CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers have admittedly gotten more than they bargained after acquiring defenseman Mark Pysyk from the Buffalo Sabres at last year's draft.
"I'll be honest with you," Panthers General Manager and Interim Head Coach Tom Rowe said after Monday's practice at the Panthers IceDen, "I knew he was good, but I didn't realize he was going to be this good."
At 25, Pysyk is in the midst of the best season of his career, posting career highs in goals (4), points (14), shots (70), hits (55), blocks (82), takeaways (26) and total ice time (1282:36) through 67 games played this season.
"He's comes in and done a great job," Rowe said. "I think he's exceeded everybody's expectations, but only because of how quickly he's been able to do the things he's done. I know the guys really like him in the room and he's a great teammate. You can put him with anybody and his game doesn't change. Usually, the guy he's with, their game gets better."
A reliable, two-way defenseman that can play on both the right and left side, Pysyk's greatest contributions this season continue to come on the penalty kill, where the 6-foot-1, 200-pound blueliner leads all Panthers skaters with 2:51 of shorthanded ice time per game.
"He's probably one of the more intelligent defensemen in the league," Rowe said.
Video: OTT@FLA: Pysyk knocks in MacKenzie's perfect feed
Recently, FloridaPanthers.com's Jameson Olive sat down with Pysyk to discuss his breakout season in South Florida, including his premier role on the penalty kill and the fact that he seems to be nearly everyone's favorite defensive partner.
FloridaPanthers.com: After a few up-and-down seasons in Buffalo, how does it feel to finally be approaching the completion of your first full NHL season?
PYSYK: It's good. It's been a fun year. Obviously we're all hoping that we can finish it out and crack the playoffs here. I think we're all still positive in here and we can get on a run. It's definitely been fun.
FloridaPanthers.com: The Panthers have shown a lot of confidence in your abilities since your arrival last summer. How has that helped your development this season?
PYSYK: I think when anybody at this level is playing with confidence things go well. There are good players here, obviously. When things are going well, it's easy to be confident in yourself. I think the coaches have had a lot of confidence in me, so that helps, too.
FloridaPanthers.com: I've asked a lot of the other defenseman on this team who their favorite person is to play with is and you've been at least the first or second choice every time. What does it mean to have that kind of positive reputation among your teammates?
PYSYK: It's great to hear. I think I play a pretty simple game, so it's probably the reason why they like playing with me. I don't do too much out there. The guys know exactly what I'm going to do. I'm not that flashy, so I could see why they might like that.
FloridaPanthers.com: You've already set a new career high in points this season with plenty of games left to play. How much do you focus on offense when it comes to your overall game?
PYSYK: That's kind of secondary for me. I'm obviously trying to help out on offense, but the first thing I think about is defense. I take a lot of pride in that.
FloridaPanthers.com: When it comes to defense, no one has clocked more minutes on the penalty kill than you this season. After averaging only 27 seconds of short-handed ice-time per game last season, what has that adjustment been like?"
PYSYK: I don't know exactly how that came about. I think me and [Mike Matheson] started out on it at the beginning of the year and things were just working, so we obviously kept going with it. I take pride in that. I like playing on the PK.
FloridaPanthers.com: Speaking of Matheson, how impressed are you with how well he's performed under the pressure of playing big minutes on the penalty kill as a rookie?
PYSYK: He's done a great job. The forwards have also done a great job. They system that we have in place from [Panthers assistant coach] Scott Allen has been working well for us. Everyone is buying into it.
FloridaPanthers.com: You've been living in South Florida for almost a year now. How are you settling into life off the ice in the Sunshine State?
PYSYK: It's awesome. The weather's great in the winter here - no snow! I miss it sometimes, but not really when I'm sitting by the pool in February [laughs]. It's been awesome. The guys have been good. I've been to the beach a couple times. Nick Bjugstad's got some paddleboards, so we've done that a couple times as well. There's just so much to do down here.
FloridaPanthers.com: With 14 games remaining in the regular season, the Panthers are currently six points behind the Lightning and Islanders for the second wild spot in the Eastern Conference with one game in hand on each. How confident are you that the team can make a big push for the playoffs down the homestretch?
PYSYK: I think everybody's got that big picture in the back of their minds. We've just got to start with one and then go from there. Once we get that, then we'll start rolling.
FloridaPanthers.com: Lastly, and this is something we joked about a bit over the summer, how are things going with the pronunciation of your last name? I know there was an initial struggle among fans, but has it gotten any better?
PYSYK: It'll come. I don't really care. They can call me whatever [laughs].