SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers roster bubble is going to be an interesting one to watch as the regular season draws closer.
There is a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters vying for a handful of NHL jobs on what is expected to be a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup.
One veteran in particular, 37-year-old Eric Staal, is hoping to continue his exceptional career with the Panthers after signing a PTO (professional tryout) over the summer.
He last played in the NHL during the 2020-21 season, helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup Final.
A brief stint in the AHL and a run as Team Canada’s captain at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing highlighted his hockey playing time last season, but now he’s hoping to add another notch to his NHL belt and perhaps chase another championship.
“It definitely paid a toll on the body, then it took a while to get back,” Staal said of his midsummer run to the 2021 Final, which didn’t end until early July. “Having that extended time off and then just doing the Olympics and a couple games in the minors it kind of refreshes the body and mind.”
The extra time off seems to have come in handy.
The first few days of training camp saw Staal and his Panthers teammates put through the ringer by new head coach Paul Maurice.
Daunting physical drills, tight checking and skating, lots of skating, highlighted the beginning of training camp.
“He’s driven himself hard, and it was not an easy camp,” Maurice said of Staal. “Certainly, for a 22-year-old it was a tough camp, so for a fellow who’s got a few seasons under his belt, it was a hard camp. But he’s managed it well and he’s put himself in a position to make it make it very interesting for us.”
The “it” that Maurice is speaking of is the decision that he and Florida General Manager Bill Zito, along with Zito’s front office staff, will have to make regarding whether to offer Staal a contract.
It not common that a player of Staal’s stature, one who has racked up over 1,000 points in the NHL, has won a Stanley Cup and is revered as a teammate and a leader, is essentially playing for his supper.
“I haven’t (been in this situation before), but at the same time I’m pretty comfortable and confident with what I am and what I can be,” Staal said. “I feel good about how I’ve skated and how I’ve played within camp so far. Obviously, there’s still some more games left, more to prove every day, but personally, I feel good about where I’m at and how I feel.”
To this point, it seems that Staal has done everything in his power to potentially earn a contract.
On the ice, he’s looked the part of a veteran forward with size and strength.
He appears to be doing whatever his coaches are asking of him, and in some areas, excelling.
For example, during the first days of camp, Staal turned some heads while playing on a line with Ryan Lomberg and Patric Hornqvist.
A big part of Florida’s strength last season was the skill level in the bottom half of the lineup, so a tough, formidable line like that would seemingly fit like a glove.
“They were the most dominant line, believe it or not, on the ice,” said Maurice. “That’s because those were hard, heavy drills and they’re built for those guys.”
Maurice knows a thing or two about Eric Staal.
He spent five seasons as Staal’s head coach when the two were with the Carolina Hurricanes, back during a time known to Panthers fans as ‘the dark ages.’
When asking Maurice about Staal earlier this week, he verified that yes, the staff has been pleased with what they’ve seen so far from the 17-year veteran.
“He’s got just such a great amount of experience, and you see it in practice when he talks,” Maurice explained. “Even though he’s a quiet man, when he gets on the ice, he’s a talker, and he’s calling plays for his linemates and he’s really engaged in the practices, and that usually comes from a veteran guy who takes a lot of pride in the way he plays.”
The Panthers have a pair of preseason games left before things start getting serious.
Staal has been putting in the hours for several weeks in South Florida, so it makes you wonder what else the coaches would need to see in order to make a decision.
The elephant in the room is Florida’s salary cap situation. The team is right up against the $82.5 million cap, and if Staal is to be retained, Zito may need to move some things around between the Panthers and their AHL affiliate in Charlotte to make the money work.
It’s certainly not an impossible situation by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not as simple as just signing a player and off he goes.
To his credit, Staal seems to have a strong grasp on the situation at hand.
As a veteran whose been around the block a few times, it comes as no surprise.
“It’s understandable,” Staal said. “I know the situation in the cap world and how it works nowadays, it’s fluid and day-by-day. For me, I’ve been pretty narrow focused on what I need to do daily and just trying to contribute and show what I have and prove myself every day. That’s the name of the game. That’s never changed for me over the whole course of my career.”
The NHL preseason concludes on Saturday and Florida’s season opener comes four days later when they face the New York Islands at UBS Arena.
Sometime between now and then, Staal will find out whether he’ll be collecting Panthers paychecks this season or if he’ll have to seek employment elsewhere.
Based off what he’s shown in camp, Staal will be playing in the NHL this year. It’s the where that is still TBD.
“He’s certainly made it a difficult decision,” said Maurice.