During the early stages of the NHL offseason, the Florida Panthers have made some serious changes.
Helmed by a forward-thinking, analytically-inclined regime, the Cats have stormed out of the gates, locking down various pieces of their young core while making waves in the free agent market.
The signings of Jonathan Marchessault and Colton Sceviour bring much-needed depth to the bottom-six, while the addition of James Reimer shores up the club’s goaltending for years to come.
The greatest change, though—and, arguably, the starkest improvement—came along the blue line, where a complete makeover has brought three new names to the roster. Replacing longtime Panthers Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson are Keith Yandle, Mark Pysyk and Jason Demers, acquisitions that general manager Tom Rowe hopes will recast the defensive corps in the mold of a possession-driven unit.
However, what did the Cats gain? And just what did they lose?
Deciphering whether the Panthers won, lost or broke even on each transaction, the following paragraphs will compare each new defenseman with the one they most directly replaced: Yandle to Campbell, Pysyk to Kulikov, and Demers to Gudbranson. After contrasting their stats, we may arrive at a definitive answer.
The numbers don’t lie—that being said, let’s get to it.
(Note: All stats were pulled either from Corsica Hockey or Hockey Reference. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are at even strength)
Campbell vs. Yandle
As Brian Campbell balked at the idea of re-signing with the Cats, management went out on a limb and snagged the top impending free-agent blueliner of his class.
Keith Yandle, a former fourth-round selection of the Arizona Coyotes, brings a skillset similar to Soupy’s to the BB&T Center. Quick on his edges and deft with the puck on his stick, Yandle is one of the league’s premier offensive defensemen—in fact, only two defensemen (Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith) have bested Yandle’s 325 points since 2009.
At 29-years old, Yandle is almost eight years Campbell’s junior and has three inches in height advantage over the native of Strathroy, Ontario. Continuing to look at base numbers, Yandle also posted 16 more points than Campbell did last season. The advantage in plus-minus, albeit a flawed statistic, swings in Campbell’s favor—the 35-point gulf between Yandle’s minus-four and Campbell’s plus-31 is significant, although it may partially be explained by Campbell’s being paired with stud rearguard, Aaron Ekblad.
Additionally, the advanced statistics paint a conflicting story.
In spite of garnering favorable zone starts 66.7% of the time—a 15.8% jump over Campbell’s usage—Yandle’s only tangible advantages come in Corsi For per 60 minutes (55.41 to 52.15), Corsi save percentage (96.70 to 96.46) and Fenwick save percentage (95.66 to 95.51). Although one could argue that Soupy experienced greater “puck luck” as evidenced by his 103.75 PDO, his on-ice showings bested Yandle’s, all the while playing a cleaner brand of hockey (20 Penalty Minutes to Yandle’s 46).
However, it is important to note that Yandle’s stats might be skewed: the New York Rangers finished with a Corsi For percentage of 47.4, 26th worst in the league, playing alongside possession anchors like Dan Girardi. Despite this fact, finished third on the team in that category, finishing above the 50% watermark.
Also, a glance at relative stats shows just how much Campbell benefitted from Ekblad’s presence. The former sixth-rounder still manages to outperform Yandle at his own game—Campbell holds advantages in Relative Corsi For percentage (6.10 to 4.57) and Relative Fenwick For per 60 minutes (3.91 to 2.35). However, Yandle’s defensive performances defy his abysmal plus-minus rating: When normalized, the former New York Ranger managed to suppress shots at a higher rate than Campbell, as shown by advantages in Relative Corsi Against per 60 minutes (-5.34 to -7.53), Relative Fenwick Against per 60 minutes (-1.30 to -5.24), Relative Shots Against per 60 minutes (-1.37 to -3.56) and Relative Goals Against per 60 minutes (-0.25 to -0.45).
In all, the Panthers have at least broken even—while the advanced stats identify Campbell as the superior possession player, Yandle appears to be the more defensively-responsible of the two. Also, his offensive spark on the back will prove helpful to a power play unit that finished 23rd in the league. Furthermore, playing on a pairing with Ekblad—a possibility that drew Yandle to Sunrise in the first place—could shore up Yandle’s possession figures.
Kulikov vs. Pysyk
When the Florida Panthers shipped Dmitry Kulikov to the Buffalo Sabres at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, fans of the team questioned why. Kulikov, after all, was the longest-tenured Panther on the roster and was traded for a defenseman who has skated in 335 fewer career NHL contests.
Pysyk, though, is no slouch.
