SUNRISE, Fla. – One of the biggest surprises of the Florida Panthers season came in the form of defenseman-turned-forward Mark Pysyk.
The former first round pick found a home for himself playing on the right wing for head coach Joel Quenneville, and the unlikely scenario has paid huge dividends for Pysyk and the Panthers.
The 28-year-old finished the regular season with career highs in both goals (nine) and points (18) despite playing in just 58 games, and his shift from defense to wing prompted teammate Keith Yandle to dub Pysyk, Florida's own hybrid player, with a new nickname; the Prius.
Now Pysyk and the rest of the Panthers are working hard to get back into form as the NHL hopes to resume the season with its 24-team Return to Play Plan.
“It’s going to be a weird, quick, mad dash to get back into shape and back into game speed,” Pysyk said. “It’s definitely weird, but it’s the same for all teams, and it’s going to be exciting once we get to games again.”
Pysyk, like so many others, finds it difficult to remember the last time he's gone this long without being on the ice.
With much of the world shutting non-essential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hockey players have not been able to access skating rinks for that valuable on-ice training.
“I don’t think many guys, outside of injuries, have not skated for three months,” he said. “Even in the summer, guys are out on the ice once or twice a week throughout basically the whole summer.”
Fortunately, things have changed over the past couple weeks as the league has moved into the next phase of its Return to Play Plan, allowing players back to their respective team's training facilities on a voluntary basis, and with rules in place to keep them safe.
Several members of the Panthers have begun returning to the Ice Den in Coral Springs during Phase 2, including captain Sasha Barkov, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and about a dozen others.
Pysyk describes a pretty hectic situation for players, from when they arrive at the rink to when they hustle out in order to make room for the next set of skaters.
“You get to the rink, and we’re getting dressed with five guys in the dressing room and we’re all spread out around the room, so you’re not sitting by anybody,” he explained. “You get off the ice and it’s kind of a mad scramble to get to the gym and get your workout in before the next group comes.”
Currently, players are allowed on the ice in groups of no more than six and can only participate in non-contact drills.
They have been split into several groups and are on the ice three times a week.
There is hope that the league will soon allow for larger groups to be on the ice together, something Pysyk thinks will happen as long as players continue to be responsible in their everyday lives.
“Hopefully, if everybody stays safe and the tests keep coming back negative, we can expand the groups and get back to more a regular practice,” he said. “By the time training camp comes, hopefully we’ll be in a large group.”
Pysyk, who said players arrive to the rink with their masks on and have been good about following heath guidelines, seemed pleased with the safety measures being taken and understands that things will only ramp up as we get closer to playing actual games again.
“I think the NHL has done a great job of putting things in place,” Pysyk said. “I think they’re erring on the side of caution, which I think is a good thing for us to see. Obviously, we want everybody safe.”
The NHL hopes to move into Phase 3, which would signify the start of official training camps for all 24 teams participating in the postseason, on July 10.
Games would be played several weeks later in two hub cities, one for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference.
Details on which cities will be chosen and precise dates for the tournament will have to be agreed upon by the league and the players' association before Phase 3 begins.
The Panthers, which finished the regular season as the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference, will face the No. 7 seed New York Islanders in what the NHL is calling the Qualifying Round, which will be a best-of-five series.
“I like our chances to go deep,” Pysyk said of the 24-team tournament, adding, “And it’s going to be a lot of fun doing it.”