SUNRISE — Although the Florida Panthers appear to be done with their injury troubles, Matt Kiersted is taking advantage of his time with the big club.
Florida called Kiersted up when Radko Gudas sustained a concussion and he has thus far stuck around for a 10-game stint at the NHL level.
He has taken advantage of his time with Florida by scoring four points in 10 games, ranking third among Florida defensemen in 9:06 of time-on-ice per game.
”It’s exciting, this is where I want to be,” Kiersted said.
“You want to be in the NHL and get the opportunity to come up here, unfortunately it is due to some injuries, but any chance you get to come play games in the NHL, it’s an opportunity for me and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
The 24-year-old defenseman has played more NHL games this year than he has in his entire career to date.
His 20 games when stepping up in the face of injuries to Gudas in December and Aaron Ekblad in October have more than doubled his career total from 17 to 37.
Kiersted has steadily improved each time he has gotten the call from AHL Charlotte, becoming a more well-rounded defender while adding a little bit of offense despite playing fewer minutes than those on the Panthers.
And next year, when his contract becomes a one-way deal and Florida should have the cap space to carry 23 players during the regular season, Kiersted is expected to be with the Panthers for the long haul instead of shuttling back and forth.
”I think that just comes from experience, being around the guys, spending more time here and getting in the groove of playing consecutive games,” Kiersted said.
“It can be kind of tough when you come up and play a game or two and go back and forth like that. So, I think it’s just the experience of trusting my instincts.”
That sense of self-trust has unlocked a harder mentality of on-the-puck hockey for the University of North Dakota product.
As he grew more comfortable at this level, he has become more and more active in puck battles and has learned to leverage his 6-foot, 181-pound frame to win a good chunk of them with both his body and his stick.
”I think that is kind of a mindset thing,” Kiersted said.
”Anybody can poke check or use their stick more and that is something that coach [Paul] Maurice has been hard on this year. He wants more stick on puck and to be aggressive with it. That has been one of the biggest things that I have started using more.”
With Gudas back in the lineup, the Panthers will likely lean on Kiersted less, for now.
After a holiday break filled with uncertainty on that front, Kiersted is staying on the NHL roster as the team’s seventh defenseman after being technically sent back to Charlotte only to be immediately called back up.
How long that lasts is unknown.
”It was nice to see my family for the holidays and unwind a little bit,” Kiersted said.
”But I hadn’t booked a flight back yet because I was waiting to hear where I’d be going. So I was just trying not to think about it and I tried to get away from the game a little bit and spend family time. And when I got the call, I was obviously excited to come back here.”
Kiersted will use his time to do more of what he has been wanting to do — learn from the plethora of talented players around him.
”I kind of try to be a sponge in there and sit back, watch guys and see what they do and how they carry themselves every day,” Kiersted said.
”A lot of it is just a mindset. You see guys, it does not matter if it is a practice day, a game day, they are ready to go. They are coming to the rink and giving 100 percent effort and I’m just watching them and taking tips on how to be a professional.”
One would think Kiersted would spend a lot of time around fellow defensemen, but it is Panthers captain Sasha Barkov whom he has learned the most from.
Barkov, while a leader on the ice and an effective goal scorer, has also mastered the defensive end of the game as well, winning the Selke Trophy in 2020-21 and finishing in the top three in voting on three other occasions.
“Yes, he is a forward and I am a defenseman, but you still watch it and you learn things from him,” Kiersted said.
”The way he positions himself out there, the way he uses his stick in the defensive zone. He is always stick-on-puck and he has that long stick, so little things on the ice from his game I try to take for myself.”
After sharing the ice with him for parts of three seasons since Kiersted signed as an undrafted free agent in 2021, Barkov has noticed those improvements in his game as well.
”He just works a lot harder,” Barkov said.
”He has seen some teams over the last three years, he has seen some players and he is learning from them. He is smart and he has been like a sponge learning from everyone and seeing how to make plays. There is no ceiling for him.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
NEW YORK RANGERS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Sunday, 5 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: Rangers won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Rangers lead 57-32-8, 6 ties