CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – When discussing the new-look Florida Panthers and their early-season success, the conversation quickly gravitates to head coach Joel Quenneville.
Specifically, Quenneville and the defensive system he brought with him to Florida.
Many Panthers knew about Quenneville and had skated against Q-coached teams, but nobody on the roster had ever played for him before.
Players weren't sure what to expect.
Sure, you can ask around and speak to buddies, coaches, broadcasters and so on, but nothing ever beats firsthand knowledge and experience.
For Keith Yandle, Florida's elder statesman on defense, the unknown of Quenneville's system and coaching style could have meant a lot of things.
During his 14-year NHL career, Yandle's bread and butter has been his ability to fill the scoresheet from the back line. But how much emphasis would the new system place on his defensive responsibilities, and perhaps curtail his offensive prowess?
"I didn't know too much about what to expect," Yandle said. "Playing against Q for a long time in the West, we had our fair share of games against them and knew they were a puck-possession team, but I didn't realize how much he stressed defense."
Breaking things down further, Yandle put it simply.
"You have to play good defense if you're going to play good offense. They go hand in hand."
Watching the team over the past two months, it's clear that the defenseman have a lot more responsibility than just playing defense.
As soon as Florida gains control of the puck, defensemen are looking up the ice to make a play, join the rush, and maintain possession in the offensive zone.
If the Panthers are controlling the puck in their opposition's zone, there is no way they're going to be giving up any goals at the other end of the ice.
It may seem like an aggressive way to play, but as Yandle explains, it combines that aggression with intelligence and responsibility, while also putting the D in a position to cut down on opposing chances.
"The biggest thing I've noticed that (Quenneville) pushes for us is the D being a part of the rush and getting up in the play," Yandle said. "I think for us (defensemen), that ultimately helps our gap control, too, because we're up in the play, we're closer to the action. If a puck does get turned over, we're right there to hopefully break it up. You're not giving the team a few extra feet of room to make a play.
"From the outside looking in, you probably would have thought it was more offensive-minded. But when we defend, if we defend well, it definitely transfers over to playing good offense."
While some experienced players can get locked into doing things a certain kind of way, Yandle has met the challenge of learning a new style with open arms.
He's doing pretty well in it, too. Through 21 games, Yandle is on pace for a career year in points (he finished with a career high 62 last season, currently pacing for 70 this year) and is already a plus-seven after finishing last season minus-17.
He's also cut down significantly on penalties; Yanlde has committed just two minor penalties this year after finishing third on the team with 21 last season.
But he's a veteran. An NHL All-Star. A locker room leader.
How about a different perspective?
Young, stay-at-home-defenseman Josh Brown is playing in his first full NHL season.
Yandle has skated in 928 NHL games. Brown has played in 55.
Admittedly, Brown said offense has never been a big part of his game, dating all the way back to his junior days with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League.
When Florida hired a defensive-minded head coach, Brown figured his skillset would fit right in.
He wasn't wrong, but he wasn't exactly right, either, as the 25-year-old would soon learn.
"Not really, to be honest," Brown answered when asked if he expected to have so much offensive responsibility. "I thought it would be more of a defensive style, but I really like it. (Offense) hasn't been a huge part of my game in the past, but I like that (Quenneville) encourages all of us, including me, to get up, get in the rush and be a five man attack."
Brown said that he feels it's just adding dimensions to his game; a few more tools to throw in the old tool box.
Just as Yandle said, playing well offensively and defensively go hand in hand.
"It's forcing me to almost get comfortable being uncomfortable," Brown said. "I think back in my junior days or even early pro, I was more of defensive-defeneman. Sit back, let the forwards do their work.
But I think that's part of how the game has changed. It's a faster game and everyone's got to be a part of the attack now."
Checking with Florida's bench boss to get his assessment of the team's defense after a quarter of the season, Coach Q seems pleased with the group to this point.
"I think our D has been improving as we're going along here," Quenneville said, pointing out a few areas he's been pleased with. "Getting involved in the attack, outlet passes, joining the attack and making it an odd-man situation; sometimes you just relieve puck pressure by just getting up and supporting the attack. Another option on an entry is good, as well."
Quenneville thinks the comfort level among the defensemen is at an all-time high, though there's still plenty of room for improvement.
Possessing the puck in the offensive zone is key, and Q points out that for the defensemen, a big part of succeeding in that area is making smart plays at the point and not, as he puts it, "throwing it at the net when we don't have anybody there."
Quenneville has been pleased with the patience the d-men are showing at the point, taking time to allow lanes to open up and screens to develop.
"There's a lot of possession time with our D in the offensive zone, and that's where we want it to be," Quenneville said. "I think that's one area we talked about a lot earlier on, managing the puck and having it more. I think that we've still got a ways to go, but it's been much improved.
"I think they're getting better and more comfortable at seeing plays."
For the 33-year-old Yandle, now playing for his fourth head coach in four years with Florida, the calm influence and stability that came with the new coaching staff has been welcomed.
Yandle has skated under some good coaches over the years (Dave Tippett, Alain Vigneault, Wayne Gretzky), but knows not many people get to play for a legend like Quenneville.
"I love it. It's been great," Yandle said. "He's a great teacher. He knows how to get his message across. He makes it simple, where you don't have to think too much. That's a good thing for hockey players."
Music can play an important role in the cohesion of a locker room.
Players may not always agree on the music selection, but there has got to be some kind of consensus.
After every Panthers win, the same up-beat song can be heard in the locker room as the players come off the ice.
It's a tradition that most teams carry throughout the season, though each new year will come with its own song.
When it comes to picking the music that plays in Florida's locker room, Yandle said the selections are usually made by Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano.
"I don't touch the music, but I'm a big critic," he said.
So you make sure your input is heard?
At his locker nearby, Vatrano smiles and nods in agreement.
Further proof of Yandle's impact on the music lies within this team's "win song" as he calls it.
The tune is called "So Good" by the band B.o.B and it was one of several sent to Yandle earlier this season as potential postgame victory tunes.
"Troch sent me three different songs at the beginning of the year," Yandle explained. "That was the one I liked best, so I said I liked that one, and he essentially picked it."
Another postgame victory ritual usually involves the passing of some kind of item from one player to another.
Whether it be wearable, like a hat, jacket or even a cape, or an inanimate object, like the rugby ball Panthers players spiked after wins during the past two seasons, it's a cool way for the boys to select their own star of the game.
The reason for the rugby ball was in honor of New Zealand's national rugby union team, the All Blacks, and the amazing success and traditions it carried. Florida's former coaching staff had a lot to do with the tradition.
This year a new postgame item had to be introduced, so several players got together before the season and came up with something a little different.
It's a shovel.
It has a black handle, silver blade, red shaft and is about two feet long.
Why a shovel?
"It's a building a new foundation type thing," Yandle said.
Translation: the past is the past. This is a fresh start.
In recent years, Florida has been known as a team with a great foundation that just needed a little help.
Well, the same foundational payers are here, but this season is not about the same old, same old.
New beginnings. Fresh start. Clean slate.
So far, it seems to be working as the Panthers are off to one of the best starts in franchise history.
Yandle added that it's also a reminder to always keep digging, and to never to be satisfied.
You know what time it is... it’s shovel time! 🙌 pic.twitter.com/U9e2kWahrb— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) November 20, 2019