The Florida Panthers zeroed in on the top impending free agent defenseman in Keith Yandle and decided to get ahead of the game. They took a slight risk in trading for Yandle's rights for a draft pick and it appears that they are being rewarded for it.
Yandle has signed a seven-year contract with a $6.35 million annual average with the Panthers according to ESPN's Pierre LeBrun. This contract, which projects to be $44.45 million, represents a fairly significant raise for Yandle on an annual basis. His annual average is more than $1 million more than what he had on his last contract.
The Panthers had to pay big to prevent Yandle from testing unrestricted free agency, during which he would have had many suitors, especially with the relatively shallow market for top-end defensemen. Florida getting in early was expensive, but they obviously felt a strong need to bring in a player of Yandle's skill set.
There's certainly risk with a contract this big, especially considering Yandle will turn 30 just before the upcoming season. The back end of this deal could prove a bit burdensome, but these next few years could represent a window of competitiveness for the Panthers. Having a defenseman of Yandle's caliber should help them in that aim.
The veteran defenseman comes in just as another goes out. Brian Campbell had been a solid blueliner for the Panthers since they acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks. He will be testing free agency, however, after he and Florida couldn't reach a new deal. The two have similar skills, but there's a seven-year difference in age and Campbell was actually more expensive annually, too.
Over the last seven years, Yandle has been one of the most productive defensemen in the entire NHL. Since 2009-10, only two defensemen have put up more points than Yandle's 325 in the entire NHL - Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith. Both of those players have multiple Norris Trophies. While no one is going to confuse Yandle with those two, he certainly brings a valuable element to the ice every night.
Additionally, Yandle should probably expect more aggressive usage in Florida. While he averaged just under 20 minutes a game with the New York Rangers last season, he was not being featured as much like he was while with the Arizona Coyotes when he was averaging over 22 minutes a night.
The important thing about Yandle is that he plays a style that increasingly benefits teams. His outstanding puck-moving skills have made him a weapon in transition and getting the puck out of his zone. As we saw with the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer, having a mobile defensive group goes a long way towards having on-ice success.
Adding Yandle to a mix that already includes Aaron Ekblad, Dmitry Kulikov and promising prospect Michael Matheson, the Panthers are building a defensive unit that should be able to help them push the pace. It will make the jobs of their forward group that much easier when it comes to generating more offense.
On the free agency front, with both Yandle and Alex Goligoski having their rights traded for and then both signing new deals, the free agent market for defenseman got even lighter. Teams that are seeking puck-movers in particular could find it difficult to significantly improve their roster at a price they're comfortable with.
Interestingly enough, it was the two teams with rookie GMs - Florida and Arizona - that beat the rest of the league to the punch on the top two defensemen available.
Panthers GM Tom Rowe is making a huge statement early in his tenure with the second significant move since his promotion. He also swung the trade of Erik Gudbranson last month to help clear some cap space while also adding a solid young player in Jared McCann. Jettisoning the more stay-at-home style blueliner in Gudbranson paved the way for adding Yandle and streamlining the back end.
Based on what we've seen so far, it could be a very interesting summer in South Florida.