rewarded him with ice time in the Toronto bubble.
Carter Verhaeghe- Verhaeghe comes with tons of upside but an equal amount of mystery. He thrived in a top line role with AHL Syracuse, ultimately leading that league in scoring in 2018-19 and earning himself a full-time NHL job last season. Verhaeghe has the kind of offensive skills and shoot-first mentality that could compliment Barkov and Huby, but he’s yet to be given the chance to prove it at this level. He is also very active in the offensive zone, another dimension that may be a good mix with the styles of Florida’s All-Star forwards.
Owen Tippett- The only thing left for Tippett to prove is that he can succeed at the NHL level, because he’s done it everywhere else. He tore up the OHL for three years (224 points in 165 games from 2016-17 to 2018-19) before showing steady improvement during his first full season in AHL Springfield. Tippett was the Thunderbirds top forward when the season was prematurely halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, finishing with 40 points in 46 games. He will be given every opportunity to succeed with the Panthers, and it wouldn’t be surprising for him to get a look with Barkov and Huberdeau.
Thoughts on UFAs Mike Hoffman and Anthony Duclair
While Panthers GM Bill Zito has said the front office is always working, multiple sources have indicated that Florida’s brass is very pleased with how the offseason has gone so far.
I don’t expect the team to re-sign Mike Hoffman, and while no roads have been closed off, it’s hard to imagine Florida offering him more money, even on a one-year deal, than another team would.
As for Anthony Duclair…yes, Florida did show some interest, as did many clubs when he first hit the market. But the reason I don’t think the Panthers will make a run at Duclair is the same reason why I don’t see a Hoffman reunion. Look at the players Zito has brough to Florida and look at the ones that are gone.
Added to the roster forward-wise have been hard-working, two-way players who can add some offense and, more importantly, not hurt the team in their own end. While Hoffman and Duclair can score, that’s about all they bring to the table, and it doesn’t fit with what is being built in Sunrise.
Looking at Florida’s current roster and comparing it to one from a few months ago, I see a team that should give up a lot fewer goals than it did last season, and likely have a much better goal differential as a result.
Last year, only Ottawa, Detroit (the two worst teams in the NHL) and New Jersey (third worst in the East behind the Sens and Wings) surrendered more goals than the 228 that ended up in the back of Florida’s net.
The Panthers have tried being the team with offensive-minded players and a defensive-minded coach, and it has never worked. Last season will likely be the final time that attempt is made in the immediate future.
It’s clear that the Panthers are going to be a more well-rounded team moving forward. Zito is making sure of that by adding players that complement the style and brand of hockey that Florida coach Joel Quenneville likes to play.
How this new approach translates to wins and losses is obviously yet to be seen, but the old way sure wasn’t working.