Dadonov’s NHL return pays off for Panthers

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The Florida Panthers have been lampooned for an off-season that saw them power up the Vegas Golden Knights with both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, prompting all sorts of jokes about their second line and GM Dale Tallon. You can’t call that summer of moves a total failure, however.

That’s because, by bringing Evgenii Dadonov back from the KHL, the Panthers (wait for it) eventually did set themselves up to have two strong scoring lines.

For some time now, Florida’s been rolling with Dadonov alongside superstar-in-the-making Aleksander Barkov, while Vincent Trocheck‘s been finding great chemistry with Barkov’s frequent partner in crime Jonathan Huberdeau. These tweaks have played a role in the Panthers’ six-game winning streak and run of 13-3-0 in their last 16 games.

[NHL Power Rankings: Panthers aren’t going away.]

(No doubt about it, Roberto Luongo returning from injury issues has also played a big role in this turnaround. Stay tuned for more on Luongo from PHT on Tuesday morning.)

It’s early, but it sure looks like Dadonov is the latest player to return to the NHL from the KHL with flying colors, following in the footsteps of Alex Radulov. In each case, the change – or maybe merely getting more seasoning – has done them good.

Dadonov was no stranger to playing with a star player, as he’s transitioned from making music with Ilya Kovalchuk to lining up with Barkov. The results have been especially staggering lately; Dadonov has six points (two goals, four assists) during a three-game point streak and nine points in his last five games. That span began with a hat trick in a gutsy win against the Penguins:

So far in his return season to Panthers and the NHL, Dadonov has 20 goals and 47 points in 55 games. Injuries slipped him up a bit, but over an 82-game pace, that would translate to about 70 points. As you might expect from someone racking up points and partnering with Barkov, his possession stats check out as well.

Such support and a clean bill of health helps Barkov too, a the potential Selke candidate already has a career-high 64 points in just 62 games. Barkov certainly ranks as the catalyst, but Dadonov looks like he’ll soon eclipse Huberdeau as Barkov’s most common linemate. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s allowed Florida to diversify its attack.

(It sure doesn’t seem to hurt Nick Bjugstad‘s stock, either, as the third member of that line. The towering 25-year-old has five assists in his past five games skating with Bark and Dad.)

For all the criticisms – again, in many cases fair – of Tallon and the Panthers, the forward group has been a bright spot, and Dadonov could end up being another great bargain. He’s locked up for just $4 million per year through 2019-20, providing great value alongside even better bargains in Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck.

It’s a great victory for the Panthers, and you wonder if Dadonov stands as yet another argument that strong KHL production could carry over to the NHL, sometimes at a discount rate. During his last KHL season in 2016-17, Dadonov collected 66 points in 53 regular-season games before generating 19 points in 18 playoff contests.

We’ve seen Dadonov and Radulov make fantastic, immediate impacts after bouncing from the NHL to the KHL and back. There’s also been the occasional late bloomer, such as Artemi Panarin being an instant success as a Calder Trophy winner and barely slowing down since then.

Such thoughts make it tough not to picture similar successes for KHL stars in 2017-18, whether it be an older, familiar face in 34-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk, or much-hyped Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen.

[Insight on Tolvanen’s future with the Predators from Bob McKenzie last week.]

Perhaps it might justify extra looks for “reclamation projects” even outside of the more obvious names, too?

(That said, there are still bumpy transitions.Vadim Shipachyov, Dadonov’s KHL linemate alongside Kovalchuk, flamed out with the Golden Knights in a strange way.)

Ultimately, while the Panthers opened themselves up to mockery with some purging of “analytics-friendly” talent in Marchessault and Smith, many were pleased with the addition of Dadonov. Even with that in mind, he’s delivered in a big way.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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