SUNRISE — It may have taken Eric Staal a little while to get going, but the veteran center has become a big piece of the Florida Panthers as this season has gone along.
Staal, 38, did not play in the NHL last season after not receiving a contract offer following his run to the Stanley Cup Final with Montreal in 2021.
He played a few games for the Minnesota Wild’s AHL team in Iowa to prepare for a unexpected trip to the Winter Olympics as captain of Team Canada once the NHL would not allow its players to go due to Covid concerns.
Other than than those games with Iowa and in Beijing, Staal did not play a lot of organized hockey last season.
And, to be fair, it showed early on with the Panthers.
After spending training camp with Florida on a professional tryout, Staal was left off the Opening Night roster as the Panthers did not have the cap space to sign him to a contract.
But once Aaron Ekblad got hurt in Game 3 at Boston and was placed on long-term injured reserve, the Panthers had a little wiggle room and officially added Staal to the team.
In his first month, he averaged less than 10 minutes a game and did not record a goal nor have an assist.
”It was never disconcerting,’’ Staal said, “because I felt my game was trending upward. Sometimes, before you get rewarded with the offensive points and numbers, it takes consistent good games to get there.”
But when illness and injury started going through the Panthers, Staal was given more minutes and more responsibilities.
Since scoring his first point with an assist in Vancouver on Dec. 1, Staal has seven goals and 15 points while playing a bottom-6 role mostly centering the fourth line with Ryan Lomberg and Givani Smith.
”When you are only playing 9-10 minutes a game, it takes a little bit longer to get up to the pace and speed that I needed to be,” Staal said. “With the injuries and other things, it forced me to play a little bit more and play up a little. In the long run, that helped me. It is nice being in the mix, knowing I can be an important contributor to this team.”
Coach Paul Maurice, who had Staal as a rookie in 2003 after Carolina made him the second-overall pick, credits him with helping the Panthers transform their penalty kill into a strength of the team over the past few months.
On Jan. 19 in Montreal, Staal was crushed on a hit from defenseman Mike Matheson and sustained a concussion which put him on IR and forced him to miss three games.
Florida gave up three power play goals in Staal’s absence.
In his two games back, the Panthers killed off all six.
”One player should not make a difference,” Maurice said, “but if you look at our PK numbers — they were very, very good a couple of weeks ago. And then it got real bad when Eric Staal went down and it has been perfect since he has come back. He has had a tremendous impact blocking shots. Our PK now looks confident, fast and hard.”
The Panthers are currently on their All-Star break with Staal vacationing with family but he is still keeping an eye on the standings.
A Stanley Cup champion with the Hurricanes in 2006, Staal came to the Panthers not just to get another day in the NHL sun, but to try and be part of something special in South Florida.
As it stands today, the Panthers are four points behind Washington for the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and three back of Pittsburgh for the second with Buffalo and the Islanders in the mix.
Florida will likely be a little further out by the time they return Feb. 6 against the visiting Lightning, but with 30 games left, Staal says he believes the Panthers have the talent and resolve to make a run to the postseason.
“I think as a whole group, we are starting to find an identity as a team,” Staal said. “It is fun to be a part of that. It is exciting to come to the rink every day knowing what we expect of each other and of yourself.
”You’re not going to win every game, but we need to win the majority of them and everyone in this room knows that. We feel we are capable of making a strong push, putting ourselves in position to when that second season starts and do what we need to accomplish what we need to do.’’
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
ALL-STAR WEEKEND, SOUTH FLORIDA
- Tuesday: City of Sunrise Hockey Festival, Flamingo Park
- Wednesday: Florida Panthers Alumni Game at Panthers IceDen, Coral Springs
- Thursday through Saturday: NHL All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach.
- Friday: Skills Competition at FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Saturday: All-Star Game at FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Up Next for the Panthers: vs. Tampa Bay, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m.