After kicking free agency off with 3 signings on Friday, the Panthers added a fourth player on Saturday by inking defenseman Jason Demers to a 5-year deal worth $22.5 million and gave RFA Vincent Trocheck a new 6-year contract.
When GM Tom Rowe addressed the media following the signing of James Reimer, Jonathan Marchessault, and Colton Sceviour on Friday afternoon, he gave the impression that the team was done with regards to signing more players. COTP heard earlier in the day that the Panthers could potentially add one more player, and it appears that came to fruition today as the team announced the signing of Jason Demers to a 5-year contract which carries an annual average salary of $4.5 million.
The 28-year old defenseman reportedly took a discount to sign with the Panthers, and he told the media on Saturday afternoon that the NHL’s southern-most team was one of the teams at the top of his list. The deal seems to have come together fairly quickly as the Panthers approached him only yesterday – much later than the other teams interested in him – and it didn’t take long for the deal to be finalized last night.
The Panthers’ blue-line has undergone a makeover during the off-season as the team traded Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov within weeks of each other, and they were unable to reach a deal with pending-UFA Brian Campbell – who they reportedly offered $5 million for one year – and he ended up signing a 1-year, $2 million deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. It appeared – initially, at least – that the Panthers were content with icing a relatively inexperienced yet mature blue-line which would’ve – and still could – feature Mike Matheson, Alex Petrovic, Aaron Ekblad, Ian McCoshen, and Mark Pysyk, in addition to veteran Keith Yandle.
Not only does Jason Demers bring a veteran presence to the Panthers’ top-4, but he also brings a right-handed shot – something that has become a valuable commodity in today’s NHL – and the ability to move the puck up the ice and drive possession while suppressing shots at an elite level. Despite ranking 3rd on the Stars in defensive zone start percentage, Demers ranked 2nd among Dallas defenseman and 4th on the team with a Corsi For % of 54.
He spent most of the season paired with Johnny Oduya who saw his Corsi For % of 47.2 without Demers rise to 53.0 when on the ice with the new Panthers defenseman. That’s the trend with almost every player Demers spent time with this season; the team’s possession numbers were general worse off when Demers wasn’t on the ice compared to when he was on it, similar to how Brian Campbell positively impacted the Panthers’ overall performance. Despite playing a more defensive role, Demers ranked 34th among the league’s defensemen in even-strength points per 60 minutes and tallied 7 goals and 16 assists in 62 games while managing to finish as a plus player.
It’s become incredibly clear that the Panthers’ new assistant GMs, Steve Werier and Eric Joyce, have done some masterful cap work over the past few months to make all of these recent deals happen. Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov were more than likely going to demand long-term deals worth $5 million or more per year for their next contracts, and the Panthers knew that while the two veteran defensemen were serviceable for the most part, they weren’t going to be worth the money.
Campbell heading to unrestricted free-agency freed up $7 million in cap space while sending Kulikov to Buffalo for the comparable and younger Mark Pysyk cleared roughly $3 million in space. The Panthers got Jared McCann (a very young winger/center with high offensive upside), a high 2nd-round pick, and a 4th-rounder for Erik Gudbranson, which, no matter how you spin it, is a huge win for Florida. The Panthers were also aggressive in pursuing top free-agent defenseman Keith Yandle and received exclusive negotiating rights in exchange for a 6th-round pick and conditional 4th-rounder which they gave up to the Rangers once he signed.
The fact of the matter is Yandle didn’t have to sign with the Panthers; they offered him a fair deal which makes sense for both sides and he legitimately wanted to be a Panther. If he wanted more money or wanted to join a more well-known team with a better track record, he could’ve done exactly that. However, upon signing with the Panthers, he noted that having the opportunity to play with Aaron Ekblad was a huge plus and that he was not only happy with the fact that the team wanted his services, but also that they want to win a Stanley Cup as soon as possible. Now, we can add in Jason Demers who didn’t just sign with the Panthers, but also signed at a discount with a team who he had at the top of his list.
Gone are the off-seasons where the Panthers were forced to get rid of player after player from their roster to make room for cheaper options as a way of reaching the cap floor. Gone are the days where top free-agents didn’t want to sign with the Panthers because it was a team with no support from the top and seemingly no path forward. Whether you agree with the recent moves or not (which it’s hard not to), it should be very obvious that this Panthers team, management, and ownership group are unlike anything that have come before them and are dead set on nothing but winning a Cup.
Not only that, but the Panthers were able to lock up yet another member of their core today in Vincent Trocheck. The 22-year old, who signed a 6-year, $28.5 million contract on Saturday, played in his first full NHL season this year and reached career-highs in goals (25), assists (28), and points (53) while anchoring the team’s 2nd line a majority of the time. With Barkov, Bjugstad, Ekblad, and now Trocheck signed long-term, the Panthers are beginning to assemble a group of young players that will carry the team and entire organization forward for many years to come. You can check out our in-depth season review of Vincent Trocheck here.
The last time the Panthers attempted to sign a core player long-term? Jay Bouwmeester, 2008. The young defenseman didn’t want to stay in Florida, so he signed a 1-year deal which kept him with the Panthers until he was eligible to become an unrestricted free-agent as the end of the 2008-09 season. That year, the Panthers couldn’t get him signed again and GM Jacques Martin opted to keep him rather than trade him in hopes of making the playoffs which the team failed to do. At the 2009 Draft, the Panthers sent his negotiating rights to the Flames for Jordan Leopold and a 3rd-round pick which would be used to select Josh Birkholz.
With owner Vincent Viola giving GM Tom Rowe a 3-year mandate to win a Stanley Cup, the Panthers are all in rather than sitting back. Over the past several weeks and months, and years, they’ve made a ton of smart moves in order to get the most value out of their money despite the fact that they’ve had to move on from players who have been with the organization for years.
As fans, this is the type of commitment we’ve all been waiting for. The future is now and the Panthers are here; sit back and enjoy the ride.