- For the teammates of Evgenii Dadonov, whose stop-and-start NHL career has hit its stride, the Panthers' leading scorer's nickname is only weird some of the time.
Nick Bjugstad was torn. Several weeks ago, his pregnant wife, Jackie, purchased a gift for their soon-to-be first child: A Florida Panthers jersey, customized with DADDY on the back. On the one hand, this objectively adorable gesture tugged at the 26-year-old forward’s heartstrings.
And yet, Bjugstad balked.
“You’ve got to put something else there,” he told Jackie. “That’s weird.”
Simple. Upon seeing the pint-sized sweater, Bjugstad was instantly reminded of teammate Evgenii Dadonov, the 29-year-old Russian winger whose six goals and 13 points led Florida entering Thursday night. In general, the making of hockey monikers is a lazy exercise, little more than “-er” and “-ie” sounds slapped onto shortened surnames. Which means that Dadonov carries perhaps the worst in the league. As Bjugstad explains, “Everyone calls him Daddy.”
Well, not quite. “I call him Big Daddy,” says Panthers coach Bob Boughner, laughing after a recent practice. Coming from the former NHL heavyweight known as Boogeyman, this is a whopping and well-earned compliment. Listed at an unremarkable 5'11" and 185 pounds, Dadonov—whose name actually should be pronounced Duh-DON-ov— isn’t afraid of diving into high-trafficked areas, relying on his powerful skating and crafty instincts to fish out pucks from below the faceoff dots. “I never knew him as a young guy in the league,” Boughner says. “But when I saw him come back, I was ... I want to say shocked, maybe, at his work ethic. He competes hard. And obviously his offense speaks for itself.”
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It’s not that Boughner was expecting Homer Simpson with a hockey stick. (Besides, Dadonov is more of a doppelganger for actor Martin Freeman, of Bilbo Baggins and Sherlock fame.) But the coach wasn’t exactly sure what Florida was getting when Dadonov rejoined the NHL in July ’17, signing a three-year contract annually worth $4 million. A third-round pick exactly one decade earlier, Dadonov admits that he struggled during his previous tour through North America, teetering between the Panthers and their minor-league affiliate. The language was unfamiliar, the ice was smaller. “Lifestyle change,” Dadonov says. “It was my first time away from family.”
Once his entry-level contract expired after the ’11-12 season, Dadonov weighed his options and decided to return home. “Didn’t have a good year,” he says. “Lots going on.” From there he put together two productive years with Donbass Donetsk ... until war erupted over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Ukrainian club abruptly disbanded, relinquishing the contractual rights of everyone on the roster. “Things go crazy,” Dadonov says. “It’s hard to believe. But it happened.”
Fortunately for Dadonov, he joined SKA St. Petersburg and won two Gagarin Cups over the next three seasons, averaging nearly one point per game on a loaded roster and leading the ’14-15 KHL playoffs with 14 goals. But it was while medaling on Team Russia at three straight IIHF World Championships that Dadonov again began catching the eye of NHL talent evaluators. One of those impressed observers was Panthers GM Dale Tallon, then also working with Team USA, who recalls bumping into Dadonov outside their respective locker rooms.
“Chatting here and there,” Tallon says. “Nothing about coming back. Getting to know each other again. Then, once it became evident that he wanted to come back, we were already on top of that.”
In their initial conversations, Dadonov spoke honestly about why he had failed to stick stateside. “He understood that he had his first chance here, didn’t take the best advantage of it, wasn’t totally committed,” Tallon says. “He was so gifted, he probably thought that he could come and make the team without issues. He didn’t realize about off-ice work and training. I think he learned a lesson from that. This time, he’s a totally different guy.”
Upwards of six NHL teams expressed “serious interest” in Dadonov when he hit the open market, according to a league source. But the Panthers already had a massive advantage: In 2014, Dadonov and his wife Anna had purchased a high-rise apartment in Hallandale Beach, smitten with the South Florida sunshine while vacationing there during the KHL offseason. One day, Tallon flew from his Chicago-area summer home and pitched his prized free-agent target over lunch at a nearby deli. “Sold him our wares, what we had going, where he was going to play and with who,” Tallon says. “Told him that he’d be a big part of what we’re doing here.”
So far, so good. “We’re lucky to have him,” Boughner says. “I think he’s an elite, elite hockey player. Predominantly deployed alongside all-star center Aleksander Barkov—“Even you could play with him,” he tells a reporter—Dadonov has notched points in all but two of Florida’s 11 games thus far while averaging 19:57, second most among Panthers forwards. “He always seems like he can keep his speed,” says Bjugstad. “As a big guy, we all kind of envy that. He’s a fun guy to watch. You get him the puck and he makes something out of nothing a lot of times.”
Or, as Barkov simply puts it, “He’s been unreal for us.”
On a personal level, Dadonov has eased smoothly back into the NHL lifestyle, comfortable among South Florida’s large Russian community. “I thought it was going to be easier,” he says. “But actually I had to adjust again. After five years, it’s like everything was different again.” An avid European soccer fan who wears a golden cross around his neck and keeps pictures of Russian religious icons in his dressing room stall, Dadonov serves as a steady presence on a roster with nine players under age 25. When the Panthers made their late playoff push last season, it was Dadonov who delighted everyone by announcing the starting lineup each game.
“He has that quiet voice and the accent,” Boughner says. “The guys love it with Daddy.”
As for the nickname, Dadonov will take what he can get. One team official tried calling him Padre for awhile, but that never stuck. “I didn’t like it,” Dadonov says. “Daddy is O.K. It’s good.”