Florida Panthers Homecoming is a Family Affair for Casey Fitzgerald
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For Casey Fitzgerald, his move to the Florida Panthers is a chance to get his NHL career going literarily in the place where his life began.
The 25-year-old defenseman, who was born in Boca Raton, was claimed off waivers by Florida on Wednesday and returns to a team his dad Tom was drafted by in the 1993 expansion draft.
Tom Fitzgerald was a big part of the original Panthers and played for them in their first five seasons.
Casey Fitzgerald was born in South Florida during Tom’s fourth season on the team.
“He got all excited about it,” Fitzgerald said, recalling talking to his father — now the general manager of the New Jersey Devils — about being claimed by the Panthers.
“He called me and told me how proud of he was of me and how it has gone full circle. My mom was a little more emotional about it … it holds a special place in her heart and she was super emotional and really happy for me.”
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Casey only spent a year in Florida before his dad was traded to Colorado at the trade deadline and later selected by the Nashville Predators in the 1998 expansion draft, but the family has fond memories of Florida.
Tom is tied for 27th in Panthers history in goals (57) and had nine points in 27 playoff games for a team he made a run to the Stanley Cup Final with in 1996.
“It feels good to have the new threads on,” Fitzgerald said. “Looking down and seeing the red and blue is super cool.”
While Fitzgerald has not spent much time in Florida since his dad was traded in 1998, his homecoming in South Florida is a family affair for another reason.
His second cousin, Matthew Tkachuk, just so happens to be the Panthers’ leading scorer and All-Star representative.
The two spent much of their childhood playing hockey alongside Florida teammate Colin White in the Boston area.
White and Fitzgerald ended up playing at Boston College together for two seasons while Tkachuk went off to play for the OHL’s London Knights after the trio shared the ice on the United States’ National Team Development Program.
“They texted me right away when they found out,” Fitzgerald said. “Whitey said ‘We’re getting the band back together’.
“We go way back. We played at the USNTDP out in junior hockey there and I lived with Whitey there for a couple of years, then went to BC with him, so it’s cool to see him and Matthew again and re-live the old times.”
That sense of familiarity could help Fitzgerald fit right in after a rollercoaster of events the previous 24 hours.
The Sabres placed the 5-foot-11 defenseman on waivers on Tuesday and he was claimed by the Panthers on Wednesday afternoon.
He then flew from Buffalo — with a connecting flight to Detroit — to meet the team in Vegas and skated with them at their morning skate on Thursday morning.
“It was pretty crazy,” Fitzgerald said.
“The deadline was at 2 p.m. and I found out pretty close to then. My flight was a couple of hours later so I just threw as much stuff together as I could and hopped on a flight. It’s been a crazy 24 hours but I’m super excited to be here.”
But out of all of the stuff he was able to throw together, there was not a whole lot he could use in warm South Florida.
“I was packing yesterday and I was like ‘I don’t have any shorts,'” Fitzgerald said.
“I have no shorts in my bag and I had all these massive hoodies and North Face jackets so I have to throw those out now and go buy some t-shirts.”
While he is adjusting to life off the ice, Fitzgerald hopes to bring a steady, two-way game on the ice.
“I think I am a 200-foot defenseman who can break the puck out,” Fitzgerald said.
“I’m pretty simple: I give it to my forwards, but I think the biggest thing is that I compete and I play with a little bit of an edge. I like to get into other guys’ faces, play hard and throw the body around.”
He was a healthy scratch when the team took on the Golden Knights on Thursday, but when he draws into the lineup, Florida coach Paul Maurice wants to see him bring that compete level night in and night out.
“When he is described to you, the first word was always that he is a ‘gamer’,” Maurice said.
“He is a little bit intense, he is a little bit in your face and he is going to close the gap hard. He loves the hard areas. He’s a little bit of a throwback guy but also has a pretty simple game.
“We are looking to play a harder gap game with our team. More of a battle game than a flow game — not that we don’t like a flow game — but that’s not why we are bringing him in.”
The Panthers have had success finding defensemen who fit their mold in the past.
Gus Forsling was claimed off waivers by the team in 2021 and has turned into a staple on the blue line.
Josh Mahura, who was claimed days before the 2022-23 season started, is on track to do the same.
Fitzgerald is hoping he could be the next Florida success story.
“Something I have definitely picked up on and noticed is how well they have done developing guys and getting them to play their game,” Fitzgerald said.
“I think it’s going to be a really good fit. It wasn’t really working out in Buffalo but I owe everything to that organization for what they have done for me. But I think the fresh start here would be great for me and I think the way I play really fits the mold.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
VANCOUVER CANUCKS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- 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 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Vancouver leads 18-12-4, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Monday at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
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