With their sights set on making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for only the second time in franchise history, the Panthers looked to improve the quality of their defensemen. Keith Yandle, Mark Pysyk, and Jason Demers were added to help the up-and-coming franchise continue its journey forward after last season’s first-round playoff exit. So, who are these new players and what exactly will they bring to the Panthers? Let’s find out…
Keith Yandle was the Panthers’ second major acquisition of the off-season, and quite honestly, it was a move that came out of seemingly nowhere. Although it wasn’t clear whether or not the Panthers were going to be able to keep pending UFA Brian Campbell, not many people expected them to go after the biggest fish on the market in Yandle. Not only did they acquire his rights from the Rangers, but they were able to sign him to a long-term deal just 3 days later.
In short, having Yandle is huge for the Panthers who have finished at or near the bottom of the league in power play percentage in each of the past several seasons. The Panthers have ranked 23rd in the league for each of the last two seasons, however that’s only a marginal improvement over their 29th- and 30th-place power play finishes in the two seasons before that. Since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Yandle has the second-most power play points in the league among defenseman with 92, and that mark is just 2 points behind P.K. Subban who leads with 94.
Yandle’s greatest asset is his ability to create offense from the backend, and that’s something the Panthers have lacked for years. Brian Campbell and Aaron Ekblad produced admirably, but it was never enough to make up for the other 4 defensemen not chipping in offensively. Since the 2013-14 season, the two were the only Panthers defensemen to reach or pass the 30-point mark, while only two others aside from Campbell (Dmitry Kulikov and Tom Gilbert) have reached 20 points, and that’s definitely a bit concerning. Yandle has reached 40 points a total of 6 times out of 8 seasons, with the two misses being the lockout year in 2013 when he hit 30 points in 48 games and his first full NHL campaign when he reached 30 points in 69 games.
Yandle has shown time and time again that he can command the blue line very well in the offensive zone, and his vision and accurate shot enable him to make great passes or sneak the puck through traffic, something we’ve seen from Aaron Ekblad on several occasions. In the clip above, Yandle receives the puck off the face-off win, fakes a shot to freeze the Lightning defense and Ben Bishop, and makes a perfect pass through a huge hole to Dan Boyle who has a wide open net.
While we know that Yandle has a great shot from the point that always seems to find its way through or deflect off opponents, he also likes to jump up, and the above clip is a great example of that. The entire Pittsburgh team has its eyes on J.T. Miller as he holds the puck around the left face-off circle, so Yandle picks up on that and pinches down from the point and puts away the rebound. He’s able to pick up on the opportunity early, too; Miller wasn’t even facing the right side of the zone and Yandle was already skating down towards the net in anticipation.
This YouTube video above, although it’s a small sample, gives a good idea of what Yandle is capable of in the defensive zone as well as what happens as a result of his work there. He’s a strong skater whether he’s keeping a good gap between him and the opponent or skating back into the defensive zone, he uses his stick to break up pass attempts or shots and disrupt other players, and he’s not afraid to get physical when necessary. However, most of Yandle’s value comes from his offensive abilities and it’s a forgone conclusion that he’ll get power play time from the very start of the season.
The Panthers also added Mark Pysyk to their defensive core in late-June when they dealt Dmitry Kulikov to the Sabres at the NHL Draft. Although shocking at first, the move made sense when we consider the the 25-year old blue-liner was set to become an unrestricted free-agent at the end of the upcoming season, and it’s highly likely that the 7-year veteran was looking for a nice bump in his pay which was already at $4.3 million per year.
Pysyk – who’s skill-set and very existence is certainly not as well-known as Yandle – brings a style of play similar to Kulikov except with a bit more skill and smarts. Rather than being a high-end offensive performer, Pysyk separates himself from the pack by being a strong skater and transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and easily.
In this clip above, Pysyk (white jersey, #3) is skating back into his own zone to retrieve a loose puck. Upon entering the zone, he’s able to shove away an opposing player to help him gain inside positioning and reach the puck first in the corner. He proceeds to make a nice move to pull the puck towards himself which not only sends the forechecking forward into the boards next to him but allows him time to turn and skate back up the boards and make a pass to his teammate.
