SUNRISE — Eric Staal’s road to joining the Florida Panthers was not the easiest one but his patience paid off.
After making the Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens in 2021, the opportunity to play in the NHL in 2021-22 did not materialize.
Then 36, Staal ended up taking the season off, unsure about the future of his hockey career.
“I think with how the season before went for me after going to the Stanley Cup Final and it being so late in the year — it was almost August by the time we finished — it didn’t really come into fruition,” Staal said.
”All of a sudden, it’s September and camps are going on again. There was talk with a number of teams and there was not a fit or opportunity that was good for both sides.”
Staal still had the desire to win and was staying in shape while looking for the right chance to do so.
His patience paid off when NHL players were not allowed to participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics due to the Covid pandemic, opening up the opportunity for him to captain Team Canada.
“It was difficult for a little bit missing out on that everyday grind and that competitive spirit,” Staal said.
”But that opportunity was special to be able to compete for Canada and go to Beijing.”
He put up four points in five games before Canada was ousted from the quarterfinal by Sweden. He then put up five points in four games with the AHL’s Iowa Wild near the end of the season.
After the Stanley Cup run in Montreal and the grind of that whole season with no fans all across Canada, it definitely paid a toll on the body and it took a while to get back,” Staal said.
”Having that extended time off and then doing the Olympics kind of refreshed the body and the mind.”
While he and his brothers were at the famed Pebble Beach golf club, their phone rang.
The Panthers were on the other end of the phone.
The Staals were taking advantage of a trip gifted to Jordan by his Carolina Hurricanes teammates for reaching 1,000 NHL games.
Ironically, after the events following the phone call, Jordan would be the only member of the family not affiliated with Florida.
Marc, a veteran defenseman who spent his last two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, picked up the phone first.
The 35-year-old agreed to a one-year, $750,000 contract with Panthers general manager Bill Zito, then handed the phone to his older brother.
”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.”
If you asked anyone associated with hockey a decade ago if they could imagine Eric Staal needing to compete for a spot on an NHL roster, they would think you were crazy.
The eldest brother carved out a surefire Hall of Fame career for himself, scoring 1,034 points in 1,293 career games. He owns records for goals, assists, and points in Carolina Hurricanes history when not counting the franchise’s start in Hartford.
Even after putting up all of those numbers, winning an Olympic medal with Canada and winning the 2006 Stanley Cup in Carolina, he was humble enough to do whatever it took to get back on the ice.
“With the amount of time he has gotten in the NHL; all the goals he scored, the Stanley Cup, all of that, there is absolutely no ego in the man,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
”But I can’t say I am surprised by it because that is the way he always was. Ego still drivesall of these great players when they get older, but for Eric, it’s not ego, it’s about winning, it’s about hockey and it’s about the pure love for the game.”
Maurice was Staal’s first-ever NHL head coach, leaving after his rookie season in 2003-04 before returning for a second stint from 2008 to 2012.
Despite their history together, Maurice was not giving Staal a free pass to making the team, nor was Staal letting him do so.
“There were no guarantees,” Maurice said.
“And it was not me telling Eric ‘I don’t know if there was a spot.’ He said ‘Listen, I am going to come in and go as hard as I can and if it’s not there, just tell me.”
Staal was not just focusing on making the Panthers. He was fueled by his desire to win — and he was granted with a pretty good opportunity to do so.
The Panthers are coming off of a 58-18-6 Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign and, after suffering an embarrassing second-round sweep at the hands of the rival Tampa Bay Lightning, they, too, are fueled by a desire to win.
”I think it’s just about winning the Stanley Cup,” Staal said.
”It has been a lot of years since I have achieved that, but my goal is to win a Stanley Cup and this is a team that I think has a legitimate shot at doing that. There is no reason for me to not take that opportunity to come here, to take that PTO and try and give myself a chance earn a spot, a role ad be a contributor.
”There is nothing better than winning a championship. That is something you walk with for the rest of your life, so that is my goal.”
Staal earned that opportunity after a strong camp, but he was not granted an NHL contract right away.
The Panthers were over the NHL’s $82.5 million salary cap ceiling and could not add another contract unless a roster move was made.
That did not deter Staal from becoming a Panther, however.
He stuck around in South Florida waiting for the roster move to come, skating with the team.
”Eric is skating with us as a non-roster guy,” Zito said.
“He is skating with us, staying with us as we try to navigate what we can do. Obviously we are up against the cap and we are trying to manage things. We would like to get something done, but our hands are tied both by cap and by roster space.”
That roster move came when Aaron Ekblad was placed on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury on Wednesday.
Florida was granted $7.5 million in cap relief giving them the ability to finally get Staal signed on a one-year, $750,000 deal.
”I have signed a few contracts in my day, but that one felt good,” he said.
“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.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS VS NEW YORK ISLANDERS
- When: Sunday, 5 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena; Sunrise
- Tickets: HERE
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-0
- This season (Florida 1-0): Florida 3, Islanders 1 (Oct. 13)
- All-time regular season series: Panthers lead 55-32-11, 8 ties