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Jason Demers latest defenseman to sign with Panthers

Joins Florida rebuild on blue line with five-year contract

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The rebuilding of the Florida Panthers defense continued Saturday when they signed unrestricted free agent Jason Demers to a five-year contract reportedly worth $22.5 million.

Demers, a six-year NHL veteran with the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars, became the third veteran defenseman to join the Panthers in the past two weeks. Florida signed Keith Yandle to a seven-year contract after acquiring him in a trade with the New York Rangers on June 20, and acquired Mark Pysyk from the Buffalo Sabres in a trade for Dmitry Kulikov that included draft picks on June 25.

"I did my due diligence before free agency, and once I found out that Dallas wasn't going to bring me back, and I just always liked [the Panthers] and I liked that young core," Demers said Saturday. "Just playing against them the last few years, I like where they're headed and it just seemed like a good fit for me.

"I've heard a lot of great things about the organization and the coaching staff, so it was kind of a no-brainer. I wanted to go somewhere I have a chance to win, because winning makes everything a lot more fun. I was just super excited, and once they gave me a call, it seemed to happen pretty quick after that. So I'm super excited to move forward with this."

Video: DAL@COL: Demers' one-time evens the game at 3

The contract has an average annual value of $4.5 million, according to Sportsnet. The transaction comes one day after the Panthers signed Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and the 2015 Calder Trophy winner, to an eight-year contract extension reportedly worth $60 million.

Ekblad is one of two defensemen to skate for the Panthers in last season's opener who is still on the roster, along with Alex Petrovic. Besides Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson was traded to the Vancouver Canucks, Brian Campbell signed with the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday as an unrestricted free agent, and Willie Mitchell is expected to retire because of concussion issues.

Ekblad talked after signing his extension about the changes.

"Playing with Brian, Willie and Erik was the best experience of my life,'' Ekblad said. "Those guys can teach everything from off ice to on ice, to leadership, and just being a stand-up person. It's not fun to see them go, but pretty special to take on a bigger role and be part of something here in Florida.''

Demers said he understands the challenges that will come from having so many new defensemen.

Video: COL@DAL: Demers stuffs in PPG, takes stick to face

"It's just going to be about finding the right fits for all of us and just kind of picking up the system quick," Demers said. "I know they're going to emphasize a quick-transition game, and hopefully with the additions on the blue line we can move the puck up quick to these skilled forwards.

"It's just going to be about getting the chemistry down in training camp, but it's easier than having a trade midseason, because we can get all those familiarities out of the way and get comfortable with each other during training camp. It's going to be interesting to see, for sure."

Demers was the third unrestricted free agent signed by the Panthers; forwards Colton Sceviour, Demers' teammate in Dallas, and Jonathan Marchessault, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, signed Friday.

"We are excited to sign Jason and we are thrilled that he chose Florida," Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said. "He will play an integral role on our blue line and will help our transition game and special teams. This is another important signing for us this offseason."

Demers was a big part of Dallas' success this season, finishing with an NHL career best seven goals, 23 points and a plus-16 rating. He averaged 20:52 of ice time and played in all situations.

Video: SJS@DAL: Demers scores shorthanded goal, extends lead

He injured his shoulder March 8 against the Montreal Canadiens and missed 13 games before returning for the regular-season finale, then played in all of Dallas' 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He had three assists and averaged 19:12 of ice time, a drop of 1:40 per game from the regular season. He was partnered with Kris Russell for most of the Western Conference Second Round against the St. Louis Blues, and the pair struggled to cope with the Blues' heavy forecheck.

"I came back a little quick before the playoffs and kind of played with it in the playoffs," Demers said of his injured shoulder, "and it did kind of hinder me a little bit for sure, as people saw. But I've been working since the end of the season. It's back to 100 percent and it feels really good. I'm not limited by it at all."

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