TORONTO – Jason Demers doesn’t need you to remind him that he needs to be better.
The Florida Panthers’ top-four defenceman was exposed in the Vegas expansion draft despite the club’s decision to protect four blueliners in June. (The Golden Knights plucked forward Jonathan Marchessault instead.)
Then, on July 1, amidst the flurry of free agency’s opening, NHL insider Pierre LeBrun tweeted that Demers had nixed a trade Florida GM Dale Tallon had discussed with the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks. Such is the player’s right via the eight-team no-trade clause Demers negotiated.
Demers bursts a quick laugh when asked directly about the Canucks report Tuesday at BioSteel Camp in Toronto.
“I can’t really comment on that. It is what it is, and Pierre’s got his sources. He’s going to tweet his stuff. That’s between my agent and me and Dale, but I’m going to camp right now a Panther,” Demers said after an on-ice training session.
“I’m going in ready for the season. I’m going to be a part of them for four more years. I have to make sure I have a way better year than last year, as a team and personally.”
By all measures, the 2016-17 Panthers campaign was a calamity. Injuries to star players and turmoil in the front office conspired to unravel a hotly picked team on the rise. Two head coaches were removed in less than five months.
The world-shocking, carefree Panthers of ’16 limped to the 2017 finish line in 23rd place with a minus-27 goal differential.
Making the jump from Dallas to Florida on the juicy five-year, $22.5-million deal he inked as a free agent in the summer of 2016, Demers put up respectable offensive numbers—nine goals and 19 assists for his second-best NHL points total—but the team surrendered more shots than they took and allowed more goals than they scored when he was on the ice.
Demers’ minus-14 rating was the worst of his 504-game NHL career.
“It was a failure of a season,” Demers said. “With all the outside stuff, I think we let it affect us a bit too much.
“You can change coaches, but it starts and ends with us.”
The changes continued this summer. The contracts of Jaromir Jagr and Thomas Vanek weren’t renewed, Jussi Jokinen was bought out, Shawn Thornton retired, and Reilly Smith was dealt to Vegas.
The core has been shaken.
Speculation that the Cats were gauging trade interest on a 29-year-old right-shot, puck-moving defenceman with playoff experience gained traction with Tallon preaching youth and a defence-first approach.
Mark Pysyk, a younger righty, signed a three-year extension with Florida at a friendly $2.73-million cap hit, and right-shot Alex Petrovic has one season and just $1.85 million remaining on his contract. Both are 25 and expected to take on more minutes.
Suspicions have raised that Demers might not remain in Sunrise for the end of his deal in 2021.
“Rumours are rumours,” Demers said. “I play for the guys. I’m there for the guys on our team, so it’s easy to drown it out once you get in the room. That’s who I’m playing for—the guy next to me on the ice and in the locker room. All the outside stuff doesn’t really bother me that much. Every year is a little bit of a journey, so it’s about being part of that journey with them.”
The Dorval, Que., native drew inspiration this summer from his silver-medal performance as a member of Team Canada’s 2017 World Championship squad. The flood of positive, unsolicited messages Demers received from friends around the league regarding Florida’s new coaches, Bob Boughner and Jack Capuano, are also encouraging.
“The window is open for us the next few years to contend,” Demers said. “That’s what we have to do.”