CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – If anybody in the Florida Panthers dressing room has his finger on the pulse of the team, it's defenseman Keith Yandle.
The veteran of 14 NHL seasons was acquired by Florida in the summer 2016, his leadership presence growing among the franchise's young core group of players ever since.
Yandle has a very matter-of-fact way of speaking, whether he's diagraming his role on a power play opportunity or explaining the reasons why he deemed teammate Mark Pysyk 'the Prius' earlier this season.
“He’s built like a Prius,” Yandle told me back in February. “He’s eco-friendly. He’s cheap. He’s electric. He’s a gift to earth.”
Considering Yandle's senior status among the Panthers, it's no surprise that he was asked some managerial questions on Monday in regard to the team's behavior when they arrive in Toronto later this week.
Discussing the idea of living in the NHL's quarantine bubble, Yandle was the latest of Florida's players to almost shrug off the suggestion that anyone on the team would have a problem following the rules and proper safety protocols put in place by the league.
"Honestly, I don't think that's an issue at all," Yandle said following Monday's practice at the Panthers Ice Den. "We've touched on it, but it goes without saying that we're there for a reason. We're there to play hockey."
Top to bottom, all signs point to a team with their eyes on the prize.
It's clear that the Panthers are confident in each other's ability to be responsible and understand just exactly what they're doing in Toronto, and why.
"It's new for everybody," Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville said of living a sanitary, socially distanced life. "I think the guys have been handling it as well as can be expected so far, and we expect it to be the same (in the bubble)."
Added Yandle: "We have a group of guys who know we have to win games. I think (breaking the rules) are the least of our worries going into this."
Higher up on that list of concerns will be whether or not Florida can resume playing at the level they had reached just prior to the pause.
The Panthers final three games before the NHL stopped the season were arguably the team's best of the year.
But as the saying goes, it's always darkest just before dawn. Those three games came on the heels of an atrocious month of February in which the Panthers went just 5-9-2.
Rock bottom seemed to come after consecutive losses on back-to-back nights to Chicago and Calgary at the BB&T Center. When the team reconvened two days later at the Ice Den, a closed-door meeting was held among the players. Something had to change, or the season would be lost.
Yandle explained that the team simply "tweaked a few things." Across the board, the Panthers players bought into the program. They went all in.
Uncoincidentally, Florida suddenly started displaying the characteristics of a Joel Quenneville-coached team, making a point to prioritize play in their own end.
In what turned out to be the final three games of the regular season, the Panthers appeared to transform from a team trying to outscore its opponent every night to instead working and grinding them down, putting on the clamps in the defensive zone and making life as easy as possible for goalie Chris Driedger, who was filling in for an injured Sergei Bobrovsky.
"We have to realize what we did those last few games before the shutdown," Yandle said. "We've been doing a good job going over video and doing things in practice to get us back familiar with our systems."
IF YOU’VE SEEN ONE MASK…
Some of you may have been hoping to hear about the cool and unique face masks that Panthers players were wearing around the rink.
Hockey players notorious for having fun personalities, and in some cases an acute sense of fashion, would surely come up with something amusing or entertaining to look at.
Well, you can go ahead and cue the sound you hear on Wheel of Fortune when the contestants land on Bankrupt.
Yandle revealed that the Panthers players have just been rolling with the standard masks that are given out by the team at the rink.
He did, however, make sure to mention one member of the team’s Hockey Operations staff that has stood out for his facial coverings.
Panthers Team Services Manager Stiles Burr, who is in charge of the team's travel plans, has apparently been impressing around the Ice Den with the way he's constructing his coronavirus couture.
"Stiles Burr has the coolest masks," Yandle said. "He's been going all out, matching his outfits to his masks. Once we get to Toronto, I think a lot of guys have been asking him what he's been doing, so we'll feed off of Stiles."
We'll have to stay tuned and see which of the Panthers show up in the bubble sporting Stiles' styles.
EXHIBITION BONUS PLAYERS
Coach Quenneville is the first to acknowledge that after nearly four months away from the rink, there's bound to be some rust to shake off.
"You have to blow the whistle a little harder to get it working again," he joked.
Monday marked the beginning of Florida's second week of training camp, with another six practices scheduled before they depart for Toronto, where they'll face the New York Islanders in a best-of-five series starting on Aug. 1.
Quenneville has commended the pace of the Panthers since Camp 2.0 opened, though in typical Q style, he makes sure to point out that the team's execution during the workouts has been inconsistent.
At this stage, the screws can always be tightened just a little bit more.
Florida's best and final chances work out any kinks will come during their exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, scheduled for a noon puck drop on July 29.
Quenneville revealed an interesting piece of information on Monday in regard to the tune-up game; both teams will be allowed to dress two additional players, a defenseman and a forward.
Normally, a team is allowed a 20-man roster for games, which is generally comprised of 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.
"Over the course of the game, you'll probably have different looks as far as who's playing with who," Quenneville said.
It an interesting quirk by the league, but a nice touch, allowing for a couple extra players to get a taste of that true game speed.
Considering all the time off, this is a way to help more players prepare their bodies for what should be the most challenging hockey games of the season.
"That will be the test we're looking forward to," said Quenneville. "Getting more guys involved in that game to get them ready."
NHL COVID UPDATE
On Monday the NHL provided an update on COVID-19 testing during Phase 3, which began exactly one week ago on July 13.
The league announced that during the first five days of Phase 3 (July 13-17), 2,618 tests were administered to over 800 players. An exact number of players who were tested was not provided,
Of those 2,618 tests, two of them yielded a positive result.
Both of those players, whose identities will not be revealed (something mutually agreed upon in the new CBA), "are following CDC and Health Canada protocols," according to the statement from the NHL.
This is a great sign that players across the league are taking the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues extremely seriously.
Players, coaches and staff members are being tested for COVID-19 every other day during Phase 3. They are also expected to conduct daily symptom and temperature self-checks at home before heading to the rink.
Through eight days of training camp, which includes two days off, the Panthers have had near perfect attendance throughout. The only on-ice absence came last Wednesday when Noel Acciari was given a maintenance day, though he was in the building for team meetings and off-ice work.