Tom Rowe and the Panthers front office had a busy first day on the free agency market in July, signing not only some new players but some of their own to long-term contracts.
When the dust settled, the Panthers noticed one of their targets was still available. They quickly got on the phone to see if Jason Demers had any interest in coming south.
He did. Demers ended up signing a five-year contract on Day 2 of the free agency period, and he has rewarded the Panthers with better offensive play than they had hoped.
“He has been able to shut things down, play unbelievable defense for us,” said Rowe, the interim coach and general manager. “It’s why we signed him, why we signed Keith Yandle. I think our defense is really starting to find some great chemistry.
“We were shocked when Jason was still there; we had him ranked No. 2 behind Yandle. When he was still available, we went hard after him and stayed on it until we got a deal done.
“Signing Demers was almost a bonus because we thought he would have been scooped up in the first couple of hours.”
In Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over the host Islanders, Demers scored the game-winning goal — his career-high eighth of the season.
“It’s not something I have really looked at; I never considered myself a goal scorer,” said Demers, who came to Florida from Dallas.
“I have been getting some lucky bounces this year, so I’m going to keep putting pucks at the net. So far, so good. It makes things better when you win and when you’re playing solid defensively.
“I’ll take those all day.”
The signing of Demers was the finishing touch on Florida’s wholesale defensive changes. When the Panthers opened the season, four of their six defensemen were not on the team the previous opening night.
While it took Florida’s defense some time to come together, it appears as if they are really sewing things up now. In the previous two games heading into Friday night’s home game against the Islanders, the Panthers had surrendered a combined one goal.
A season’s worth of mixing and matching defensive pairs might finally be paying off as the Florida defensive unit does appear more cohesive in getting rid of pucks and playing its assignments.
“I think any time you shake up a roster, it’s going to take time,” said rookie Mike Matheson, who only played in three regular-season games for the Panthers before playing in the final five of last year’s opening-round playoff series against the Islanders. “We had full confidence in everyone’s abilities, but it takes time to get some chemistry going. It looks like things are going in the right direction.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Sasha Barkov, originally said to be out for three weeks with a “lower-body” injury the Panthers have yet to publicly comment on, could be out longer. Barkov, already out the past two weeks, has been skating with Jonathan Huberdeau (Achilles) and Alex Petrovic (ankle), but Rowe now says “there’s no timeline.”
Rowe said Huberdeau could be back the first week of March and Petrovic in early February. Nick Bjugstad (groin) is still out a few weeks.
▪ The Panthers wore decals bearing the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport code ‘FLL’ on their helmets Friday and will do so again Saturday in support of those affected by the deadly shootout last week.
“We wanted to pay tribute to the victims and their families,” team president and CEO Matthew Caldwell said. “It was important to our players. This hit close to home. We wanted to show we remember and feel for those who are still suffering from this terrible act of violence.”