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Game #24 – Hawks vs. Panthers Q&A: Frank Rekas

Frank Rekas has been our Cats guy for as long as we can remember (which admittedly is only a few days). You can follow him @FrankRekas. 

The Panthers started out the season rough, but seem to have turned it around. What was the problem earlier?  

In typical Florida Panther tradition, the season started slowly. As it always does. Last year took the Florida Panthers approximately 30 games to figure things out under a new coach, with a new system.  The second half finish was tremendous and most thought that it would just naturally continue into this season. Knowing that another slow start couldn’t happen, they did just that.  First of all, no one could have predicted the freak leg injury to the ageless wonder, goaltender Roberto Luongo that occurred in the season opener. We all know a team plays differently depending on who’s in net, and the Panthers are no stranger to that. The play of James Reimer and Michael Hutchinson was below average to poor depending on the night. The inability to make a key save, or steal a game was missing. While there weren’t many games that the Panthers were blown out of, one of the goaltenders needed to find a way to make that “key” stop. Additionally, playing a full 60 minutes was also a trouble spot. Specifically the Panthers had issues with the second period.  For whatever reason the middle frame saw them become lethargic, mistake prone, and defensively erratic. Taking poor penalties at inopportune times  and defensive mistakes led to the downfall of games during the middle frame. It’s kind of funny in a way that it took a 39 year old goaltender to return from injury to get things back on track.
Evgenii Dadanov and his extraneous I might be the quietest player to be averaging over a point per game. How good is he?  
In his second tour of duty with the Panthers after playing in the KHL for 5 years, Dadonov has come back more rejuvenated, and skilled and fun to watch than anyone could have imagined. He was a huge question mark when Dale Tallon signed him prior to last season as a free agent. But as Tallon often does, this signing earned Dale a gold star. “Daddy,” as Panther faithful often refer to him as, has been nothing short of brilliant.  He’s not afraid to shoot, plays with energy and passion, and scores goals that count at the right time.  He’s been one of the Panthers most consistent players in the past two seasons, and is averaging almost a point per game so far this year. 22 of his 28 goals last season came 5×5, and 7 of 9 have been scored that way this season. He finds the right areas to be in, and never seems to take a shift off.  His consistency is a breathe of fresh air. No reason he can’t keep that pace up playing with Aleksander Barkov and Mike Hoffman.
First impressions of Mike Hoffman? 
My first impressions of Mike Hoffman when he was playing for Ottawa were, if the Panthers (or Hawks for that matter) ever had a chance to get him, they should as he caught my eye a while ago. That being said in another “kidnapping” by Tallon, Hoffman arrived with a background as a player that has skill, a dandy wrister, and a goal scorers mentality. So far, he has not disappointed. He loves to shoot, and on this team that’s a great sign because there are a few players who aren’t as “selfish”.  He got off to a bit of a slow start, and at one point saw himself on the 4th line. But that’s old news now, and as I prepare this on Tuesday night, Hoffman has put together a 1- game point streak. Not at all surprising for a guy that’s known as a goal scorer. He’s displayed a nasty shot on a few occasions, and that’s what this team has needed for years. When the puck touches his stick it has a pretty good chance of getting on net, and possibly going in. He’s going to be huge part of the success of the Panthers, and now that he’s on the top line, his numbers could become even better.
 Nick Bjugstad seemed to have something of a breakout year last year. Is he a full-time winger now?

Now that center Vincent Trochek has had an unfortunate leg injury, it would have appeared that Nick Bjugstad would have gone back to centering the second line. Surprise as that’s not the case at least in the game against Tampa on Tuesday night as “Big Nick” as some like to call him was on the wing with Jared McCann getting promoted to take Trochek’s place. Center is Nick’s natural position and he’s performed rather well there in the past, especially during the 2014-2015 season. But a back injury and concussion derailed his progress. Until last season, when the Bob Boughner line blender was looking for the right combination, found that putting Nick on the wing with Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov seemed to be the perfect recipe. Bjugstad produced his best season to date playing the wing, and was extremely effective in his role. There are some questions though that seem to linger. Does he have a higher gear? Can he or why doesn’t he use his big body more? He has a good shot, but it’s not accurate at times.  Why?  The subject of trade rumors during the past two offseasons, Nick is a player that he Panthers believe in, and are hoping that he reaches his potential. One of the most likable players on the team, Bjugstad is talented, and is someone that everyone roots for.  It’s up to him now, as he is being given a chance to prove how good he can be.  And with Trochek out for an extended period of time, Nick is on the list of players that bigger things will be expected from.

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