SUNRISE — Eric Staal came to the Florida Panthers hoping he would have the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup.
Yet on the day of the NHL Trade Deadline, the Panthers were four points out of the playoffs and GM Bill Zito had some decisions to make.
What to do with pending free agents such as Staal was on the list.
While Zito would not have received much for the 38-year-old forward, it would have given Staal the chance to chase the Stanley Cup with another team.
Staal wanted to stay right where he was — and try and win that cherished Cup with the Panthers.
Who knew, right?
On Wednesday night, Staal and the Panthers earned that right to continue chasing the best trophy in all of sports.
Eric Staal, facing not only his old team but his younger brother Jordan, had an assist and is now getting exactly what he hoped.
With the Panthers, a team which will play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.
”I am just proud to be associated with this group,” Staal said after Florida’s 4-3 win over Carolina in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“This is such a determined, competitive bunch of guys. And they have been all year. It was tough at times. But it is fun in this moment. Yeah, we have work ahead of us but we can enjoy this.
“I did not say that because I did not believe it. I did. I knew it. But it wasn’t going to come easy because it doesn’t in this league. It is just fun to be with these guys.”
Of course, it is easy to look at what has transpired in Pantherland over the past few weeks and say, ‘well, sure.’
Back in March, however, the future of the Panthers did not look all that rosy.
The team was fighting for a playoff spot with no guarantee they would even make it.
Zito joked that the morning of the deadline, he walked into the Panthers’ room and at least one player threw a towel over his head hoping not to make contact with the guy who may have been thinking about trading him away.
No one wanted to leave the Panthers despite the uncertainty.
Eric Staal was one of them.
“I’ve believed in this team right from the summer,’’ said Staal, who won the Cup with Carolina in 2006 and last played in the Final with Montreal in 2021.
“Obviously, it has been difficult at times throughout the year with a lot of different circumstances and reasons why, but we are where we are at this point.’’
Fast forward to April and the Panthers did indeed make that push.
Staal, along with younger brother Marc and defenseman Radko Gudas, pending free agents both, played a big part in the resurgence.
For Eric Staal, the Panthers offered him what may have been a last chance to play in the NHL.
He did not play in the league last season, instead getting a couple of AHL games in with the Minnesota Wild’s team in Iowa to prepare for the Olympics after the league decided its players would not participate due to COVID concerns.
“It was difficult for a little bit missing out on that everyday grind and that competitive spirit,” Staal said earlier this season. ”But that opportunity was special to be able to compete for Canada and go to Beijing.”
The Panthers did not offer Eric Staal a contract when free agency opened because it was up against the salary cap but did sign Marc to a one-year deal at the league minimum.
It was all worked out while the Staal brothers were playing a round at Pebble Beach, taking advantage of a trip paid for by Jordan Staal’s Carolina teammates to celebrate his 1,000th NHL game.
”When free agency opened and they were going to sign Marc, they asked me if I wanted to sign on a PTO,” Eric said. ”I thought it was a no-brainer.”
Eric Staal was offered a tryout deal with the understanding that if he looked good in camp, a contract would be worked out eventually.
He officially signed with the Panthers on Oct. 21, five games into the season with Aaron Ekblad’s cap hit on hiatus.
“I have signed a few contracts in my day, but that one felt good,” he said that day. “I had put the time and the effort. I spent the when no one’s looking time wondering what was ahead, but I was staying with it. I have definitely signed different types of contracts over my time, that one definitely felt very good and it was a culmination of a bunch of people helping push me to get back to this point.”
The Panthers offered Staal not only a chance but a leadership role with their team.
It would not be on the top line as he was accustomed to in his younger years. Staal’s days as a franchise centerpiece were gone.
But Florida coach Paul Maurice, who first coached Staal as a fresh-faced rookie in 2003 with Carolina after the Hurricanes made him the second overall pick of the draft, knew he would bring some serious intangibles to the Panthers.
“The conversation we had this summer was about what he wanted to do,” Maurice said on Wednesday morning. “He said he wanted to win the Stanley Cup and want to carve out a role.”
What the Panthers got was a steady hand guiding their team through some rough patches.
Although he started on — and, eventually returned to — the fourth line, when Florida went through injuries and illness, Staal stepped in and stepped up.
In his first month, Staal averaged less than 10 minutes a game and did not record a goal nor have a single point.
He did not play a lot of hockey in the past year, remember.
”It was never disconcerting,’’ Staal said in January, “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.”
After scoring his first point with an assist in Vancouver on Dec. 1, Staal had 7 goals and 15 points in the following weeks helping keep the Panthers afloat.
”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.”
At times, there were flashes of the player Maurice remembered so well from their Carolina days.
After all, Staal spent his first 12 seasons with the Hurricanes and remains the franchise’s post-Hartford leader in games played, goals, assists and points.
Staal ended up playing in 72 games with 14 goals and 29 points during the regular season.
He has a goal and two assists in the 16 games — thus far — of the postseason.
The Panthers are glad they kept him around, and, glad he wanted to stay.
Had Eric Staal asked for a trade, Zito would have honored his wishes.
“He has gone from being the first guy off the bench on the power play, going against the other team’s best and playing 23 minutes a night and turned himself into a penalty killer, a fourth line guy,’’ Maurice said.
“When the clock gets down to a certain part of the game where he knows he’s not going back out, he is pure cheerleader. What does that do for you? All your young players — include Patric Hornqvist in this — see your Stanley Cup winners who just love coming to the rink every day, staying late, working their butts off.
“No one in that room gets to come off the ice early because the guys with Stanley Cup rings are still on the ice. You may want to consider that yourself. It’s nice for the coach.”
FHN’s Colby D. Guy contributed to this story
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
OR DALLAS STARS
- When: TBA
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas OR AmericanAirlines Center, Dallas
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — TBA
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series Vs. Vegas (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Vegas Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series vs. Dallas (Stars Won 2-0):Dallas 6, @Florida 4 (Nov. 17); @Dallas 5, Florida 1 (Jan. 8)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Dallas Florida leads 24-21-2, 3 ties
- Postseason History: First meeting vs. both Vegas or Dallas