After the Panthers’ franchise-best, 103-point season abruptly ended in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team’s front office had lengthy discussions about what needed to be done in order to build off last year’s success.
The consensus: The defense needed an overhaul.
The dominoes began to fall from there.
Out went the foursome of Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov.
In came the trio of Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk. The first two are a pair of veterans with 17 combined years of NHL experience. The third is an up-and-coming 24-year-old who has shown flashes of potential over the past four years with the Buffalo Sabres and their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans.
“We felt these were three guys that we wanted to go after aggressively so they could complement the pieces we had up front,” Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said.
Rowe said the vision for the Panthers’ blue line features players who aren’t afraid to be offensive-minded. It’s a transition to a style similar to that of the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks, two teams that have reached the Stanley Cup Finals within the past two years.
They aren’t just defensemen anymore, Rowe said. When the opportunity presents itself, they need to take hold of the puck, drive up the ice and make the play, whether that’s passing it to a forward or taking their own shot.
“[The defensemen] talk about getting the puck to the forwards,” Rowe said, “but you guys can jump up in the play, too, once in a while.”
Yandle, a 10-year veteran known for his aggressive style of play and fluidity with the puck from the back end, has no qualms with that request.
Last season, the 6-1 defenseman tallied 47 points (five goals, 42 assists) for the New York Rangers. Yandle’s 42 assists ranked eighth among defensemen. It was 11 more points and twice the assists of current teammate Aaron Ekblad (36 points; 15 goals, 21 assists), who has paced the Panthers’ backline in points in each of his first two years in the NHL.
“I like to take pride in my passing and giving guys good passes,” said Yandle, who signed a seven-year, $44.5 million contract with the Panthers days after they traded for his rights and days before the start of free agency. “With this group here, it’ll be a lot of fun to do that.”
Since 2009, Yandle has racked up 325 points, a mark only two defensemen (Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith) have bested in that time frame.
And with five of the team’s top six forwards returning from last year’s playoff run — including winger Reilly Smith and center Vincent Trocheck on five-year contract extensions — along with the addition of winger Colton Sceviour and center Jonathan Marchessault to the roster in an attempt to fortify the team’s four-line attack, Yandle said he’s ready to help the club make a statement.
“One of the main reasons I signed here is the talent that they have, how young guys are and how committed they are to winning,” Yandle said. “When you have that combination, it has a good outcome.”
Demers, who signed a five-year, $22.5 million deal with the Panthers, said he’s seen the franchise’s momentum building over the years.
The 28-year-old has only played 10 games against the Panthers during his seven-year NHL career, but he said he saw the team’s potential and talent increase each time he took the ice against them.
Now, he’s ready to be a part of it.
“Every time we played against [the Panthers], we knew who the dangerous guys were,” Demers said. “They have a lot of good depth.”
Demers paused and quickly corrected himself.
“We have a lot of depth,” he said.