For the first time four years, the Florida Panthers are part of the National Hockey League playoffs. When the league begins the Eastern Conference qualifying round of their tournament on Aug. 1 in the hub city of Toronto, the Panthers will face the New York Islanders.
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The Panthers have enjoyed success under first-year coach Joel Quenneville and climbed a high as second place in the Atlantic Division standings at the mid-point of the regular-season behind the Boston Bruins. When Florida takes the ice for their best-of-five series against the Metropolitan Division Islanders, they will have two key parts of their success this season playing on the final year of their contracts, with their futures with the organization in doubt.
Mike Hoffman took a strange route to South Florida to join the Panthers. On June 19, 2018, he was traded from the Ottawa Senators to the San Jose Sharks in a deal that included prospects and draft picks. A couple of hours later, the Sharks turned and traded Hoffman to Florida for a pair of draft picks.
In his first season with the Panthers in 2018-19, Hoffman scored a career-high 36 goals and had 34 assists. This season, Hoffman was one goal shy of hitting 30 for the second consecutive season when the season was paused on March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak. His 30 assists gave him 59 points and he finished third on the team in scoring.
The 6-foot, 182-pound left wing is tied for the team lead with 11 power-play goals to anchor the league’s 10th-ranked unit. In a short playoff series, special teams could play a big role. Against a strong defensive unit in the Islanders, Hoffman will have to work and get creative to score his goals, whether it’s 5-on-5 or on the man advantage. In three games against the Islanders this season, he had just one goal.
Hoffman, selected by the Senators 129th overall in the fifth round in 2009, will be an unrestricted free agent following the end of the playoffs. With a cap-hit of $5.1 million this season, the talented offensive player has made some strides defensively after a miserable first season with the Panthers when he had a minus-24. He dropped it to a minus-five this season and will have to improve on that if Florida is to advance.
Drafted 71st overall in the third round of the 2007 draft, Evgenii Dadonov played in just 55 games over three seasons from 2009 through 2012. After being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes and then going back to his home country of Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for three seasons, he returned to Florida in July of 2017, signing a three-year contract. He has proved to be worth the deal.
After scoring a career-high 28 goals the last two seasons, he was on pace to at least tie that mark this year with 25 goals in 69 games before the season pause. Tied with Hoffman for power-play goals with 11, the 31-year old left-wing also has six assists on the man advantage. In three games against the Islanders earlier this season, he had a goal and an assist and both came in a 3-2 loss on Oct. 12.
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After making a stop in the KHL, Dadonov has excelled in his second go-round for the Panthers. Much of Florida’s success this year has surrounded him and Hoffman, as will their success in the upcoming postseason.
Decisions for Tallon Looming
When their season does officially end, general manager Dale Tallon and the Panthers will have some difficult decisions on the future of their roster. Hoffman could be seeking an increase in pay of around $7 to $8 million a year. If that’s the case, then Florida might not be able to retain him. Dadonov will also be seeking more than his current $4 million cap hit. Both are unrestricted free agents.
Tallon also has to take into consideration that two other major pieces in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov will be free agents down the line. Barkov will be up after the 2022 season when his current six-year, $35.4 million contract expires. Huberdeau has three years remaining on his six-year, $35.6 million deal that carries a $5.9 million cap hit.
While the Panthers have had a good year and are back in the postseason, Tallon will have to get creative to keep the core of his team intact. A deep postseason run will go a long way in helping the front office in their decision-making down the line in the future.