Long held in high regard by the analytics community, the former 23rd overall pick of the 2010 draft is a possession-driving rearguard that fills the Cats’ need for a right-handed shot on the back end and satisfies management’s desire to move the club into the new age of hockey analytics. For starters, his Relative Corsi For percentage of 4.47—adjusted for score and venue—ranked eighth-best in the league among defensemen with 700 total minutes of ice time or more, finishing higher than such household names as Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter and new teammate Keith Yandle. In this same metric, Kulikov posted a -2.58.
The raw on-ice numbers also prove Pysyk’s worth. Generating almost ten Corsi shots for per 60 minutes (55.41 to 46.71) more than Kulikov, the Sherwood Park, Alberta, native leads his Russian counterpart in each of Corsica Hockey’s actual, advanced on-ice metrics except for Corsi shooting percentage (4.78 to 3.89), Fenwick Against per 60 minutes (40.16 to 40.17) and Fenwick shooting percentage (6.21 to 5.29).
Take into account the fact that Pysyk comes at an over $3 million discount, and his acquisition, however unpopular, seems like an unmitigated success for the Florida Panthers. Management believes that the six-foot-one blueliner can develop into a top-four defenseman within the next couple of seasons, and if advanced stats are anything to place stock in, the hype surrounding Pysyk will prove to be more than hot air.
Gudbranson vs. Demers
Take a look at Erik Gudbranson, and he seemingly fits the bill of a shut-down defenseman: imposing figure; a highlight reel of explosive hits; and a willingness to sacrifice the body to block shots.
But, after the burly Canadian was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for promising forward Jared McCann, pundits wondered if he truly filled that role. For a stay-at-home rearguard, he suppressed shots at a below-average rate—among blueliners with over 950 minutes of ice time, his Corsi Against per 60 minutes of 55.89 was higher than that of offensively-minded skaters such as Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Brent Burns.
Enter Jason Demers.
Brought on board for five years after agreeing to take a pay-cut, the Quebecois blueliner is a veteran of 423 NHL tilts. He provides more offensive punch than the departed Gudbranson, his points-per-game clip of 0.34 the 0.14 of his counterpart.
However, while he may not outhit or out block Gudbranson, statistics suggest that Demers—a former seventh-round pick of the San Jose Sharks—outperformed the former Panther at his own job.
Skating roughly 20 minutes fewer than Gudbranson, Demers’ Corsi Against per 60 minutes (53.74 to 55.89), Corsi save percentage (96.34 to 96.23), Fenwick Against per 60 minutes (39.11 to 44.75) and shots against per 60 minutes (27.36 to 32.28) hint towards his ability to keep opposing forwards at bay. And, while Gudbranson holds advantages in both Fenwick and regular save percentage, Demers’ expected Goals Against per 60 minutes of 2.33 once again trumps Gudbranson’s. Throw a lower-than-average PDO of 99.64 in for good measure, and Demers’ on-ice defensive impact eclipses Gudbranson’s.
What’s more: Demers is a far superior driver of possession, posting approximately 15 more Corsi attempts and nine more Fenwick attempts on goal per 60 minutes than Gudbranson. This comes despite Demers’ starting 51% of his shifts in the defensive zone, indicating his coach’s comfort in deploying him equally in all three zones. His relative stats also corroborate his on-ice performances, exhibiting positive improvements over Gudbranson in both offensive and defensive categories.
In short, Demers injects versatility into the top-six, responsible in his own end and deceptively effective in the offensive zone. Regardless of specific pairing, he is a more complete rearguard than Gudbranson and is a clear upgrade to the defensive corps.
Based on advanced statistics, it becomes obvious that Tom Rowe’s defensive overhaul has bolstered an already solid group, one that finished seventh in the league in average goals against. A potential top pairing of Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle brings a balance of defensive responsibility and offensive punch, while a pairing of Jason Demers and surprising rookie Michael Matheson could replicate the very same. Should Pysyk earn another stint in the NHL out of training camp, a potential partnership with Alex Petrovic would round out a balanced top-six.
A new era of Florida Panthers hockey has arrived, and this remodeled group will serve as vanguards of the movement.
A rower-turned-writer at the University of Florida and an incoming MA in Journalism student at DePaul University, I have: Worked as a staff writer for the Independent Florida Alligator; covered the Florida Panthers for The Hockey Writers; reported on international tournaments for Hooked On Hockey Magazine; and functioned as an entertainment correspondent with the Gainesville Sun. If you’re interested, you can also follow me on Twitter @ajlb95.