SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – Over the past several years the Florida Panthers have featured an extremely potent top line.
The combination of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr not only put up a lot of points, but also made some pretty spectacular plays in the process.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute of that particular line was its ability to possess the puck in the offensive zone for entire shifts at a time.
With Jagr no longer on the team, Florida is hoping newly re-acquired winger Evgenii Dadonov can keep the top unit humming along.
If Tuesday’s preseason game at the BB&T Center was any indication, the first line combo of Huberdeau-Barkov-Dadonov could be even better than its previous incarnations.
The trio combined for two goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating during Florida’s 4-2 preseason win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday and looked dominant when on the ice together.
“I think it was the same thing with Jagr,” Huberdeau said after the game. “Everything seems to be clicking for me, [Barkov] and [Dadonov] right now. It’s an exhibition game, of course. We don’t have our full team, but I think our line is clicking right now, so hopefully we can go throughout the whole season.”
The prospect is certainly exciting, especially considering they’ve only been skating together for a few weeks.
“I think, and I said it early on, once they get familiar with each other, I think it’s going to be a scary line,” said Panthers coach Bob Boughner. “You could see that when they get out there and they’ve got puck control and they’ve got full speed, I think they’re one of the best lines in the league. We’ll keep that line going as best as possible. We’re happy about the way they’ve gelled.”
Dadonov joins Florida after spending the last five seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
Selected in the third round of the 2007 NHL Draft by the Panthers, Dadonov saw his production level steadily rise during his time in the KHL.
Last season was his best in Russia, accumulating 30 goals and 36 assists over 53 games with SKA Saint Petersburg.
Now the 28 year old goes from a team that included aging stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datyuk to the Panthers and his young, skilled linemates.
Barkov, 22, and Huberdeau, 24, spent much of the offseason preparing for the new campaign after both missed a good amount of time last season due to injury.
Huberdeau particularly put in a lot of work, putting on muscle-weight and strengthening the leg that he suffered a preseason Achilles’ injury last September.
He’s now up to 205 pounds and feels better equipped to handle the physical challenge of an NHL season than ever before.
So far during the preseason Huberdeau has three goals and two assists in just two games. Heading into the new season with a healthy top line that’s trending upwards would be a huge boost to the Panthers.
“It gives you confidence for the beginning of the season,” Huberdeau said. “I want to play good every shift and I think it’s coming. It takes a few games to be 100 percent. Right now, I feel better. So, hopefully next game I’ll feel even more better.”
As for Barkov, he’s long been considered one of the best two-way centers in the NHL but now his offensive skills are really blossoming.
Following a breakout campaign in 2015-16 in which he put up 59 points (28g, 31a) in 66 games, Barkov was unable to take an expected step forward last season due to the injuries be battled throughout the year.
He still put up respectable numbers, contributing 52 points (21g, 31a) in 61 games, but if he and his linemates can stay healthy than the sky is the limit.
“It’s scary when you see him up close, it’s scary how good he is,” Boughner said of Barkov. “He could be top five scorning in the league and on top of that he’s great at defending.”
LUONGO FEELS READY
Roberto Luongo played all sixty minutes for the Panthers on Tuesday, making 38 saves in the win.
“It’s good to get a game like that underneath me, a full 60 minutes, 40 shots, all that kind of stuff,” Luongo said. “I was able to get through it without any problems and feeling good about my game and where I need to be.”
He looked confident and fresh, something Boughner hopes to maintain as the year progresses by rotating between Luongo and James Reimer.
Boughner said Luongo looked “phenomenal” in the game.
“I think these guys are going to be a great duo,” Boughner said of Luongo and Reimer. “I’m pumped about what I see in the crease.”
Florida has two preseason games left and Luongo is expected to start one of them.
“I just want to keep ramping it up and make sure that when we get to next week we’re where we need to be,” Luongo said.
The Panthers made a few more roster cuts on Wednesday, trimming the training camp squad down to 29 players.
Jayce Hawryluk, Maxim Mamin and Sebastian Repo were assigned to Florida’s AHL affiliate in Springfield.
“It’s starting to take shape,” Boughner said of Florida’s roster. “We need to make decisions on two more positions, maybe three. Major decision time is coming soon. We are learning toward a couple guys. We want to see if play out over the next six periods of hockey.”
Looking at the remaining players in Panthers camp, it appears that there are two or three forward positions available and one or two defenseman spots.
The number depends on how many players Boughner plans to carry on the active roster.
The Panthers can have up to 23 players on its opening night roster but teams are only permitted to dress 20 for any NHL game, 18 skaters and two goalies.
Competing for the final forward spots are Brandon Pirri, Connor Brickley, Henrik Haapala, Harry Zolnierczyk, Denis Malgin, Jared McCann and 2017 first round pick Owen Tippett.
As for the defenseman, Ian McCoshen, MacKenzie Weegar, Ed Wittchow and Josh Brown are battling for a coveted roster spot.