There are a couple things to point out here, and the first is the fact that the player who’s hounding Pysyk the entire way is 6’2″, 210-pound Colin Greening (number 38), and considering Pysyk is a bit smaller than that, it probably shouldn’t have been as easy as it was to stand his ground and retrieve the puck. The second thing to notice is how quickly he transitions back up the ice; once he gains control of the puck in the corner, he spins to his left and leaves Greening behind him. The play above is just slick all around and shows just one example of how his skill level is pretty high for a defenseman who has played in just 125 NHL games.
Not only is Pysyk a skilled, positionally sound defender and puck-mover, but he’s very calm and composed as well. In this clip above, the 24-year old is being pressured by a forechecker from behind and another one head on as he comes around the net. As though they aren’t even there, Pysyk picks up the puck in the trapezoid and slides a nice backhanded pass underneath Oskar Sundqvist’s stick and off the wall to his teammate in one smooth motion.
These two clips are just a small sample of how good Pysyk is at skating deep into the defensive zone, picking up the puck, and moving it up the ice quickly, whether that’s by making a hard breakout pass or sliding the puck up the wall to a teammate who’s ready to skate out with it. During his time with the Sabres, Pysyk was known for being one of the more underrated players in the entire league when it comes to driving possession.
In the above clip, we see yet again how Pysyk is able to quickly turn the puck the other way. A point shot rebounds to the side of the Sabres’ net and he is able to get over to it and gain possession before veteran forward Brandon Sutter. At that point, he’s past the half-wall where he makes a nice pass to a Tyler Ennis in stride. When you can’t prevent a shot attempt, the best thing you can do is limit further attempts, and that’s exactly what Pysyk does here.
As we all know, the more shot attempts a team has, the more likely that team is to score, and you can’t make any shot attempts if you don’t have possession of the puck. Plays like the ones above seem small in the grand scheme of things, but are big in the moment and certainly add up over the course of time. If Pysyk is consistently being taken into the boards, losing puck battles, turning the puck over, or making bad passes, he’s making it difficult for his team to maintain possession and put the puck towards the opposition’s net. Not only do plays like the ones above allow his team to create shot attempts, but they also keep the puck out of the opposition’s hands and prevent shots from reaching his own net.
Offensively, while Pysyk isn’t going to skate circles around you, he’s still effective nonetheless. Sometimes, the best offensive plays are the ones made in the defensive zone, so for example, plays like the ones above breed scoring chances. Pysyk has proven to be very good at driving through the center lane on the rush and drawing defenders towards him to create openings for the player with the puck, and he also possesses an above-average shot which he can use to throw towards the net or create deflections.
Above is just one of many examples where Pysyk is an effective participant in the offensive zone. He winds up as though he’s taking a shot but ends up sending a perfect slap pass to Jamie McGinn on the right side of the net and he’s able to deflect it past the goaltender. Pysyk spent some time on Buffalo’s power play and new Panthers associate coach Dave Barr knows him well from running the special teams there for the past few seasons, so it’ll be interesting to see if he gets a chance with the man advantage at one point or another. There’s definitely more offensive upside for the Panthers to unearth with Pysyk, so it’s likely we’ll see an evolution in that part of his game as time goes on.
With Buffalo last season, Pysyk was the only defenseman and one of 3 total players on the team to have a Goals For percentage at or above 50 at 5v5. He was also the only defenseman on the team to post a Corsi For percentage above 50 meaning the team was, on average, only controlling shot attempts when he was on the ice at 5v5. While Buffalo improved a bit last season over previous ones, they were still in the bottom half of the league in most statistical categories, so numbers like those of Pysyk are impressive.
Some have speculated that the Sabres opted to limit Pysyk’s time in the NHL as a way of “tanking” for better positioning in the draft, although no one around the team will admit to that for obvious reasons. While he’ll likely slot in on the 3rd pairing to start with, General Manager Tom Rowe has stated on numerous occasions that the team feels he could turn into a solid top-4 defensemen, so don’t be surprised if his role increases as the season wears on.
