You can tell Panthers coach Pete DeBoer was a little taken back when told who would be representing his franchise at this weekend's All-Star Game.
He wasn't alone.
Instead of Tomas Vokoun, Stephen Weiss or David Booth, it will be rookie winger Evgeny Dadonov in Raleigh, N.C., this weekend trying to do the Panthers proud.
Like DeBoer, even Dadonov was a little surprised by the honor. Dadonov got word he would be going to Raleigh a few hours before he played in just his 19th NHL game.
“I don't know much about this, this is the first time they told me about it,'' Dadonov said soon after word broke that he was selected. When asked about the format, it was obvious he hadn't put much thought into it. Why should he?
“I was kind of surprised,'' DeBoer said. “He'd only played in 14 games this season. But what a great honor for him. Next to the Stanley Cup playoffs, this is one of the biggest things in the NHL and he gets to be part of that. It's great for him.''
Dadonov will not be playing in Sunday's All-Star Game as no Florida player was selected for that honor. Dadonov is filling the NHL mandate that each franchise be represented in some way, and he'll take part in Saturday's SuperSkills competition with the rest of the All-Star participants.
This is only the second time in franchise history and first time since 1998 that the Panthers had no player in the All-Star Game.
With the changed format – the game will not be the traditional Eastern vs. Western Conference – the NHL felt it didn't really need to stick by the unwritten rule that each team have someone playing. Florida had Booth, Bryan McCabe and Vokoun on the electronic ballot. The three got minimal support, however, and received the fewest votes at their respective positions.
That's no concern to Dadonov, a skilled winger who will get to show off his moves in Saturday's skills competition.
Dadonov has been impressive at times since being called up from the minors on Dec. 7, and his strong play made veteran forward Steven Reinprecht expendable. When the Panthers started getting some forwards back off the injured list last month, instead of sending Dadonov back to their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., they waived Reinprecht and told Dadonov he could stick around.
Through 23 games, the 21-year-old born in Chelyabinsk, USSR, has four goals and seven assists.
“I think I have much more confidence now that I've gotten some points. I think I can play here,'' Dadonov said recently.
DeBoer would like to see Dadonov keep going hard and not let things like the Raleigh trip swell his head. If Dadonov was to “pull off the gas” for an extensive period of time, he could find himself back in the minors.
“Good things will happen if he keeps doing what he's been doing,'' DeBoer said. “As a coach, I want him to remember his day-to-day obligations and not get too wrapped up in the All-Star thing. He hasn't played that many games. He has to understand that this invitation doesn't mean he's arrived just yet. He's still a very young player. If it was up to me, would I be sending him? No. But good for him. This can be a good experience for him if he keeps it in perspective.''
DeBoer wasn't happy with Dadonov last season when he arrived to his first Panthers training camp out of shape and not really ready to compete. It's easy to see how that happened, what with Dadonov coming over from Russia for his first NHL camp. The NHL is a different game and Dadonov had to find that out.
Dadonov, whose team in Russia at one time threatened to sue the Panthers over contractual issues, ended up spending almost the entire season in Rochester. One teammate after another was called up to help fill in with the Panthers, but Dadonov had to wait until the final weeks of the season to get his chance. Dadonov was recalled and played in the final four games of the season, finally making his NHL debut on April 6.
Dadonov didn't make the same mistake this year, trimming down and coming to camp looking like a different player. He was the star of the rookie camp held in Coral Springs and made a strong impression during his stay in camp.
“Last year, he came to camp and his conditioning was an issue. He was carrying too much weight,'' DeBoer said. “He made a real commitment to get into shape and looked like a different person this camp. He turned baby fat into muscle. That made a big impression on us. Once he got here, he made it so we can't take him out of the lineup. He's strong, he's skilled, he's good on the puck. He creates offense but is strong defensively.''
Dadonov admits he was confused by the Panthers reluctance to pull him away from the minors last year. By the time Florida brought him up, its season was over. Then it was back to Rochester for a brief run in the AHL playoffs. During the summer, Dadonov was quoted by a Russian news agency that he wanted assurances fro the Panthers that he would play in the NHL or return to Russia. Dadonov vehemently denied making the comments during training camp, saying he would go anywhere the Panthers wanted him to.
In hindsight, he says, spending last season in Rochester was a blessing. He may not be here now, going to the All-Star Game and hobnobbing with the league's biggest stars, had the Panthers not made him be patient.
“Now I see why it happened like that. I didn't understand anything when I got here. My English was bad, I didn't know the system,'' said Dadonov, who hopes to hang out with fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin this weekend.
“This was a different hockey, a different life. This year is much easier than last year. I can handle this much better because of what I went through last season. I came here to play NHL hockey and the AHL was that first step.
“I'm happy right now. Everything is going along to my plan.''