Building off a breakthrough: Evgenii Dadonov

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

The Florida Panthers front office missed on a couple of things when constructing its roster during the summer of 2017, but one move that unquestionably worked out in their favor was the decision to bring forward Evgenii Dadonov back to North America on a three-year, $12 million contract.

Usually when we think about “breakthrough” players it tends to be a younger player without much professional experience — or having struggled for a bit while still finding their way in the league — having their first big season in the NHL. In that sense Dadonov is not your traditional breakthrough player because it took him quite a fear years, with a pretty extensive detour in the middle of it all, to have his first big year.

[Panthers Day: Looking back]

Originally drafted by the Panthers in the third-round of the 2007 draft, Dadonov flashed some potential early in his NHL career (20 points in 56 games over parts of three seasons) before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes late in the 2011-12 campaign. Following that season — and after having never played in a game for the Hurricanes — he made the jump to the KHL where he spent five highly productive years split between Donbass HC and St. Petersburg SKA.

Following what was his best season in the KHL in 2016-17, and with the Hurricanes no longer controlling his NHL contractual rights, Dadonov returned to the NHL and joined the organization he began his professional career with. Given that no one really knew what to expect from Dadonov in his return, the $4 million per year cap hit was probably considered a bit pricey and perhaps even a little bit of a gamble.

In the end it turned out to be a bargain for the Panthers.

In his return season to the NHL Dadonov was one of the Panthers’ best players, finishing with 28 goals (second on the team), 68 total points (fourth on the team), and a 53.6 Corsi percentage (best on the team) in 74 games.

He spent much of the season playing on Aleksander Barkov‘s wing, a duo that turned out to be a fantastic one for the Panthers. When they were together, the Panthers outscored teams by a 53-38 margin and controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts, and while it would be easy to attribute a lot of that success to Barkov carrying the line, both players saw their performance drop significantly when they were separated from one another.

Honestly, the Panthers couldn’t have hoped for Dadonov’s return to go better than it did.

Now the question becomes whether or not he can do it again for the Panthers.

There is very good reason to believe that he can.

Not only were his traditional numbers outstanding, but there is nothing in his underlying numbers to suggest any of it was much of a fluke as he was not really benefiting from any sort of an unsustainable surge in shooting percentages (neither his nor his teammates). The Panthers took a bit of a gamble by committing as much as they did to him up front, but the reward seems to be a top-line winger to join their young core alongside Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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