When Rudolfs Balcers ended a season that saw him hit a career-high in games played (61) and goals (11), he was not expecting to get bought out much less end up with the Florida Panthers.
But with the San Jose Sharks looking to change things up under new general manager Mike Grier, Balcers found himself on the free agent market — and in South Florida.
”Some shocking stuff happened that I was not expecting,” Balcers said.
He did not have a lot of time to pick himself up after getting bought out either.
The Sharks bought out Balcers on July 12 — just one day before free agency opened.
Two days after the buyout, he reached an agreement with the Panthers.
”It turned around quickly there with the chance to go to Florida and I took it right away,” Balcers said. “I’m really looking forward to joining the best team from last year. I don’t know what to expect, I’m just excited to meet the guys and get going”
Balcers played up and down a struggling Sharks lineup last year and found himself struggling to score at times.
While he scored a career-high 11 goals, he was hitting the post often and believed he could have done more with the number of scoring chances he was getting on San Jose’s top lines.
“All year, I’ve had chances,” he told San Jose Hockey Now. “There’s 20-plus goals this year if they go in.”
At the end of the season, he found himself playing on the third line with Noah Gregor and Thomas Bordeleau. And now ex-Sharks coach Bob Boughner felt it was the right fit for him.
“Sometimes we put him in, unfairly, a top-six role, whether it be on [Tomas Hertl]’s line or [Logan Couture]’s line,” Boughner told San Jose Hockey Now.
“[Balcers] is more of a straight-line player, and I think if you give him less pressure to have to go out there and be a skill, finesse guy [he’s better].”
On the surface, it seems like Florida will be a team that will allow Balcers to play the role he strives in.
The Panthers are coming off of a season where they became the first team since 1996 to average four goals a game in the regular season and won the Presidents’ Trophy.
But they also have a lot of turnover in the forward core.
On top of swapping Jonathan Huberdeau for Matthew Tkachuk, they also lost Claude Giroux and Mason Marchment to free-agency and will be missing Anthony Duclair for most of — if not all of — the regular season after he sustained a torn Achilles during an offseason workout.
Balcers could end up seeing himself in the same position he was in San Jose — shuffling between the top three forward lines — but his focus right now is building off of his career-best totals from last season.
”I was playing more games putting up more points and I think the coaching staff in San Jose gave me a good opportunity,” he said. “They trusted me and gave me the ice time I wanted. It’s just about playing those games and getting more comfortable”
The 25-year-old forward has limited experience at the NHL level.
Splitting time between the AHL and NHL in his first two years of professional hockey and battling injuries the next two, Balcers has 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists) in 153 games over the course of his four-year career.
”I’d say I’m still young and I don’t have a big amount of experience yet,” Balcers said. “I think last season was a good starting point. I played 60 games, missed a couple there, but it is a long season. We learn what we have to go through playing games every second day, so it was a good experience.”
Balcers will also get a chance to do something he has not done yet during his NHL career — play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Panthers are coming off of their third-straight postseason appearance and their first playoff series win in 26 years.
After playing on teams finishing near the bottom of the standings in his first four years in the league, Balcers is excited for a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.
”It was the first thing I thought about [when I signed here],” he said. “I haven’t had a taste of that. I’m just really looking forward to having a great season, making the playoffs, and who knows what could happen that time of year.
“I really hope and believe that this is the year.”