On the morning of Oct. 18, Mark Pysyk was off the ice with the rest of the Florida Panthers who were planning to play that night against the Colorado Avalanche.
Pysyk, to that point in the season, had been scratched in five of the Panthers’ first six games.
While Pysyk was at his stall, I asked if he was going in.
“They told me to be ready,” he said. “So I am going to be ready.”
The Panthers had a plan that night.
Coach Joel Quenneville dressed seven defensemen against the Avs, opting to sit Henrik Borgstrom and put Pysyk — a defenseman — on the third forward line with Denis Malgin and Frank Vatrano.
“It’s never fun to be out of the lineup no matter what the situation is,” he said back in October. “It sucks and it makes you really not take anything for granted and enjoy it when you are in there.”
Pysyk did not look out of place despite playing a new position one he said he had not played since he was a kid. Even then, he said through a laugh, he did not play forward very much.
“He was good, definitely held his own,” Vatrano said after the Panthers lost to the Avs 5-4 in overtime that night.
“He is a good defenseman and it looked like he felt pretty comfortable out there. It is good he can step into any role he is asked of. He did not miss a beat.’’
Said Quenneville: “We’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
We all know what tomorrow brought.
“I’m kind of focused on being a forward right now,” Pysyk said Wednesday afternoon. “Hopefully being solid defensively is something our line can be counted on in that sense.”
Pysyk, who appeared to be out of the Panthers’ plans as a spare defenseman, found plenty of playing time as the season went along only much of it came outside of his natural position.
“I was getting scratched right from the start,” he said, “and I didn’t know how the year was going to play out. Then came the opportunity to play forward and it is a lot more fun playing than sitting and watching.”
Playing a hybrid role (some have called him ‘Prius’ after the Toyota vehicle which runs both on electricity and gasoline), Pysyk obviously earned the trust of Quenneville who continually used him on the wing.
— Spittin’ Chiclets Clips (@chicletsclips) January 21, 2020
There have been times Pysyk has been asked to return to his old position either due to injury during a game or to kill penalties, but for the most part, Quenneville and the Panthers have liked what they have seen from Pysyk the Forward.
When the Panthers open their Stanley Cup qualifier against the New York Islanders on Aug. 1, Pysyk is expected to be on the fourth line as he has spent all of training camp working there with Noel Acciari and Colton Sceviour.
“It has definitely been different and looking into this season, it is not how I saw it going,” Pysyk said.
“There was an opportunity where a couple guys were sick or out of the lineup so it kind of all started from there. It has kept going. I have enjoyed myself, enjoyed doing it. It has been a challenge and made things … a different excitement in trying something new. It has been good.”
Pysyk said Wednesday that while he worked in drills on both sides before camp opened, once it started, he has been right back “in the role where I was before all this happened.”
“I think he has had a great camp and has really developed himself in both areas over the course of the season,” Quenneville said after Florida’s practice Wednesday.
“He took a spot up front where he got more ice time and opportunity … he really looked like he was understanding the position as the season grew. His offense was enhanced as he progressed. He has some quickness to his game and anticipates what a forward is thinking but with the mindset of a defenseman.
”I can’t say enough about how hard he has worked in this process. He comes in every day with the right attitude, is excited and enjoys the game.”
Moving to forward has been a defining moment of Pysyk’s season in Florida, one that not only showed his adaptability, but a bit of survivalism as well.
The Panthers had all but made it clear they had written Pysyk off as his name came up in trade rumors at the deadline last season.
Coming into camp, he was not in the top six defensively and it seemed a foregone conclusion the Panthers were going to move him at some point.
Fast forward to today and Pysyk, a pending free agent, has become a trusted and counted on player for Quenneville and the Panthers.
Earlier this season, Pysyk said emphatically he wanted to stay right where he was. He enjoys playing in South Florida and is one of the most popular players on the team.
“I think this is an awesome time to be here right now,” Pysyk said during the season. “With the new coach, the way he interacts with everyone and the excitement level we all have here, there’s a different attitude.
“It’s a good time to be a Panther. I like it here. Whatever happens is out of my control, but right now, it’s good to be here.”
Where Pysyk gets his next contract will be decided down the road.
Right now, he says, he is just concentrating on what is ahead as he tries to help the Panthers make the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons here.
“There hasn’t really been much talk with my agent, so lets take care of what we could take care of here,” said Pysyk, who set a career-high with nine goals and 18 points iin 58 games this season.
“It is awesome here in Florida and I absolutely love it. But we have a job to do here so that’s definitely where the focus is at. … Definitely the guys here want to win and there is an excitement around the room. We are one series away from making the playoffs and we have a good chance.”
The highlight of the season for Pysyk came Feb. 3 in Toronto when he recorded his first NHL hat trick as Florida rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to beat the Maple Leafs 5-3.
“He does it all. It is impressive. He is a defenseman playing forward, and the way he is playing, he has confidence,’’ Jonathan Huberdeau said that night.
“This was well deserved. I think it is cool. We didn’t have a good two periods but came out in the third and Pysyk was the big star out there.”
On Wednesday, Pysyk was asked whether he had watched that game during his four months off and he grinned.
Although he said he had not watched a replay of it, he recalled the moment with fondness.
The biggest thing he remembered, he said, was the third goal when he was on a breakaway going for the empty net and was dragged down by Mitch Marner.
Pysyk was going to be awarded the goal anyway, but he made sure he swept the puck in for Florida’s final goal of the night.
“The moment still kind of feels unreal,” said Pysyk, whose three goals in Toronto were three times as many as he scored in 70 games with the Panthers last season.
“We haven’t watched too much TV, too much going on at home with our daughter. But it still doesn’t feel real. I have seen the last goal when I was falling and that was kind of embarrassing. I saw it on Twitter a couple of times. But I still can’t believe it really happened. Kind of freaky.”
PANTHERS TRAINING CAMP REPORT
Florida was without two defensemen on Wednesday as Aaron Ekblad and Chase Priskie did not participate.
Quenneville would not go into specifics on either player only saying “both did not practice.”
He did say Ekblad’s condition was “not serious” and that he could be back on the ice following Thursday’s off day. Priskie left Tuesday’s practice early.
— With Ekblad out, Brady Keeper took over as quarterback of the second power play unit and weaved some nice passes through traffic.
Although Quenneville praised Keeper, he did acknowledge that it was more of a situational move.
The second power play unit was working against Florida’s penalty killers — which includes MacKenzie Weegar, who would, in all likelihood, run the second power play if Ekblad was out.
“He has the patience of an NHL defenseman,” Quenneville said of Keeper. “He has good play recognition, has a great shot, wants the puck. His composure with it is kind of unusual for a guy who plays the way he plays. On a need-basis today he went to that spot and looked like he knew what he was doing.”
— Quenneville on this odd NHL postseason: “It will definitely be the most talked about, the most memorable and probably the most challenging when you look at teams having to win an extra round to get in. There are a lot of teams playing for the opportunity to win the Cup; that’s going to make it more challenging.”