Staal preparing for Cup Final with Panthers after season out of NHL

SUNRISE, Fla. — Eric Staal says he hasn’t given much thought to the odd twists of the latter stages of his NHL career, but he does concede it’s been unique.

The Florida Panthers center is headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three seasons, sandwiched around a season out of the NHL.

“Unique circumstances personally,” Staal said. “But now I’m right where I’m supposed to be and an opportunity that I’m grateful for. Really happy to be alongside these guys in this group and this team. It’s very special. And the opportunity is one you need to cherish and enjoy.”

The Panthers advanced to the Final when they finished a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final with a 4-3 win Wednesday. They await the winner of the Western Conference Final between the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars; the Golden Knights lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 entering Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS).


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Staal had attended Panthers training camp on a professional tryout, and the 38-year-old agreed to a one-year contract Oct. 21.

Part of the allure was getting back into the NHL. He hadn’t played in the League since the 2021 Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens, who lost in five games against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

His only hockey last season was four games with Iowa of the American Hockey League in January 2022, and then five games with Canada at the 2022 Beijing Olympics the following month.

Playing for the Panthers also gave him another chance to share a locker room with his younger brother, 36-year-old defenseman Marc Staal, who had signed a one-year contract with the Panthers on July 13.

They had been teammates before, with the New York Rangers for the final 20 games of the 2015-16 season. But this was the first time they could spend an entire season together.

“That was a big reason why I’m doing what I’m doing, to go down there, having him and maybe having that opportunity to play with him,” Eric said in October. “It’s special, one, to play in the League, and then to be able to do that alongside your brother on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations is something that you can only dream about.”

Eric has played a significant role in those Cup aspirations. As a dependable fourth-line center and penalty-killer, he had 29 points (14 goals, 15 assists) in 72 games.

He has three points (one goal, two assists) and is averaging 10:56 of ice time in 16 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, helping the Panthers reach the Cup Final for the first time since 1996.

It’s Staal’s third trip to the Final in 18 NHL seasons; he won the Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006.

“The conversation I had with him this summer was about what he wanted to do,” said Panthers coach Paul Maurice, who coached Staal as a rookie in 2003-04 with the Hurricanes. “His first line was ‘I want to win a Stanley Cup’ and then ‘I want to carve out a role.’ And he’s done it. He’s gone from being … he’s first over the bench on your power play, he’s playing against the other team’s best, he’s playing 23 minutes, and he turned himself into a penalty-killer, fourth-line guy and when the clock gets to a certain part of the game where he knows he’s probably not going back out, he’s pure cheerleader.

Video: Panthers advanced to their second Stanley Cup final

“What does that do for you? All your young players now — we’ll put in (injured forward) Patric Hornqvist too — they see the older Stanley Cup champions just love coming to the rink every day, staying late, working their butts off. So nobody in that room gets to get off the ice early. All the guys with Stanley Cup rings are still on the ice, you may want to consider that yourself. It’s nice for the coach.”

The Hurricanes selected Staal with the No. 2 pick of the 2003 NHL Draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins selected goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at No. 1 with a pick acquired in a trade with the Panthers, who moved to No. 3.

The speculation was the Panthers wanted Staal and would take him at No. 3. But when the Hurricanes selected him, they chose forward Nathan Horton.

Staal finally ended up in Florida, only nearly 20 years later than he thought it might happen.

“I interviewed with all those teams, all those top couple of teams,” Staal said. “I knew I was going to be a higher pick. I had interviews with Florida and Carolina and I guess they were high on Nate at the time and then they did the flip-flop, but I was excited to end up where I did and just getting a chance to play in the NHL was a dream of mine. I didn’t really care at the time where or how, just wanted that opportunity.

“But definitely looking back that long and being where I am right now, it’s pretty unique and special nonetheless. Lucky to have caught on with this group and these guys and be able to join the way I did, especially after last year, and grateful. Things happen for a reason and here I am at this moment with these guys, and I’m grateful for it.”