CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – The experiment began early in the season, on the front end of a mid-October back-to-back.
Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville doesn't remember who on his staff came up with the idea to try 8-year veteran defenseman Mark Pysyk at right wing, just that the move was made "on a need basis" and wasn't viewed as a long-term fix.
Nobody was more surprised than Pysyk, who said Q told him before the morning skate, as Florida prepared to host Colorado, that the team would be dressing seven defensemen, and he may be used as a forward.
That night, during a 5-4 overtime loss to the Avalanche, Pysyk skated a team low 10 shifts and saw only 7:18 of ice time, but it was enough for Quenneville to see that there just might be something to playing the former first round pick at right wing.
“He was first to pucks, he was in the right spots and doing the right things, right off the bat,” Quenneville said. “Not only were the instincts of where to go around the ice, but he seemed to just grab that type of short audition, whether it was a couple shifts here or there in a game, and it just built off of that.”
Early the following day in Nashville, Pysyk received a text message telling him that he’d be skating that morning, which is generally an assignment handed out to those not playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
"I just assumed I was back out of the lineup," Pysyk said. "Then I saw Q at breakfast and he said 'Hey, you're playing again, just go get a skate in.' I was taken by surprise, and I guess from there, I've basically been a forward this year."
LEAN ON ME
Back in November, Pysyk was still pretty green when it came to playing wing. During a post-practice chat all those months ago, he explained that he was often skating over to his linemates prior to faceoffs, to make sure he was in the right spot and knew where to go once the puck was dropped.
Checking back in with Pysyk this week, he laughed while admitting that old habits die hard.
"Still the same," he chuckled. "Every faceoff, I go ask Colton (Sceviour) what I'm doing, and what he's doing, just to make sure. He lets me know exactly what I should be doing."
Pysyk has no reservations about asking for help or advice, but he's been playing wing for over three months now. He surely still has a lot to learn, but he might be exaggerating with how much help he's actually in need of.
"I think he's being nice," Sceviour said when told about Pysyk's endorsement. "Every once in a while, he'll ask me things, just on certain little position things, like off the faceoff, where to go, and stuff like that. It's just little things.
"For the most part, I think he knows what to do. I think he just wants reassurance, so he's not second guessing himself."
Something that many players have been quick to point out is how difficult it is to do what Pysyk has been tasked with.
Brian Boyle, who has been centering a line with Pysyk and Sceviour over Florida's last six games, acknowledged how challenging it is to move positions.
Wingers generally find themselves in an awkward spot, Boyle explained, especially in the defensive zone, as they often receive the puck while not moving, and are surrounded by a wall, a backchecker and, depending how good the gap is, a defensemen.
"It's tough to be effective in a lot of ways, and you have to bide your time to really make the right plays," Boyle said. "You want to have a lot of communication. For him to be able to go from D to wing is impressive."
The trio has been used mainly as a shutdown unit, with most of their pre-faceoff assignments coming on defensive zone draws.
That being the case, any offensive production would seemingly be viewed as a bonus. Recently, those bonuses have been arriving fairly often.
"The last few games we've been relied on defensively, not getting a ton of starts in the offensive zone, but we've been able to get the puck down there and we've actually chipped in on offense, and he's a big, big reason why," Boyle said of Pysyk. "He's scored a couple huge goals for us."
Prior to this season, Pysyk had been a regular on Florida's penalty killing unit.
When he was moved to forward, assistant coach Mike Kitchen took Pysyk off the PK. It's a move that was made, Pysyk suspects, in order to allow him to focus on one thing (playing wing) and not have to worry about remembering multiple assignments from two positions in different situations.
If that's the case, it appears that the coaching staff has grown more comfortable with Pysyk at forward, because he's once again being asked to contribute as a defenseman when the team is shorthanded, even during games when he's otherwise playing as a winger.
"Kitch has been telling me before the game if he's going to use me on the PK, so I can get my mind wrapped around that," Pysyk said.
Just as he leans on Sceviour and Boyle for quick tips on the ice before faceoffs, Pysyk has been bending the ear of his penalty killing partner, Aaron Ekblad, to make sure he's not forgetting any details of playing D on the PK.
“He’s been so helpful to me,” Pysyk said of Ekblad. “I’ve been off the back end for a while, so it’s little things I’m asking him, and he’s always talking on the ice, so it’s good.”
It’s just another way that the multi-talented Pysyk has carved out a nice role, or roles, for himself, and become a valuable asset in Quenneville’s toolbox.
Not bad for a guy who, when the season began, was struggling just to crack the Panthers lineup.
"He really has been effective, and over this current stretch, where he's not only being useful in playing significant minutes up front," Quenneville said. "Then you insert him on the penalty killing unit defensively, and then you put him on late in the game and use him a little bit in defensive situations on the back end, that versatility is something that not too many guys have."
PYSYK THE PRIUS
Playing consistent, reliable defensive hockey is what was asked of Pysyk when he was first moved to wing.
There wasn't much pressure to contribute offensively, but slowly but surely, the scoring production has begun to pick up.
During the first three months of the season, Pysyk accumulated a total of just four points (2-2-4) in 29 games.
Something began to click around the beginning of January, and as Pysyk’s confidence went up, so did his point total. Over Florida’s last 10 games, Pysyk has logged six points (2-4-6) while averaging 12:29 of ice time. That’s nearly 80 seconds more per game than he averaged during the month of December.
The defenseman-turned-forward even netted a game-winning goal, his first in nearly five years, when Florida defeated Detroit back on Jan. 18.
A couple of nights later in Minnesota, Pysyk again factored in on the Panthers game-winner, this time with a key assist from the blue line. It was a crazy double deflection that first tipped off Ekblad’s blade before changing direction a second time, hitting the shaft of Noel Acciari’s stick and finding its way past Wild goaltender Alex Stalock with under six seconds left in the third period.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of excitement in the postgame locker room. During a television interview, Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle was asked about the goal, and he immediately brought up the play made by Pysyk to get the puck to the net.
"Just find a way to get the puck in the hands of the Toyota Prius, Mark Pysyk," Yandle said. "The hybrid does it all."
Considering the crazy, winding path Pysyk has traveled this season, it seemed Yandle couldn't have selected a more perfect nickname for his locker stall neighbor.
Of course, that begged the question of how Yandle came up with such an appropriately amusing moniker.
"A Prius is really the only thing I know that's a hybrid," Yandle said, mentioning, and quickly dismissing, the idea of a hybrid golf club, before further explaining his thought process.
“He’s built like a Prius. He’s eco-friendly. He’s cheap. He’s electric. He’s a gift to earth.”
The cleverness of the nickname cannot be questioned, but its popularity among Panthers players has yet to be determined.
Pysyk, who wasn’t particularly enthused about being a Prius, said that since the team went on its bye week two days after Yandle’s interview, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for the name to stick.
Boyle didn't seem overly impressed when asked for his opinion on the matter. "I don't think anything gets better than Pysser, so maybe keep it there," he said, referencing Pysyk's usual nickname. "But Prius is OK."
Whether or not the Prius label lasts, it did pass one of the most important assessments; the Q test.
After a recent Panthers practice, Quenneville indulged a certain local hockey reporter who seems to love these topics that have nothing to do with the actual game.
What do you think about Pysyk being called Prius?
Yeah, because he's a hybrid.
That evoked one of the loudest belly laughs heard from Q since he arrived in South Florida. After the chuckles, he had a follow-up question.
"Who came up with that?"
"Ah, it's a Yandle-handle."
Touché, Coach Q.