CORAL SPRINGS — When Eric Staal joined the Florida Panthers after being out of the NHL last season, he knew he had to adjust his game in any way he could to help the team.
Staal did everything he could to earn his spot, even if it was drastically different than what he was used to.
The 38-year-old forward made a name for himself as one of the NHL’s most potent offensive players, scoring 441 goals and 1,034 points throughout his 1,305-game career.
But it is his defensive ability that helped him land a spot with Florida — and the team’s top penalty kill unit.
“Different parts of the game are needed within this group,” Staal said.
“We have a lot of offensively-gifted guys and our power play is filled with some pretty unique guys in their prime. For me, it is a different time in my career and for me to try and help us win is what I am trying to do.”
While he has seen bits and pieces of penalty kill time over his 18-year NHL career and has racked up a few Selke votes in the past — finishing as high as 16th in the race for the NHL’s best defensive forward in 2012-13 — it was never what he was relied on to do.
Still, he put in the work to become as good at is as possible.
“That was not how he came into the league,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
”He has grown, changed, evolved, morphed — pick your word. And he has done it without an ego. He came into this league and he was the second overall pick and he is a star, he is fast and he is up and down the ice. He wins games, he wins championships, he’s got a Stanley Cup and he’s got a gold medal.
“Then he gets towards the end of his career and the coach says he is a fourth-line penalty killer and his answer is ‘alright, let’s get good at it’.’’
That buy-in on the defensive end of the ice showed itself during camp and earned Staal a roster spot a year after his NHL career appeared to be over.
He did not receive a contract offer he liked after helping the Montreal Canadiens to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final and took the season off.
Last year, with NHL players ruled out of the Olympics, Staal captained Team Canada then took a professional tryout with the Panthers.
”After the Stanley Cup run in Montreal and the grind of that whole season without fans while traveling all across Canada, it definitely took a toll on the body for me,” Staal said.
”It took a while to get back, but it helped having that time off. Then just doing the Olympics and a couple of games in the minors after that kind of refreshed the body and the mind.”
The Panthers leaned on Staal when they needed a change in the penalty kill.
Florida ranked 30th in the league at a 70.7 percent clip going into their matchup with the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 5 and Maurice decided to change things up.
He had previously been running Sasha Barkov and Anton Lundell as the team’s main unit — two players who had been given significant time on the power play and 5-on-5 — and decided to take the load off of them a little bit.
The Panthers rolled with a top unit featuring Staal and Eetu Luostarinen and have gone and have gone 24-for-29 on the penalty kill ever since.
“[Our penalty kill] has some confidence, some aggressiveness and maybe a little bit of cohesiveness,” Maurice said.
”Luostarinen and Staal have taken the big bulk of it and they are long guys with good sticks. They are blocking shots and they are getting to pucks. Barkov and Lundell go on for that key second faceoff but Staal and Luostarinen are strong enough where we can come back to them an awful lot”
When most players age — especially players of Staal’s 6-foot-4, 207-pound stature — skating and defense are two of the first things to deteriorate.
But Staal uses that size to his advantage in blocking passing lines while also using his many years of experience on the power play to shut things down before they happen.
“Over the course of my career, I played on the power play a lot,” Staal said. “I know how certain guys are thinking and the mindset of the power play so I can use that to my advantage when I am penalty killing.”
His veteran know-how has made for a quick connection with Luostarinen, who quickly grew into one of Florida’s most reliable defensive players over the last couple of years.
”He knows what to do and he talks a lot so it makes it easy on me,” Luostarinen said.
”He has been around a lot and he is so smart. He can play the penalty kill well.”
Luostarinen, 24, brings both length and tenacity at his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and it has made for a great connection that has been boxing out opponents and breaking up scoring chances with relative ease.
”He has been great all year and I think he is playing a real confident game right now,” Staal said.
”For him and I both, we have a lot of reach, good sticks and we are able to read off each other well and communicate as far as how we want to play against certain power play units.”
Even after tapering off with an 0-for-2 outing in Columbus on Sunday, the Panthers have still killed off 82.8 percent of their penalties since making them their top unit — good for sixth in the NHL during that span.
”We’ve been keeping on trying to work at it and improve and it has been better as of late,” Staal said.
”Last game was tough, giving up one late and then one off of a tip, but overall, the feel out there is a lot better and it has gotten better as we have gone on.”
Still, there is a lot that Staal wants to improve on going forward.
He has yet to record a point in 12 games since joining the Panthers on Oct. 21.
”I feel really good, but I would like to get on the board a little more,” Staal said.
”I have had some chances and some good looks to get on the board but it hasn’t happened yet. I have to stay determined in those areas, but playing the role that I’m in now is making sure you are prepared daily and when you are asked to kill or play in those defensive zone face-offs, you just have to contribute the best you can. That is where my mindset is at.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
BOSTON BRUINS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Wednesday, 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
- Season Series: Boston 5, Florida 3 (Oct. 17)
- Last season: Boston won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Boston leads 59-36-6, 6 ties