The third and final defenseman the Panthers added this off-season was Jason Demers who signed a 5-year deal on the second day of free agency. Although the Panthers already had Yandle and Pysyk in the fold, there was still a veteran spot to be filled in the top-4 and Demers fit the bill perfectly.
In some ways, Demers’s style of play is similar to what we saw above with Pysyk. The 28-year old isn’t very noticeable on the ice most of the time, and when it comes to a defenseman, that can be a good thing. Demers is rarely caught out of position which helps him slide under the radar despite the fact that he managed to log the 4th-most time on ice per game and 3rd-most shifts per game last season for the Stars.
Although he’s more than capable of chipping in offensively, he’s been deployed in more of a defensive manner than an offensive one and has excelled in that role. For the reason, some would classify Demers as a defensive defenseman, but labeling him as a two-way defensemen would be more fair given his well-rounded skill-set. When it comes to the physical game, Demers won’t go out of his way to throw checks or level someone along the boards, but he has no problem putting in the work it takes to separate a player from the puck or prevent that player from reaching the puck in the first place.
In the defensive zone, you’ll often find him stationed in front of the net attempting to clear traffic and rebounds while also carefully surveying the play and reacting as necessary. In the offensive zone, he serves as more of a setup man while moonlighting as a shooting threat. He’s good at moving the puck up the ice to the forwards and getting the puck off of his stick quickly just like Pysyk, although he’s more likely to get physical than the former Sabre.
In this first clip, Demers (white jersey, #4) goes into the corner to retrieve the puck. He waits an extra second to draw the defender towards him before making a slick no-look back pass to Vernon Fidler who’s able to carry it away. There were several other scenarios that could’ve occurred here, and Demers having a strong defensive awareness and being able to think quickly is what allowed it to happen the way it did. He could’ve easily dumped it around the back of the net or eaten it along the boards to force a battle, but a quick decision allows him to get the puck to his teammate and then allow him some time to make a play.
Demers is also very good at using his stick and body to break up plays and prevent opposing players from reaching the puck. His willingness to get physical allows him to work along the boards or around the net to hold the opposition back, and that’s what he does in the above play. As he skates towards the puck behind the net, he takes a quick look to his left and notices Zach Parise attempting to catch up to it as well, so he takes an extra half step and turns his body in order to cut the Minnesota center off and prevent him from gaining control of the puck cleanly. It becomes a bit of a battle before the puck squirts out to Demers’s teammate who clears it away from the area surrounding the net.
In this play, Demers uses his stick to poke the puck away from David Krejci which prevents him from easily carrying it up the boards and continuing the play. While he isn’t able to overpower or completely steal the puck from Krejci – who’s one of the better players at controlling the puck – Demers is able to disrupt the overall flow of the play and frustrate the Boston forward, and that’s another big part of his game in the defensive zone.
In this defensive zone play, Demers does a good job staying with his man as he leaves the front of the net to chase a loose puck along the boards. He takes advantage of the fact that the Boston forward, Brett Connolly, is already looking ahead assuming that he’ll be able take the puck in and skate forward towards the left corner. Demers, however, follows Connolly and reaches out so that his stick stops the puck before it reaches his opponent, and he’s able to swat it away thereafter.
When his team is in possession of the puck, Demers is just as effective as when they’re without it. He’s got a good, hard shot from the point and jumps up on the rush often when the time is right. On the power play, Demers is able to consistently hold the blue line to keep pucks in and can either shoot or set up his teammates with ease. A set play that he was involved in with Dallas was one where a teammate would hold the puck at the half-wall while Demers slowly crept down the opposite side and proceeded to either receive a pass or jam away at a rebound created by a shot.
Demers is also good at getting the puck up the ice to the forwards, putting it directly into the offensive zone, or quickly transitioning from defense to offense.
In the play above, the Flyers are skating out of their own zone when they lose the puck at the blue line. It doesn’t take long for Demers to gather it in, notice a wide open Antoine Roussel, and send him a quick pass, allowing him to skate right back into the Flyers’ zone to resume the offensive attack.
