SUNRISE — Eric Staal has a spot in the Florida Panthers locker room and was on the ice with them on Thursday morning.
Yet Staal is not a member of the team.
At least not officially.
So what’s going on?
While the Panthers would like to sign Staal — and it appears the feeling is mutual — Florida started the season in salary cap jail.
Staal, who turns 38 at the end of the month, will be headed to the Hall of Fame following his retirement. Only he is not ready to hang them up just yet.
After coming to training camp on a professional tryout, Staal has not left. In more normal times, he already would have signed and probably played in some games.
But without the room to add anyone to their roster because of their salary cap situation, this has not been a normal start to the season.
Staal agreed to joining the Panthers on a PTO at the start of free agency season with his younger brother Marc joining Florida on a one-year deal.
”Eric is skating with us as a non-roster guy,’’ general manager Bill Zito said following Wednesday’s morning skate in which Staal participated.
“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.’’
Florida was able to clear some cap space on Wednesday when the team placed defenseman Aaron Ekblad on long term injured reserve.
Although the Panthers cannot go out and sign or trade for a big-ticket player since Ekblad and his $7.5 million cap hit will be coming back soon enough, adding a player like Staal to what will likely be a one-year deal in the $750,000 range should be doable.
But, when players such as Ekblad and Anthony Duclair come off LTIR the Panthers are going to have to make some moves to create cap space.
Even a small financial investment in Staal is a lot for the Panthers these days — not in cash, per say, but something more valuable and that is cap real estate.
Still, the Panthers and Staal may just make things official sooner than later with Zito worrying about tomorrow then.
By adding Staal now, the Panthers will have to rid themselves of someone else when Ekblad returns. Duclair could be back as early as December meaning more roster gymnastics.
”We would like to get something done,” he said. “We are both working toward that.”
At the end of camp, Staal spoke highly about teammates who technically are not teammates.
It’s just a different type of situation.
“I know the situation in the cap world and how it works day-by-day,” Staal said before the end of the preseason.
“For me, I am pretty narrowly focused on what I need to do on a daily basis. You have to prove yourself every day. That’s the name of the game and it never changes. It has been a lot of fun working daily to get better and I feel pretty good, feel I have done that. This is a good situation. We’ll see what happens.”
As for his potential teammates — who, again, share a locker room with him as well as practices and workouts — Staal appears to be a pretty popular guy.
If he were to be signed, Staal would likely play on Florida’s bottom-6 and give the Panthers some much needed depth
”He is one of the guys who has spent a long time in the league and I grew up watching him play,’’ Anton Lundell said. “He has been playing a long time and has had a great career so far.
“It is exciting to have him on our team and see how he works everyday. I try to learn some small things from him. It’s always fun to have a guy like that. He is a great locker room guy, very helpful to everyone here.”
As it stands now, the Panthers have just 12 forwards meaning all of them go each night.
The Panthers would love to give 35-year-old Patric Hornqvist a night off here and then but simply do not have the ability to do that.
Not yet, anyway.
”It is important for a team to have some experience but also to have a player like this who you can plug into a number of different situations,” Lundell said. “He knows what it takes to win, what it takes to succeed.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- Streaming ONLY: ESPN+/Hulu
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Split four regular season games; Tampa won second-round playoff series 4-0
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 73-49-18, 10 ties