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2023 NHL All-Star Game/Sunrise

Happy Returns for Keith Yandle with the Florida Panthers — Sort Of

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Former Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle was back in Coral Springs on Wednesday night, playing in the Panthers’ Alumni Game leading into the NHL All-Star Game. — @ColbyDGuy

CORAL SPRINGS — Keith Yandle was back in a Florida Panthers jersey Wednesday night for the first time since the 2021 NHL playoffs.

After playing in the Panthers’ alumni game at the IceDen, Yandle stripped out of that familiar white jersey to reveal a Philadelphia Flyers t-shirt soaked in sweat.

“I have to go change into a Panthers shirt,’’ Yandle quipped.

Yandle’s time with the Panthers did not end the way anyone would have wanted.

The team ended up benching him for their final games of their first-round series with the Lightning and then bought out the last two years of his contract a little while later.

But Yandle says there are no hard feelings to how things ended.

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He kept his home in Fort Lauderdale where he is hosting longtime friend and former Flyers’ teammate Kevin Hayes this week as he is in town for the All-Star Game.

When he was contacted about playing in this alumni game less than a year after he played his final NHL game with the Flyers, he said he jumped at the chance to come back.

Of everyone on the ice Wednesday, Yandle seemed to be having the best time of all.

That part of his game has not changed.

Yandle formally announced his retirement in September.

“I always knew I was going to come back here,” Yandle said in the locker room he once called home.

“It was nice to be part of my first alumni game. Hopefully the first of many. The last time I skated was in my last game, so I was a little winded. My feet hurt but I am going skiing next week so hopefully this helps.”

Due to the way his run with the Panthers ended, some may forget the good times.

Yandle came to the Panthers in 2016 after Florida acquired him from the New York Rangers prior to the free agency period opened.

Just before Yandle could have signed someplace else, he and the Panthers agreed to a seven-year contract worth $44.45 million.

Some warned the contract would not age well with that much term and money, but for the first few years, Yandle was one of the top producing defensemen in the league.

From 2016-20, he averaged 51 points and played in every single game on his way to setting the NHL IronMan record of playing in 989 consecutive games before he was scratched by the Flyers last season.

In his years with the Panthers, Yandle’s 30 goals and 231 points ranked eighth in the NHL amongst defensemen. His 114 power play points ranked fourth.

In 2021, the Panthers appeared to be phasing Yandle out and all signs were pointing toward coach Joel Quenneville scratching him before the Covid-delayed season-opener ending his IronMan streak.

But, after some of his teammates intervened, Yandle was in the lineup — and scored a goal in Florida’s 5-2 win over the Blackhawks.

He ended up playing in all 56 games that season before finally being sat in the playoffs which did not affect his regular season record.

It was pretty apparent following that Lightning series that the Panthers and Yandle would be parting ways what with over $12 million being owed to him in the final two years of the contract.

“It is part of the business and it is a young man’s game,” Yandle said. “I understood it, knew it was coming. Throughout your career, you can kind of feel things happening and I felt that happening. For me, it was not a surprise but just another chapter in the book.”

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Keith Yandle, center, celebrates playing in his 1,000th NHL game with teammates Radko Gudas and Jonathan Huberdeau during the 2021 season. — Photos courtesy @FlaPanthers

The Panthers ended up saving themselves $4 million on the 2021-22 cap which they used to extend Anthony Duclair and Gus Forsling.

But this season was always going to cost them.

Due to the way his contract was structured in 2016, the final year was scheduled to be mostly paid as a signing bonus which meant it had to be paid in full and not rationed like his base salary was.

While Yandle’s cap hit for last season was $2.34 million and the next two seasons is an affordable $1.24 million, the Panthers are getting a $5.49 million cap reduction in this one which has handcuffed the team’s cap flexibility.

Although some on social media have blamed Yandle for Florida’s cap situation this year, he did not force the Panthers’ 2016 front office into agreeing to it.

Wednesday night, no one seemed to be talking about big cap hits as he was warmly cheered by the fans at the IceDen.

An All-Star with the Panthers in 2019, Yandle will be around this year’s event working with Bleacher Report.

He is looking forward to interviewing players who he competed with just a few months ago at today’s media day in Fort Lauderdale.

And being back in a locker room visiting with old friends — he and Roberto Luongo seemed to get along as if no time had passed — was his favorite part.

“I would love to skate more often if I could,” Yandle said. “I would love to be skating down here. Just coming into the locker room, seeing guys you played with and against, watched growing up. It was so fun just to be back in here. The smells, the sounds. Everything about it was great. That was the best part of all this.”

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