This final clip of Demers encompasses pretty much everything discussed about him thus far. The Flyers shoot the puck in and have a forward skate in hard on the forecheck, and Demers quickly anticipates the puck taking a turn behind the net. As a result, he skates to the left of the goaltender rather than the right allowing him to arrive at the puck just in time to chip it perfectly over to Johnny Oduya before absorbing a check. The Stars are able to exit the zone quickly as Demers turns back the other way to join the rush up the right side.
Like Pysyk, Demers is known for his stellar advanced stats which position him as a top performer when it comes to driving possession and preventing shot attempts against. The plays above may seem unimportant but when you add all of them together over the course of periods, games, and seasons, the stats show that team team faces fewer shots against and accumulates more shots for, which in turn leads to fewer goals allowed and more goals scored.
Demers owned the second-best Corsi For percentage at 5v5 (54.2) of all Dallas defenders last season and ranked 4th on the entire team while his 5v5 Corsi Against per 60 of 52.7 was the lowest among the team’s blue-liners. Not only that, but he was second on the Stars with an average of 2:23 of penalty-killing time per game and started 31 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone while still managing 7 goals and 16 assists in 62 games.
Players also perform much better statistically when on the ice with Demers compared to when they’re not. For example, Demers’s defensive partner for most of the season was Johnny Oduya, and when they were together, they combined for a respectable Corsi For percentage of 53 which was just above the team average. However, when the two were apart, Demers boasted an incredible percentage of 59 and Oduya owned a lowly 47.2. This shows that Demers was essentially carrying Oduya while Oduya was having the exact opposite effect on Demers. For more on Demers and his effects on his former Dallas teammates, check out this in-depth article on ‘Woodblog.’
The final statistical tidibt to point out is that Demers’s points per 60 rate over the last 4 seasons (0.95) ranks 26th among all defensemen putting him above Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nick Leddy, Ryan McDonagh, and Shea Weber, which is certainly impressive.
Overhauling the blue-line isn’t easy to do over several seasons, nevermind several weeks during the off-season and especially if you’re seeking some sort of improvement. However, the Panthers have managed to do just that.
While some may argue that the team now “lacks toughness” or “will get tossed around” because the defensemen aren’t as big and scary as an Erik Gudbranson- or Willie Mitchell-type player, it’s important to realize that being physical isn’t the only necessary skill for defensemen. Being able to skate well, move the puck up the ice, make smart decisions with the puck, and overall push the pace of play are all important things that defenders must be able to do in order to be effective.
What the Panthers gave up in Kulikov and Gudbranson were two average defenders who, had they been on cheaper contracts (and perhaps drafted later), could’ve been retained. They moved the puck OK, skated well enough, made smart decisions with the puck on an inconsistent basis, and typically didn’t push the pace of play or put pressure on the opponent often enough. They also weren’t able to contribute offensively nearly as much as anyone would’ve liked and were more suited for bottom-4 roles playing against lesser competition, yet they still felt they were deserving of long-term contracts worth up to 5 or $6 million per year. The Panthers decided to have none of that and were determined to get more value for their money this off-season.
So, that’s exactly what they did.
Demers and Yandle are both locked up long-term to relatively fair deals – especially when you consider how much they were spending last season and could’ve spent had they signed Kulikov and Gudbranson long-term – while Pysyk is a restricted free-agent after this season and will either be lost in the expansion draft or signed to a new deal that makes sense. Overall, the Panthers are getting the same or more value out of the 3 players than they got from Campell, Kulikov, and Gudbranson for less money, and that gives them more room for things like trade deadline deals, new contracts or extensions, performance bonuses, and more.
We won’t know exactly how well the Panthers’ new blue line will work together until they take the ice for a game, but things definitely look really good on paper. With the additions of Yandle, Pysyk, and Demers and the departures of Campbell, Kulikov, and Gudbranson, the Panthers have been upgraded in several different ways.
All three of the new defenders are more skilled overall and possess higher hockey IQs than their predecessors while making the backend more mobile than we’ve seen on any Panthers team in recent memory. The team’s forward group is incredibly mobile and skilled, so they needed a more talented and capable group of defenders to compliment them. The Panthers have longed for a defensive core that can not only score on its own but also help the forwards create offense while protecting their own end effectively, and it seems they may have finally found the players they need.