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Evgenii Dadonov has been excellent in his second crack at the NHL

The Florida Panthers winger has brought smarts, skill and compete level to a lineup that is still finding its way. Good thing he didn't stay in Russia after a false start in the NHL.

Evgenii Dadonov’s second tour of duty in the NHL has been a lot better than his first go-around, which is great news for the Florida Panthers as they attempt to take a promising young core to the next level.

Sure, Aleksander Barkov is the undisputed MVP of the Cats, while names like Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Henrik Borgstrom ring more bells thanks to their high draft status, but Dadonov has been one of the team’s leading scorers in the past two seasons and his value is well-known down south. While Dadonov had been with Barkov before, more recently he has been playing with rookie Henrik Borgstrom and Frankie Vatrano.

“He’s a guy we ask a lot of,” said coach Bob Boughner. “Very unselfish and he was taken off that big line to try and help the rest of the team. Never made any qualms about it, he just goes about his work. He’s maintenance-free and he works hard. For a small guy, he wins a lot of puck battles, he’s first on a lot of pucks and he’s a big-time player for us.”

Dadonov was originally drafted by the Panthers way back in 2007 and came over from Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL three years later. But the Russian winger spent nearly the entire 2009-10 season in the AHL with Rochester and the next season was split between the minors and the NHL. One year later, he was still trying to find traction and after that, Dadonov returned to the KHL, where eventually he would win a pair of Gagarin Cups with SKA St. Petersburg.

But the lure of the NHL proved too tantalizing and Dadonov came back to Florida last year, making an instant impact with 65 points in 74 games, flirting with 30 goals in the process. Needless to say, things are going better the second time around.

“It’s a big difference, lots of changes,” Dadonov said. “The first time - I was young, not much experience, no English – I had to adjust to everything.”

The payoff for the Panthers is in getting a veteran scorer with championship experience who can augment those young guns (like Borgstrom) who are still finding their way. Being a point-per-gamer this season doesn’t hurt, either.

“He’s been really good for our team,” Huberdeau said. “He’s so smart. He always gets lost behind the opposing defense and he gets a lot of breakaways. Good shot, good poise with the puck and he’s so fast. We’ve got a good player there.”

Now the mission is to get all those good players pulling in the right direction at the same time. Florida has been dinged by a couple key injuries this season, with Vincent Trocheck out long-term and Roberto Luongo back after missing a couple of stretches, so points are at a premium. The Cats look scrappy, but would still need to vault over six teams in the East just to get into a wild card position.

“We know where we are right now, we need points,” Dadonov said. “We try to prepare ourselves for every game.”

And if opposing teams don’t prepare themselves for the new Evgenii Dadonov, they might be in for a surprise – in the back of their net.

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