SUNRISE, Fla. – If anyone in the Florida Panthers locker room has their finger on the pulse of the team, it’s Keith Yandle.
The veteran rearguard is playing in his fifth season with the Panthers and has been known throughout his 15-year career as a wonderful teammate and just a great guy overall.
He’s also one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. His quick thinking and ability to move the puck, finding and creating lanes to shoot and pass, is why Yandle is at his best when quarterbacking a power play from the blue line.
A popular guy who racks up the points, Yandle is also the NHL’s active Ironman. He’s played in a remarkable 876 consecutive games, needing another 89 to become the league’s all-time leader (a distinction held by Doug Jarvis and his 964 straight appearances).
This season started with a bit of a scare for the streak when Yandle found himself skating with the non-regulars in the days leading up to Opening Night.
Low and behold, despite the drama, Yandle has suited up for all 10 of Florida’s contests so far, helping the team jump out to an impressive 7-1-2 record while racking up seven points, including a pair of goals.
A big part of the team’s success has been its power play, which is humming right along at a league-leading 37 percent success rate.
This might come as a surprise when taking into consideration that two-fifths of Florida’s top power play unit from the past two years, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, are now playing elsewhere.
Hoffman in particular was an integral part of the Panthers success while on the man advantage. He racked up 56 power play points during his two seasons in Florida, including 28 goals scored almost exclusively from the right circle, where his teammates were constantly looking for ways to feed Hoffman’s laser of a one-timer.
These days the Panthers power play looks a bit different.
For one, head coach Joel Quenneville has decided to deploy a more traditional three forwards and two defensemen instead of the four forward look used all of last season. That second defenseman, Aaron Ekblad, is moving all over the ice though, a far cry from what Yandle does best while working the point.
Ekblad’s mobility with the puck, combined with Yandle’s steady play at the top and the playmaking abilities of Florida’s forwards, Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Partic Hornqvist, has led to a very fluid, efficient and unpredictable power play for Florida.
“Obviously the big difference is having that one timer on the right side with (Hoffman), but I think (Ekblad) is doing a great job of going up and down that wing, whether he’s being positioned at the net or being up (in the zone) for an outlet, I think he’s doing a real good job with that,” Yandle said following Wednesday’s practice at the BB&T Center. “I think (Hornqvist) in front of the net is a huge plus. He’s a guy that makes his living there, he’s probably the best in the league at it. (Barkov) is one of those guys…he’s so unselfish, he just wants the best for the team. And I think having (Huberdeau) on that the left side where he’s doing his thing, he’s probably the most dangerous in the league walking down that half wall.”
Through 10 games so far this season, Florida has been awarded 27 power plays.
They have scored on 10 of them.
Much like the team’s record so far, their power play success also falls into an easily brushed aside ‘too good to be true’ mentality. Could the Panthers possibly sustain this kind of success rate for an entire season, shortened or otherwise?
Yandle seems to think so.
“We’re still figuring each other out, it’s still early in the year,” the 34-year-old said of Florida’s new-look power play unit. “I think for us right now, it’s just getting used to each other and getting reps.”
The power play wasn’t the only thing Yandle was asked about on Wednesday. It may not be juicy or Sonk-worthy, but here’s the rest of Yandle’s Q&A with the media:
You’ve spent most of the season paired up with Radko Gudas. How has it been going so far?
“It’s been great. When we signed him this summer it was one of those things…I texted him right away feeling that hopefully we were going to be playing together and luckily, it’s worked out that way. I think maybe one or two games we haven’t played together, but when we have its felt great. We’ve got a great relationship off the ice and it’s transferring onto the ice, too. I love playing with him, you know what you’re getting from him. He’s an older guy who’s been around, he knows how to talk, he communicates the game well and he’s always in the right position.”
Gudas was one of several new players brought in this season. Being that you’re known as the center of the locker room, how has it been so far with the new guys on the team?
“I think the guys that we brought in…you look at a guy like (Hornqvist), he knows what it takes to win, he’s been on winning teams. (Gudas) the same way. You’ve got guys that have been there, been around. They know when you have to be serious and when it’s time to joke around. I think for us, it’s been good so far.”
Thursday is the first game of the season against cross-state rival Tampa Bay. What are your thoughts heading into the matchup with the current Central Division leaders?
“I think since I’ve been here this is the longest we’ve gone without playing Tampa. Usually, you’re playing them a few times (during the) preseason and then to start the season. They’re the defending champs and the measuring stick of the league and I think for us it’s a good test. I think we’ve got them three times here, so it’s going to be a tough test, but I think we’re up for the challenge.”
Is it a good thing that you guys have been able to play ten games and get used to each other a bit more before facing teams like Tampa and Dallas and Carolina?
“Especially with the new group, I think we’ve got a lot of new faces this year, so it’s been good to get games in maybe before playing Tampa, but you never know until the game happens. I think for us, we’ve got to be excited to play these guys and see where we’re at. Obviously knowing that they’re the champs from last year, they have a great lineup, but I think for us it’s just being excited to show we got.”
It seems like everyone in the division has been picking up points lately. Looking at the schedule, you have some real challenges coming up.
“The way this season is, you’ve got find ways to get points. Our division is a really good division too, so it’s one of those things where, especially against the high-end teams, you’ve got to find a way to get points.”